These Ancient Libraries Would Make Any Book Lover Drool
These Ancient Libraries Would Make Any Book Lover Drool

These Ancient Libraries Would Make Any Book Lover Drool

D.G. Hewitt - January 21, 2019

Few people in the ancient world could read or write. Even many kings and emperors needed to employ special scribes to make records of their orders and achievements. Unsurprisingly, then, libraries were few on the ground. But those libraries that did exist were often magnificent. Rulers used them to showcase their wealth and wisdom, holy men used them to store religious texts, while learned men used them to try and gather all the knowledge of the known world in one place.

Today, little remains of these awesome ancient libraries. Their vast and varied collections, most of them made up of parchment manuscripts or papyrus scrolls, were lost many centuries ago. Even the huge buildings, once imposing and ornate, have largely been lost, either destroyed on purpose or simply left to crumble. Thankfully, however, enough remains to give us a good idea of just how awe-inspiring these ancient libraries were.

So, for book-lovers, culture vultures and history fans alike, here we present the 16 most amazing and important libraries of the ancient world:

These Ancient Libraries Would Make Any Book Lover Drool
The Royal Library of Alexandria was a wonder of its age, with 400,000 manuscripts on its shelves. Pinterest.

16. The Royal Library of Alexandria was the most famous library of the whole ancient world, with the personal collection of Aristotle among the 400,000 parchments held there.

It’s undoubtedly one of the most famous – if not the most famous – libraries ever built. The Royal library of Alexandria was an architectural wonder. Made up of 10 great halls, each assigned a different area of knowledge, it housed thousands of works. Indeed, it was said that anyone who visited the city of Alexandria was required to take any books they might have with them to the library, where the scribes would make parchment copies. This way, so the legend goes, all of human knowledge at the time was collected and catalogued in the Royal Library.

The holdings reputedly included the private collection of none other than Aristotle. Additionally, it was written that Mark Anthony gave Cleopatra 200,000 scrolls for the library as a wedding gift, having looted them from the Library of Pergamum. Tragically, the Royal Library of Alexandria is now famous just as much for its destruction as it is for its vast collections. The story that Julius Caesar was to blame is almost certainly false. It’s more likely that the building and its invaluable papyrus collections were lost for good during the period of civil war which engulfed Egypt in the third century.

 

These Ancient Libraries Would Make Any Book Lover Drool
The citizens of Timbuktu in Mali still continue to keep books safe in their famous libraries. Wikimedia Commons.

15. The Libraries of Timbuktu helped keep priceless works safe from the African elements for centuries – and now private libraries keep books safe from terrorists.

For centuries, the city of Timbuktu, in modern-day Mali, was a true cultural melting pot. A major stopping point on the caravan trails through the deserts of Africa, it welcomed Berbers, Arabs and numerous nomadic peoples. Many of them would bring manuscripts with them and, before long, Timbuktu had been transformed into a real center of knowledge. Tens of thousands of manuscripts were either purchased, donated or copied and then stored in special dedicated libraries. By the 16th century, the Libraries of Timbuktu were one of the cultural treasures of the world.

With the Moroccan invasion of the city in the 16th century, intellectual life in Timbuktu started to fade. But while the libraries were closed and put to other uses, the people of the city were determined to preserve their inherited knowledge. Thus began the tradition of individual households safeguarding manuscripts. Some works were hidden in walls, others beneath floors or in rooftops. Many wealthier people even established their own private libraries, often dedicated to a single area of knowledge such as science, the arts or history. The tradition continues to this day.

These Ancient Libraries Would Make Any Book Lover Drool
The Roman Emperor Trajan hoped his Ulpian Library would show him to be a wise leader. Wikipedia.

14. The Ulpian library was built by the Emperor Trajan when the Roman Emperor wanted to present himself as an enlightened and educated ruler

Out of the numerous libraries the Romans built, just one survived until the end of the Roman Empire in the mid-fifth century. And that was arguably the greatest one of them all. The Ulpian Library was founded by the Emperor Trajan in the year 114 and was one of the centrepieces of his Forum. Its collections were so impressive that, after the destruction of the Library of Alexandria in the third century, it came to be regarded as the greatest library in all of the Western World. Tragically for history lovers, however, nothing remains of it today.

