Libraries were rare in ancient times. After all, most people couldn’t even read. If by chance they could, the written word was difficult to come by because they were carved unto hardened tablets, or painstakingly copied on papyrus (which had to be re-done every several years due to the ink fading and bugs). As you can see, having a library (or archive) was a BIG DEAL. It indicated that your city was cultured and educated. However outside of the Library of Alexandria, most of us couldn’t name any other ancient library. Today, we’re about to change that. Check out these 25 incredible ancient libraries you should know about.
The Library Of Alexandria was one of the wonders of the ancient world, and was destroyed brutally in a fire around 48 BC (no one is completely sure) when Julias Cesear himself set fire to the harbor in hopes to defeat an invading army. There's no part of this story that isn't tragic and sad.
The Bodleian Library is the main research library at the University of Oxford, in England. It was founded in 1602, when Thomas Bodley donated monies and part of his own collection to replace books and documents that had been destroyed in one of the many upheavals England had over the Religion Du Jour. Currently the Bodleian holds around 11 million volumes not including online publications and journals, and is still regularly used by students and scholars.
The Library at Timgad was a gift to the Roman people from Julius Quintianus Flavius Rogatianus. No one is exactly sure when it was built, and it's architecture is pretty uninteresting - it's a rectangle, it's estimated to have held around 3,000 scrolls - but it IS significant in that it showed a developed library system in a Roman city, which requires a high standard of learning and culture.
The remains of a temple in the ancient Babylonian town of Nippur were found to have a number of rooms of clay tablets, which indicated that this Nippur temple had a well stocked library taking from the first half of the 3rd millennium - BC.
The Ch'in Dynasty lasted from 221 BCE to 207 BCE, but had a lasting impact on the region. After all, it's where we get the name "China" from. During most of this time, the government kept a very carefully curated library, as they sought to control access to information (these people would not have survived the internet). Any books that the government didn't like were burned, as well as some scholars. Despite the overbearing and violent government setting things on fire, many people sealed books in the walls of their homes to keep them safe. The government's goal was not to destroy information, but control it, and to this end a new system of writing was established and common people were encouraged to read. This act alone would unify China for centuries.
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The library on the Greek island of Kos is an example of an early provincial library. During the Ptolemaic dynasty Kos became a center of learning and study. Hippocrates - the great physician - came from Kos and likely studied here.
The Temple of Edfu -dedicated to the god Horus, who looked like a falcon - was located on the west bank of the Nile in Edfu, Upper Egypt in ancient Egypt. Built between between 237 and 57 BCE there was a small room off the courtyard that held papyrus scrolls and inscriptions on the walls speak of "many chests of books and large leather rolls", meaning that this temple had it's own library of bound books. Quite rare for the time period.
Academy of Gondishapur in the ancient Iraqi city of Gondishapur was the intellectual center of the Sassanid empire, and offered not only training in theology, science, mathematics and philosophy, but also medicine. Gundishapur also contained a hospital that was arguably the most important medical center in the world in the 6th and 7th centuries.
Baghdad in Iraq was at one time the center of learning and culture in the ancient world, and perhaps the most well known library was the House of Wisdom, which was established in the ninth century. Some of the earliest and most well known scholars and mathematicians of the Middle East frequented here. The House of Wisdom was destroyed in 1258, because...Mongols.
Ebla was one of the first known Kingdoms of Syria, starting as a small settlement in the Bronze Age, and then was built up and destroyed several times over in the following centuries, before being finally destroyed in 1600 BC. The Library at Elba was discovered to have held over 1800 clay tablets, and many more fragments of tablets. It's not clear if it was a public library or a personal Royal library, but it remains the oldest library found, it's tablets being some 4,500 years old.
Theological Library Of Caesarea Maritima. Located between Hafia and Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean cost in north Israel, Caesarea was once home to The Theological Library of Caesarea Maritima, as part of it city's Christian Academy. The academy and library were a center for Christian and Jewish education and texts, and also contained Greek literature, both historical and philosophical. Supposedly the Library contained over 30,000 manuscripts. It was destroyed by Arabs in the 7th century.
