Halls of Ancient Wisdom: 7 Remarkable Ancient Libraries
Throughout history, some of the world’s most powerful rulers have acknowledged one simple fact, knowledge is power. This fact led them to build monumental testaments to the pursuit of knowledge and the preservation of human wisdom. The ancient world was home to a large number of massive libraries that each held thousands upon thousands of texts. These ancient libraries became beacons of learning that stood as pillars of civilization, nurturing intellectual growth, and igniting the flames of discovery. Sadly, pretty much all of them were eventually destroyed, often forgotten, and lost to history. Here are 7 of the greatest libraries of the ancient world and how they were lost.
1. Library of Alexandria - The Most Famous
Of course, we start with the Ancient World’s most famous library, the Library of Alexandria. Founded in the 3rd Century BC, it was a legendary institution that symbolized the pursuit of knowledge in the ancient world.
Located within the grounds of the Royal Palace it was built by Ptolemy I after the death of Alexander the Great. More akin to a university than a simple library, it had various shrines which were dedicated to the muses as well as lecture halls, observatories, museums, and even a zoo. It’s said that the library held the entire body of Greek literature including pieces by Plato, Aristotle, and Homer.
Scholars from diverse backgrounds flocked to the library, drawn by its reputation as a center of learning and research. The Library of Alexandria attracted luminaries such as Euclid, Archimedes, and Eratosthenes, who contributed to the advancement of various disciplines.
The Great Library of Alexandria before its destruction. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Sadly, the library’s decline began in the 1st century BC. What exactly happened is still a topic of fierce debate. Traditionally, Julius Caesar himself has been blamed for the library’s destruction. In 48 BC Caesar and his troops occupied the city and as part of his attack, a fire began.
The fire went out of control and the library was supposedly burnt to the ground along with much of its knowledge. Modern scholars tend to believe this wasn’t the end of the great library, however. It’s thought that it survived but was repeatedly attacked over the next few centuries by various factions. How much ancient knowledge would we still have access to if the library had never burnt?
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2. The Library of Ashurbanipal - A King’s Passion Project
Much older than the library of Alexandria, Ashurbanipal was founded in Nineveh, Assyria in the 7th century BC. It was one of the earliest, and most remarkable libraries, in the ancient world and was named after its founder, King Ashurbanipal.
Built as part of the royal palace, this ancient library held an extensive collection of clay tablets written in the cuneiform script, the most widespread form of writing in the ancient Middle East. After the library's destruction, it's estimated around 30,000 of these tablets were salvaged, giving us an idea of just how significant this repository of knowledge was.
King Ashurbanipal in his palace. (Public Domain)
King Ashurbanipal built the library to highlight his empire’s vast intellectual prowess. He was a leader who valued intellectualism and was renowned for his patronage of learning. The collection held texts from all the civilizations the Assyrians had interacted with, making it a melting pot of knowledge from ancient Mesopotamia, Sumer, Babylon, and beyond. Not just a storehouse of ancient knowledge, the library was a center for early scholarship and attracted scribes, scholars, and translators who studied and translated texts from different languages.
Sadly, the library’s heyday was short-lived. It’s believed the library fell alongside Nineveh itself in 612 BC when it was raided by the Medes, Babylonians, and Scythians. The library’s ruins were discovered by Austen Henry Layard in 1849. Thankfully, the fires that were meant to destroy the tablets actually preserved them and now the majority of the library's knowledge resides in the British Museum.
3. Library of Pergamon - Built to Rival Alexandria
Built during the third century BC in the ancient city of Pergamon in Asia Minor (Turkey today), this library was built purely as a rival to the Great Library of Alexandria. Its founder, Attalid King Eumenes II, spared no expense and it's believed the magnificent library had a collection of roughly 200,000 scrolls, making it one of the largest libraries in the ancient world.
Map of Pergamon’s Acropolis (1882), University of Heidelberg. Home to one of the greatest libraries in the world. (Public Domain)
While Alexandria had largely been devoted to the humanities, Pergamon covered a wide range of subjects, including philosophy, literature, science, history, and medicine. Like its rival, it also attracted famed scholars from far and wide. In fact, its success drew the ire of other powers.
According to legend, the library was also responsible for the development of parchment, a writing material made from treated animal skins. This legend claims other powers became jealous of the library’s collection and put a trade embargo on the city, banning the import of papyrus (the traditional writing material). In retaliation, the library found a substitute material, parchment, revolutionizing how knowledge was recorded and preserved for generations.
Sadly, like the other great libraries on this list, the Library of Pergamon wasn’t immune to human stupidity. Over time it suffered from wars and conquests and its great collection of knowledge bled out through the years. Stories tell that the last nail in the coffin came when Mark Antony, the famed Roman politician, gave the ancient library’s remaining collection over to his lover, Cleopatra. She happily turned around and dumped it all in the Library of Alexandria.
4. The Library of Celsus - An Ancient Library and a Mausoleum
Another ancient library from Asia Minor, this one was built in the ancient city of Ephesus around 120 AD. Gaius Julius Aquila built it in honor of his father, the Roman consul Tiberius Julius Celsus. As such the library acted as both a seat of learning and as a mausoleum.
Constructed as part of the renowned cultural and architectural complex of Celsus, the Library of Ephesus held a prominent position in the city's social and intellectual life. The library's facade, adorned with ornate statues and intricate carvings, served as a testament to the importance placed on knowledge and learning in the Roman Empire.