It’s believed Trajan commissioned the construction of his Ulpian Library due to a mix of pragmatism and vanity. The Latin and Greek collections were housed separately, each in huge rooms adored with statues. Nobody knows just how many manuscripts were housed in the Ulpian Library. Since historians believe that Trajan acquired the private library of Epaphrodites of Cheronea, which on its own boasted 30,000 volumes, it was almost certainly a vast and wide-ranging collection. Certainly, Trajan’s own works, including his commentaries on the Dacian Wars, were a highlight, as were all the volumes of Julius Caesar’s autobiography.

These Ancient Libraries Would Make Any Book Lover Drool
It was said that the librarians of Constantinople made copies of every manuscript that came into the city. Pinterest.

13. The Imperial Library of Constantinople had its own team of crack librarians who would translate and copy any manuscript they could get hold of.

At some point in the middle of the 4th century, the Byzantine Emperor Constantius II grew concerned that the papyrus manuscripts he possessed would soon deteriorate and be lost for good. Or, more specifically, he was worried that religious texts, including some of the first Christian writings, would soon be gone for good, plus he also wanted to preserve examples of Greek literature for generations to come. So, he established the Imperial Library of Constantinople. With the legendary Library of Alexandria long gone, it became the last true great library of the ancient world.

Under Constantius II hundreds of Judeo-Christian scripts were copied from papyrus to more robust materials such as parchment or vellum. A special department, known as the Scriptorium, was set up for the job. By the time the Emperor Valens was in charge 20 years later, it employed four Greek experts and three Latin scribes. A series of accidental fires did huge amounts of damage – one, in 473, was said to have resulted in the destruction of as many as 120,000 volumes. It’s believed the library was completely destroyed in the 13th century as the Franks and Vandals sacked the city.

These Ancient Libraries Would Make Any Book Lover Drool
Today, only ruins remain of the once-famous library at Caesarea Maritima. Wikipedia.

12. The Theological Library of Caesarea Maritima was a key center of knowledge for early Christian thinkers and theologians.

It’s widely believed that the Theological Library of Caesarea Maritima was founded in the first few years of the 3rd century. At the start, it would have just been an unorganised collection of works gathered by the early Christians who settled in the Caesarea Martima area of Palestine. In particular, the theologians Origen and Pamphilus were among the age’s great collectors of Scripture. Over the years they are thought to have amassed a collection of more than 30,000 manuscripts. Over time, these were properly organised, and word soon spread of the treasures of the Theological Library of Caesarea Maritima.

Among the highlights of the library’s collection was the Gospel According to the Hebrews, as well as the Hexapla, supposedly the only complete copy of the Bible translated into Greek from Hebrew, with the two languages compared word-for-word and side-by-side. Small wonder, then, that the likes of St. Jerome, Gregory the Theologian and Basil the Great all travelled to Palestine to study at the Theological Library of Caesarea Maritima. The works they read in the collections helped shape their own writings, helping to influence and inspire new generations of Christian thinkers.

These Ancient Libraries Would Make Any Book Lover Drool
It was said the libraries at Nalanda burned for days so large were their collections. Nalanda University.

11. Nalanda University was home to one of the most important libraries in all of Asia and scholars flocked there from all over the world to make use of its collections.

Between the 5th and the 13th centuries, Nalanda, a huge Buddhist monastery in modern-day India, was a veritable temple of learning. Scholars flocked there from all across Asia, many of them enticed by rumors of its legendary library. And, indeed, if the accounts are to be believed – and some are most probably exaggerated – the Nalanda University Library was like nothing the world had ever seen. Put together, its shelves would have stretched for miles, and they held almost all of human knowledge at that point. Tragically, however, almost all of it was to be destroyed and lost for good.

According to some sources, as many as 9 million books filled the library’s shelves, covering a wide range of subjects and attracting scholars from all over the continent. But in 1193, tragedy struck. Nalanda was sacked by the Turkish Muslim invaders, also known as the Mamluks. Despite – or perhaps because of – the treasures it contained, the library was burned to the ground. Since there were so many manuscripts, it’s said that the fire burned for more than three days

These Ancient Libraries Would Make Any Book Lover Drool
The library of Gundeshapur was home to the first collection of medical texts in world history. Pinterest.

