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Five Libraries of the Ancient World

Curt holds many interests, among them libraries and ancient history.

Since ancient times, Libraries have been part of civilization. Private individuals, towns and cities, businesses, colleges and universities have maintained them. Their purpose has always gone beyond storage of books, scrolls or tablets. In ancient times, it was difficult to make multiple copies of writings, and libraries acted to protect written knowledge. Ancient libraries also did what they continue to do today: they organized information for easy access and served as a place where people could meet and exchange ideas. Like today's libraries, they provided the services and expertise of librarians.

When people think of great libraries, they often think of ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome. Some of the best were found in other places throughout the world, however. Here are five that every scholar should know about.

Mesopotamia (Iraq): The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal

Named after the last great king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal was located in Ninevah, Northern Mesopotamia, not far from modern Mosul, Iraq. This library consisted of over 30,000 cuneiform tablets made of clay, and written in Akkadian, Neo-Babylonian, and Assyrian.

Ashurbanipal was both a military commander and a scholar. He sent scribes into the far reaches of his empire to copy texts and bring them to him. When he engaged in war, he was not above stealing tablets and writings from the conquered. Some believe he sought rituals and magic spells that would enable him to maintain his power, but his collection was vast and contained subjects from astronomy to finance to politics. The Epic of Gilgamesh was found in Ashurbanipal's library.

What happened?: Ninevah was destroyed in 612 by ancient Babylonians, Scythians and Medes. Ashurbanipal's palace was sacked and burned - but the fire baked the clay tablets in the library, preserving them until their rediscovery in 1849. As if a library full of books had all of the pages torn out and scattered, so are the clay tablets from Ashurbanipal's library. Work continues sorting, cataloging, and organizing the tablets, which are now stored in the British Museum.

Tradition states that Alexander the Great visited the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, giving him an idea that would later become the Great Library of Alexandria.

The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal

The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal

Bahir, India: Nalanda Mahavahara

Nalanda Mahavahara was a large Buddhist monastery in the ancient kingdom of Magadha. The library there, called the Dharma Ghunj, was a center of learning from 7th Century BCE to about 1200 CE. It consisted of three great buildings. The tallest was the Ratnodadhi, which was nine stories high and contained sacred manuscripts. It is thought to have housed hundreds of thousands of works, not only about religion but about medicine, astronomy and astrology, logic and writing.

What happened?: In 1193, Turkic invaders burned Nalanda, and with it the library. It was thought that there were so many texts that they burned for months.

The ruins of Nalanda Mahavihara

The ruins of Nalanda Mahavihara

Timbuktu, Africa: The Libraries of Timbuktu

When one thinks of a library, one often thinks of a single building holding thousands of works. In Timbuktu, Mali, 700,000 ancient manuscripts are dispersed among 50-100 smaller libraries and countless households throughout town. When added together, they form a priceless treasure of Korans, Hadiths and devotionals, legal texts, grammar, math and astronomy writings, history, poetry and notes.

Timbuktu was a thriving commercial center, and had a very large book trade in the first millennia CE. Families throughout town passed these books from generation to generation, from the 13th to 20th century. Most are written in Arabic and local languages like Songhay and Tamasheq.

What happened?: Though these texts have circulated for hundreds of years, only recently have donors funded their discovery, indexing and preservation. French colonialism largely devalued ornate Muslim texts, and complex West African religious and political situations led to destruction of many documents. Many documents are lost on an ongoing basis to time and elements of nature.

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Istanbul, Turkey: The Imperial Library of Constantinople

The Imperial Library of Constantinople was the last great ancient library. It was built somewhere around 350 CE, and stood for over 1,000 years until its destruction in 1453. Its initial mission, under Constantine the Great and a statesman/scholar named Themistios, was the preservation of Greek and Roman texts. In a large scriptorium, scribes transferred ancient text from papyrus, which was in danger of decay, to parchment. Works by Homer and Sophocles may not exist today were it not for the preservation work done at the Imperial Library of Constantinople. Indeed, most Greek classics still known today come originally from Byzantine copies of works held at the Imperial Library.

What happened?: Following the destruction of the Library of Alexandria (see below), there was a 1,000 year sigh of relief over the preservation of priceless Greco-Roman manuscripts and literature. But, in 473, a fire destroyed 120,000 documents that were subsequently lost forever. Damage from the Fourth Crusade in 1204 was substantial, but the death blow to the library was in 1453, when the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople and the remaining contents of the library were destroyed or lost.

Alexandria, Egypt: The Royal Library of Alexandria

Built by Demetrius of Phaleron, a student of Aristotle, the main purpose of the library of Alexandria was to display the wealth of Egypt. Egyptians felt that their wealth was found in their knowledge, so the library became the greatest of its day. It served as a home for scholars, who were brought in with their families from around the world. There was an immense historical museum in the library. The staff was charged with no small task: they were to collect the knowledge of the entire world.

As ships sailed into port in Alexandria, books were immediately confiscated, taken to the library, and copied. The originals were kept by the library. The original owners got the copies. These became known as the "books of the ships."

What happened?: Plutarch described the destruction of the library in "The Life of Caesar."

"When the enemy endeavored to cut off [Julius Caesar's] communication by sea, he was forced to divert that danger by setting fire to his own ships, which, after burning the docks, thence spread on and destroyed the great library."

The good news? Academic centers in Egypt were developing elsewhere, and some of the library's works avoided destruction as they moved around.

The Library of Alexandria

The Library of Alexandria

Fire, war and time destroyed most of the world's ancient libraries. The loss of the information and knowledge within them is more tragic, yet. How many Greek plays or Roman myths existed for thousands of years, but are now lost today? How long did the world have to wait to re-discover math and science solutions found in the great libraries? The answer is uncertain, but they serve as a reminder that we must preserve and protect knowledge as treasure, much like the ancient Egyptians.


Viet Doan from Big Island, Hawaii on July 02, 2018:

Fascinating! I can't help but think about what life was like in those ancient times. Imagine holding a big, heavy clay tablet to read?!? Excellent research, I really enjoy reading your article on my tiny, light weight laptop.

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