The remnants of the Library of Celsus as it stands today. (Carole Raddato/CC BY-SA 2.0)
It’s unknown how many works the library actually held but it’s estimated at around 12,000 scrolls which, while impressive, wasn’t quite on the scale of some of our earlier entries. The library did house something the others didn't, however, the body of Celsus, who was buried within the library inside a large ornamental sarcophagus.
Over time the city of Ephesus fell into decline and was eventually abandoned. The library met a similar fate; it gradually fell into disrepair and its knowledge was moved elsewhere. Today statues and other items saved from the ruins of the library are on show in the Museum of Istanbul.
5. Imperial Library of Constantinople - A Centre of Preservation
Despite being one of the younger libraries on this list, not much is actually known about the Imperial Library of Constantinople. What we do know was that it was founded in the 4th century AD by the Emperor Constantius II and served as a testament to the empire's commitment to education, scholarship, and the preservation of knowledge.
The Imperial Library of Constantinople, in the capital city of the Byzantine Empire, last of the great libraries of the ancient world. It preserved the knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans for almost 1,000 years. (Public domain)
While most great ancient libraries were built to hoard knowledge, Constantius II wished to preserve it. Around 357 BC he became aware that much of the ancient knowledge he presided over as emperor had been written on papyrus scrolls which were deteriorating at an alarming rate. He had the library built so that these texts could be transferred over to parchment or vellum.
As this restoration work was carried out the library became a vast repository of knowledge. It housed works from Greek and Roman literature, philosophy, history, and theology. Scholars and intellectuals from across the empire flocked to the library to access its extensive resources and engage in intellectual discourse.
In fact, for modern scholars, the Imperial Library of Constantinople’s importance is unrivaled; most of the Greek classics we know today originally came from copies that originated in the library. The library's influence extended far beyond the Byzantine Empire, as its translations and manuscripts would later find their way to Western Europe during the Renaissance, contributing to the revival of classical learning.
Sadly, the Library of Constantinople was doomed to fall. Its first disaster occurred in 473 AD when a massive fire destroyed around 120,000 texts. The library survived to some extent or another until 1204 when a raid carried out by the Fourth Crusade finished it off for good.
6. The Library of Nalanda- The Oldest Residential University
Situated in the ancient city of Nalanda, (present-day Bihar) in India and established in the 5th century AD, this library was a renowned center of learning and part of one of the world’s first residential universities. At its peak, it was perhaps the largest library in the world.
The library itself, nicknamed Dharmaganja (Treasury of Truth) and Dharma Ghunj (Mountain of Truth) was an integral part of the larger university complex, which attracted scholars and students from across Asia and beyond to its famed halls. It was said that in its heyday the library held hundreds of thousands of texts that covered everything from philosophy and logic to astronomy and medicine.
The remnants of the library of Nalanda University. (Wonderlane/ CC BY 2.0)
The library's collection was vast and diverse, reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of Nalanda as a melting pot of knowledge and cultures. It was most famous, however, for holding the largest collection of Buddhist literature in the world. As scholars from all over the world flocked to the library it became responsible for nurturing new followers and Buddhist philosophies that would go on to spread the faith across South Asia.
So, what happened to this great library? Well, in 1193 Turkic invaders from the Ghurid dynasty (a Persian dynasty thought to originate from eastern Iran) raided the city and pillaged the university complex. Their leader, Bakhtiyar Khilji, is said to have taken particular umbrage with the library’s religious texts. While contemporary sources disagree on the exact details it’s believed the library’s entire collection took months to burn and millions of texts were turned to ash.
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7. The Villa of the Papyri- The Sole Survivor
This entry may not have been the oldest, the grandest, or the biggest of the ancient libraries but it is pretty much the only one that survived antiquity. Located in Herculaneum, Italy it was part of an opulent Roman villa constructed in the first century BC by Lucius Calpurnius Riso Caesoninus, a prominent Roman statesman and father-in-law of Julius Caesar.
The villa got its name due to the fact it housed roughly 1,800 papyrus scrolls. Nowhere near as grand as the other libraries on the list, but not bad for a private collection. The scrolls covered a wide range of subjects, including works of Greek philosophy, literature, poetry, and scientific treatises. The collection was particularly significant as it provided unique insights into the intellectual and cultural life of ancient Rome.
Ruins of the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum. (Erik Anderson/ CC BY SA 3.0)
So how did the library survive? Ironically, it was thanks to a natural disaster. In 79 AD the library was buried under a 90-foot layer of volcanic materials when the nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted. Rather than destroying it, the ash and debris created an air-tight seal around the villa helping to preserve its vulnerable papyrus scrolls.
The library was rediscovered in the 18th century but deciphering the scrolls hasn’t been easy. The eruption may have hermetically sealed the scrolls, but it also carbonized many of them. Researchers have used multispectral imaging and X-rays to try to read them but most of the library’s contents are still unknown. What has been deciphered, however, has yielded valuable insights into Greek and Roman thought.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of these great libraries. Without the knowledge they held the world would be a vastly different place today. These magnificent institutions were more than just repositories of books; they were beacons of enlightenment, where the minds of scholars and visionaries converged to push the boundaries of knowledge.
Today the internet has largely supplanted our need for such large physical repositories of written knowledge. All the information we could ever need is just a click away. But that doesn’t mean that information is safe.
Bar one, all of the libraries on this list had one thing in common, they all fell. Not through natural disasters, but at the hands of rulers who wanted to suppress the knowledge the libraries held within their walls. As such these ancient libraries serve as a reminder that important knowledge shouldn’t just be hoarded. It should be protected from those who wish to destroy it and disseminated as widely as possible so that it is never lost.
Top image: Libraries of ancient wisdom that helped shape our understanding of the world. Source: tilialucida/Adobe Stock
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