10. The Academy of Gundeshapur was one of the most important libraries in the Middle East, with its medical library a wonder of the ancient world.

According to some accounts, Gundeshapur was founded by Shapur I – also known as Shapur the Great – the ruler of the Sassanid Empire. He decided to create a small city on this site, located in the Khuzestan province of the Persian Empire, after he defeated a Roman army led by the Emperor Valerian here in the 3rd century. Shapur was determined to transform his new city into a major seat of knowledge. Experts were brought in, including doctors and scientists from Greece. It was they who staffed the teaching hospital, the first facility of its kind anywhere in the world.

Not much is known about the library at Gundeshapur. What is known is that its collections were vast, with numerous works on engineering, medicine, philosophy and astronomy in particular. Over time, refugees from across Asia as well as Europe came to settle in the city. The rulers of the Sassanid Empire employed them to translate works from their own languages into Persian. When the Sassanid dynasty fell to Muslim Arab forces in 683, the new rulers of the city kept Gundeshapur as a cradle of learning, though within two centuries, Baghdad had become the intellectual capital of the region.

These Ancient Libraries Would Make Any Book Lover Drool
For 500 years, Baghdad was home to the famous House of Wisdom library Pinterest.

9. The House of Wisdom was just that – a library that contained almost all the knowledge in the world and was the intellectual heart of Baghdad.

It was towards the end of the 8th century that Caliph Haround Al-Rasheed decided to build a new library. Several of his predecessors had shared his love of leaning and he had inherited a vast collection of books and manuscripts in a number of languages. The ruler ordered the construction of a place to store them all. He called it Khizanat al-Hikma, or the House of Wisdom. His son, Caliph Al-Ma’um expanded the building, adding new wings, each devoted to a different branch of knowledge. By 830, an observatory had been added, allowing experts to study the stars.

The Caliphs made full use of the city’s cosmopolitan atmosphere, employing foreigners as translators. This way, works from other cultures, including the writings of Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and thinkers like Hippocrates, could be made accessible to Islamic scholars. Users of the library were encouraged to contribute to its collections, while some visitors were so inspired by what they found in Baghdad that they went back home and established new libraries in Cairo or Toledo, Spain, for example. But tragically, the House of Wisdom was completely destroyed during the Siege of Baghdad in 1258.

These Ancient Libraries Would Make Any Book Lover Drool
Ancient Egyptian scribes made so-called Houses of Books, and the most famous one is at the Temple of Edfu. YouTube.

8. The Temple of Edfu was home to a ‘House of Books’, one of the very few libraries in all of ancient Egypt.

Dating back to the Ptolemaic Period around 2,000 years ago, the Temple of Edfu was dedicated to the god Horus. Upon excavating it, archaeologists found a small chamber on the southern side of the main hall. This was the ‘House of Books’ referred to in hieroglyphics. It’s believed that, just as with a modern-day library, manuscripts were stored here on shelves. It’s almost certainly the case that the library was reserved for ritual books, to be consulted by priests and pharaohs. These scrolls would need to have been copied and replaced on a regular basis.

Apart from these tantalizing clues found at the Temple of Edfu, there’s no other proof that the Egyptians were storing manuscripts in special facilities long before the Library of Alexandria was established. Most scholars agree that, if there were proper libraries, they would most likely have been located in the main palaces and temples of the time, above all in Heliopolis or in Memphis. Again, however, no concrete evidence has been uncovered yet, meaning the search for proof of ancient libraries in this part of North Africa continues to this day.

These Ancient Libraries Would Make Any Book Lover Drool
The Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum was a private library that survived the eruption of Vesuvius. Wikimedia Commons.

7. The Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum was destroyed when Vesuvius erupted but thankfully its unique private library survived the disaster.

The town of Herculaneum was almost completely destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in the year 79. Located in the foothills of the volcano, many of its residents would have had fine collections of art – and of books. However, just one private library survived the most famous natural disaster of the ancient world. The collection of the so-called Villa of Papyri is truly unique, offering a rare glimpse into the public and intellectual life of Rome. In the aftermath of the Vesuvius eruption, Herculaneum was left covered in 30 meters of volcanic ash. The town was only excavated in 1750.