Constantinople was the heart of the glorious Byzantine Empire before it was savagely invaded by the Ottomans in 1423 (some of us still aren't over it). But before the Ottomans could get to it, the Imperial Library of Constantinople - including the Scriptorium, which was dedicated to transcribing and then preserving ancient papyri - was destroyed by the Forth Crusade in the 1200s (we also aren't over that. Leave Constantinople alone!), after almost a millennium.
The Library Of Pergamum was founded around 170 BCE, during the rule of King Eumenes II in what is now know as Bergama in Turkey. Some historians think that the library may have been build to compete with the Library of Alexandria. It was said to hold over 200,000 volumes, had a large main reading room with shelves, and like other libraries on this list, there was a space between the outer and inner walls to protect the precious writings from humidity and temperature fluctuations.
The Temple of Apollo Palatinus in ancient Rome had it's own attached library. In classic tradition, it kept Greek and Latin works separate, and the library itself was large enough to hold meetings of the Senate. An educated ex slave - C. Iulius Hyginus - was the Librarian.
Arguably one of the most famous libraries in the ancient world, the Bibliothea Ulpia was not only one of the most well known Roman Libraries, it survived until the latter part of the fifth century AD. We know it lasted as least this long because of the writings of Venantius Fortunatus dated around 576 AD mentioning it.
In 1303 (okay, so Medieval), following the death of Pope Boniface VIII, the Papal Library was moved to Avignon , France, where it became the foundation for the famed Vatican Library, which is now located in Vatican City, and houses over 1 million printed books and some 75,000 codices (and supposedly secret archives).
The Library of Aristotle was a private collection and very little is known about it. A first century geographer named Strabo wrote this about it : "the first man, so far as I know, to have collected books and to have taught the kings in Egypt how to arrange a library." It is theorized by some that Aristotle's collection became the foundation for the great Library of Alexandria.
Ugarit was a city in what is now modern day Syria, and it had not one, but FIVE libraries in 1200 BCE. Two of them were private, which is even more impressive. Most of the collections were large clay tablets, and covered many subjects (including fiction) in at least seven different languages.
Timbuktu is located in Mali, which is in West Africa, and in ancient and medieval times was a well known intellectual center full of libraries and a famous University (this was before you could go online, when having a University was a BIG DEAL). Over 700,000 manuscripts from these libraries have been rediscovered, mostly centered around Islam and Islamic themes.
The University of Taxila was located in what was Ancient India country of Gandhar (now Pakistan). Founded around 600BC, it taught 68 subjects, at one point had over 10,000 students from all over the ancient world, and it's Library was very highly regarded. The site of the University of Taxila is now a protected archaeological site.
Nalanda University in Bahir, India, was one of the most important intellectual centers in the ancient world starting around 400, and it's library was nicknamed "Dharmaganja (Treasury of Truth)". It was nine stories tall and monks would tediously copy manuscripts so that scholars could have their own copies, an unheard of luxury in the ancient world. Turkish invaders burned the university down in 1193.
The Celsus Library in Ephesus was one of the largest libraries in the ancient world, housing an estimated 12,000 handwritten books. It had a set of outer walls to protect the precious books from humidity and temperature fluctuation, and was sadly destroyed by fire in the third century AD, though parts of the front wall that survived were restored in the fourth century.
Named after the last great King of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and it's founder, The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal was first build around 650 BCE (ish). King Ashurbanipal was passionate about the written - er, carved - word, and over 30,000 cuneiform tablets and pieces were recovered from the library's ruins in 1849. They are now safe at the British Museum. This Library and it's (re)discovery have been very important in studying the ancient Near East.
Villa of the Papyri is located in Herculaneum, Italy. It's one of the few classical libraries still standing..er..ish... in modern times. It was found by archaeologists in 1752 with over 700 carbonized scrolls still inside. It's guessed that the father in law of Julius Caesar - Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caaesoninus - may have owned the estate the library is part of.
The al-Qarawiyyin Library is possibly the oldest library in the world. In 2016 it was restored and opened to the public, in Fez, Morocco. The library first opened in 859 (nope, we're not missing a number, there's only 3 there) but had been closed to the public for a very long time. The architect in charge of the restoration project - Aziza Chaouni, herself a native of Morocco - made sure that the newly restored library was open to the public.
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