Ancient Libraries Before Books

by, Jo Carol Hebert

There was a time when there was no written word, but only the spoken word. In those days, ancient peoples were nomads – hunter/gatherers on the move. They communicated through their common languages, discussing the strategies of the hunt and telling stories around the fires at night. The culture was passed on by word of mouth by the Elders who had the history of the tribe in their memories 

When tribes began to settle in areas to plant crops, they also built towns. They needed a way to record the business transactions of agriculture and the government of the towns. The first ‘books’ were rather boring descriptions of tax documents, passage of laws, storage of grain and records of debts and payments. Later, they began to depict ‘news’ events’, like the reign of kings, wars, and natural disasters.

First Writing: 5,500 Years Ago!

The Sumerian Scribes were the professional record keepers of what is now the country of Iraq. They invented the first writing system of pictographs – pictures drawn of familiar, everyday objects that were imprinted on wet, clay tablets. Later, they refined writing into cuneiform – wedge-shaped marks that represented sounds, signs, and symbols (Example: the + sign represents addition; the ‘dove’ is a symbol of peace). 

The scribe’s tool was a stylus, a grass reed from the Tigris/Euphrates river valleys of their civilization. They sharpened it into a point for a pen. It made the marks in the clay. The clay was set out in the sun to dry to a hard permanent surface. 

The Egyptians, nearby in the Nile River Valley, also came up with a writing system about the same time as the Sumerians. They used more sophisticated marks for an alphabet type of writing called hieroglyphics scratched with a stylus into stone and clay. They invented a paper product from strips of the papyrus plant that grew in the marshy delta of the river. When the plants dried, the ‘sappy’ liquid glued the strips together to make a paper.

A mixture of water, burnt soot, vegetable gums, and sometimes ground metals provided a black ink. Often, the writings were so long, they rolled them up in a scroll.

6 Famous Ancient Libraries

  1. Bogazkoy Archives (Library): 18th-13th Century, B.C.E. Contained 25,000 cuneiform tablets. 

Fun Fact: B.C.E. means Before the Common Era. The Common Era begins with the 1st Century A.D. A Century is 100 years. Counting up, we are in the 21st Century, A.D. 

This archive is the only recorded history of the Hittite civilization of the area that is now Turkey (a ‘EuroAsian’ country that spans areas of the continents of both Asia and Europe). They were kin to the Sumerians and had a short-lived empire that rivaled Egypt.

The collections contained 25,000 cuneiform tablets. Site discovered in the 20th Century, A.D., included pieces of recorded events in military, religious, social, political, commercial, laws and the arts. 

2. The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, Last Great King of the Assyrian Empire (Iraq):  7th Century, B.C.E.  25,000 clay tablets. Excavated in the 19th Century, A.D. Discovery of texts of letters, business, medical, and literature. The library was a repository of the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’, considered to be the first piece of literature in history.

3. Nalanda University Library, India:  7th Century A.D. Excavated in the 19th century, A.D. First great university of the world with a library that boasted 9 million texts. It was the cultural seat of learning in the early history of India. Stored rare sacred manuscripts, and texts on grammar, medicine, literature and astronomy. A UNESCO  World Heritage site (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization). The library was destroyed, but a new Nalanda University and Library has been rebuilt and is now functioning as of 2010.

4. The Library of Aristotle, Philosopher of Greece: 4th Century, B.C.E., was the first private library of the ancient world. Said to be the first man to collect books and teach the kings in Egypt how to arrange a library. Aristotle, a pupil of Plato, established a school, the Lyceum, which also contained some 400 of his writings.

He and his students added countless books in all the branches of knowledge of the time.  After his death, others continued, but eventually, most books were sold. In the 20th Century, A.D., excavation in downtown Athens discovered the foundations of the school.

5. The Library of Pergamum:  3nd Century, B.C.E. (Turkey): Cultural center of the ancient world. Second only to The Royal Library of Alexandria. Thought to have contained 200,000 manuscripts on papyrus, rolled and stored on shelves. Excavated in the late 19th Century. No records survived but the site ruins are a favorite visiting place for tourists.

6. The Great Library of Alexandria, Egypt 

The ‘Bibliotheca Alexandrina’, 4th Century B.C.E. Estimated to have held up to 500,000 papyrus scrolls. One of the largest and the most famous of ancient libraries. Destroyed through the ravages of time. 

In 1988, UNESCO invited designs for the restoration of the library. In 2002, the new Library of Alexandria was reborn, rebuilt, and is in current use with shelving space for 8 million books.

The winner was a Swedish firm that had designed an underwater restaurant. The Library complex includes a reading room of 220,000 square feet, 4 museums, 4 art galleries, conference rooms, and a planetarium.

The Amazing Story Book Bench

Perhaps the most amazing feature of the Great Library of Alexandria today is an architectural wonder that you can sit on. It is a bench sculpted like an open book with pages printed with the poems of Shakespeare. Surely, a place to sit and wonder about the miracle of the written word.

What do you think of these ‘really old’ libraries? Do you like to visit your local library? Let us know in the comments section!

Categories: History

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