The Swiss engineer Karl Weber dug tunnels through the ash, uncovering the town’s secrets. One of the key findings a huge private library. What’s more, around 1,800 manuscripts, all of them papyrus scrolls, had been carbonized due to the heat of the eruption. Almost all were stored in wooden tubes. By the middle of last century, not even 200 of the 1,800 had been deciphered. More recently, technology has allowed scholars to scan and digitize almost all of the writing. It’s been shown that much of the library was devoted to philosophy, though the collection also included poetry and histories.

These Ancient Libraries Would Make Any Book Lover Drool
The Library of Antioch was built by Royal Decree and staffed by poets and scholars. Wikipedia.

6. The Royal Library of Antioch was a library fit for a king, with the most famous Greek poet of the age employed as its chief librarian.

For more than two centuries, Ancient Syria was possibly the most enlightened place in the world. especially during and immediately after the reign of Antiochus III, otherwise known as Antiochus the Great. It was he who ordered a library to be built. And it was he who supervised its collections – or, more specifically, he appointed Euphorion of Chalcis as the chief librarian in 221BC. The Greek poet was able to identify and source key works for the king’s collections, he also attracted other thinkers to Antioch, helping establish the city as a hub of research and philosophy.

Sadly, nothing concrete is known about the collections. While it’s assumed that they contained key works from across the ancient world, no formal records remain. All of them were destroyed more than 1,700 years – and, indeed, the destruction of the Royal Library of Antioch is one of the most infamous episodes of the era. According to the legend, it was the wife of the Christian Emperor Jovian who urged him to burn the library to the ground in 363. However, the story of Jovian dancing, drinking and cavorting with his concubines while the library burned is almost certainly exaggerated.

These Ancient Libraries Would Make Any Book Lover Drool
The ancient Library of Celsus was also a mausoleum, with the founder’s father buried underneath. Pinterest.

5. The Library of Celsus was built by a Roman Consul in honor of his father – and he buried the old man under its western wall.

Located in the city of Ephesus, in modern-day Turkey, the Library of Celsus was the third-largest library in the whole of the ancient world, after only those famous libraries at Alexandria and Pergamum. As the Latin inscription found in the front staircase states, the library was built by Gaius Julius Aquila in the year 110. He constructed it to honor his dead father, Gaius Julius Celsus Polemeanus, who served as the Roman governor of Asia Minor. Moreover, the son also ordered his father to be buried under the western wall of the library, right next to its rich collections.

It’s believed that the Library of Celsus held as many as 12,000 manuscripts. Most would have been either in Latin or in ancient Greek, with a particular emphasis on the night sky, medicine and philosophy. All of the scrolls were housed in small niches built into the walls. Moreover, they were protected from the heat and humidity thanks to the innovative design of the building: the architects ensure that there was a gap between the outer and inner walls, a clever innovation for the time. Tragically, the Library of Celsus was almost completely destroyed in an earthquake in 262.

These Ancient Libraries Would Make Any Book Lover Drool
According to the legend, Mark Anthony looted the collections of the Library of Pergamum. Wikipedia.

4. The Library of Pergamum was second only to the legendary Library of Alexandria – until the Romans came and Mark Anthony stole its collections for his bride-to-be.

Under the enlightened guidance of King Eumenes II, the city of Pergamum (in modern-day Turkey) was transformed from a small town into a thriving, cosmopolitan metropolis. At its peak, it was home to 200,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the whole of the ancient world. And at the centre of it all was the library. Commissioned by the King himself in around 170BC, it soon became the second most important library in the world, second only to that found in Alexandria. Scholars estimate that the library housed as many as 200,000 volumes.

Works brought by visitors to Pergamum were copied by the library’s own team of translators and scribes, ensuring the collection was kept up-to-date and included knowledge from across the known world. But while the priceless papyrus rolls may well have been protected from the elements, the library itself was still vulnerable to the forces of history. When the Kingdom of Pergamon fell to the Romans in the year 133BC, the library was plundered. According to one account, in 43BC, Mark Antony took the whole collection of 200,000 manuscripts and gave them to Cleopatra as a wedding gift.

These Ancient Libraries Would Make Any Book Lover Drool
When Alexander the Great saw the library at Ashurbanipal, he demanded one of his own. Ancient Origins.

3. The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal was so impressive that when Alexander the Great saw it, he demanded that he have a library built for him.

The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal was commissioned by King Ashurbanipal, the last of his dynasty. He wanted a library fit for royalty and one that would present him as an enlightened and educated man. It was built close to the modern-day city of Mosul, Iraq, and was, for the time, a huge project. The King donated his personal collection to the library, making key works available to priests and scholars, and over the years, the collection grew in size and breadth. Most works were collected from across Mesopotamia, above all from Babylonia, with text copied from parchment onto clay tablets.

Around 30,000 such tablets were discovered by archaeologists in the 19th century. The undoubted highlight is The Epic of Gilgamesh, a masterpiece of Babylonian poetry and the oldest-surviving work of great literature anywhere in the world. In 612BC, the city of Nineveh, where the Library of Ashurbanipal was located, was raided. The palace was burned down, engulfing the library too. Fortunately, while countless wax manuscripts would have been lost, the clay tablets survived the destruction. Today, the Ashurbanipal Library Project continues working to catalog all of the 30,943 tablets found where the library once stood.

These Ancient Libraries Would Make Any Book Lover Drool
Clay tablets housed at the Libraries of Ugarit are still of great interest to scholars. National Geographic.

2. The Libraries of Ugarit may have been in ruins for more than 1,500 years but the tablets they housed are still of great interest to scholars of the Bible.

In around 1,200BC, Ugarit was one of the most important port cities in the Mediterranean. It was a bustling place and the evidence suggests that the Libraries of Ugarit were some of the most-progressive cultural centres of the age, and scholars still study their collections. In total, archaeologists have identified four different libraries in the ancient city of Ugarit, located in modern-day Syria. As well as a palace library, there was also a library in the main temple. What’s more, two residences also had private libraries, proof that the people of the city were educated as well as wealthy.

While the parchments and leather manuscripts the libraries would have held have long since been lost, thankfully, the librarians of the age also inscribed many texts on cuneiform tablets. Many of these survive to this day. Of particular interest to historians of religion are the so-called Baal Cycle tablets. Written in the language of Ugaritic, the tablets tell the story of the god Baal, worshiped by the Canaanites. These epic poems provide a valuable insight into a possible close relationship between the Israelites and the Canaanites, both groups who are mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible.

These Ancient Libraries Would Make Any Book Lover Drool
The Emperor built the Library of Timgad to thank his most loyal soldiers. Flickr.

1. The Library of Timgad was specially built by the Emperor Trajan in a new town gifted to his most loyal soldiers.

When the Roman Emperor Trajan wanted to reward the soldiers of the 30th Legion for their services he gave them a whole new town in the middle of lush, fertile land. From the very start, Timgad was more than just a military settlement. It was a place of learning and culture too. The town, in modern-day Algeria, boasted a fine public library. Though just ruins today, the Library of Timgad is held up as proof that Roman culture spread far beyond the Rome city limits – in this case, spreading out into North Africa.

Alongside the imposing Library of Celsus in Turkey, this is one of just two Roman-era public libraries constructed outside of Rome that historians have definitive evidence for. Parts of the library still stand to this day. Built in the 2nd century, the library would have housed manuscripts relating to religion, military history and good governance. These would have been rolled up and stored in wooden scroll cases. These would then be placed in shelves or recesses, separated by ornate columns. These shelves can still be seen standing in the midst of the town ruins, today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The House of Wisdom: One of the Greatest Libraries in History.” Ancient Origins, January 2017.

“Ancient Libraries: 200s BCE.” Eduscapes.com

“Library of Celsus in Ephesus.” Turkish Archaeological News, September 2016.

“The Library at Pergamum.” The University of Chicago.

“Ashurbanipal Library Phase 1.” The British Museum.

“Timgad: Top choice Roman sites in Algeria.” Lonely Planet.

“Ancient Libraries.” W.A. Johnson, Duke University, 2002.

“8 Legendary Ancient Libraries.” Evan Andrews, History.com, November 2016.

“Inside 10 of the world’s most ancient and beautiful libraries.” Business Insider, April 2016.

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