Although the library on your campus might not exactly be your favorite place (or maybe it’s a place you avoid at all costs), that doesn’t mean that all libraries were lame. In fact, some of the libraries in the ancient world are still renowned today for the mass amounts of information that they stored. Here are a list of some of the most impressive libraries from back “in the olden days”:
The library at Alexandria, Egypt is probably the most well known ancient library. It was one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, and the loss of its contents is still mourned today. Although the dates of it’s opening aren’t known for sure, archaeologists have determined that it was built sometime between 323-246 BC, in the reign of the Ptolomies. It was the first library to begin collecting works from outside of its own country, and was even given the responsibility of collecting the world’s knowledge. The library was actually a part of the Museum at Alexandria, which was a whole complex that had different areas for learning—it featured a zoo, and different rooms for the different study of things like astronomy, mathematics, science, etc.
Sadly, the Library at Alexandria was accidentally set on fire by Julius Caesar in the year 48 BC, when he decided to set fire to the ships docked nearby. The wind swept the fire out of control, and the flames destroyed a good portion of the library.
Library of Pergamum
The Library at Pergamum was the second-largest library in the ancient world, coming in just behind Alexandria. The city of Pergamum was an important Greek city, which was located in Anatolia, and is now a Turkish town by the name of Bergama. The city eventually cut ties with Greece, and aligned themselves with Rome, around the same time that the Library was built. According to history, the library contained nearly 200,000 volumes. One of the legends surrounding the library claims that Mark Antony eventually emptied out the Library, and gave all of the contents to Cleopatra for the Library at Alexandria. Because of this, parchment was introduced to Egypt, and the rest of the world—before then, everything had been written on scrolls made of papyrus, which were only manufactured in Egypt. After Alexandria decided to stop deporting these scrolls, scholars were forced to come up with something else to write on—thus, parchment was conceived, and subsequently allowed knowledge to spread throughout the ancient world more easily, since writing materials were no longer limited.
Libraries at Ugarit
The libraries found in the ancient city of Ugarit are some of the earliest privately-owned libraries to ever be discovered. Although Ugarit, an ancient city in Syria was thought to come into existence in 6000 B.C., it did not really become a thriving city until around 1350 B.C. It was an important city, because it controlled many of the trade routes with nearby countries. After it’s destruction by the Hittites in 1200 B.C., the city was essentially forgotten until accidentally discovered in the late 1920’s. This is when archaeologists found the remains of four libraries—a temple library, a palace library, and two private libraries—containing different texts on religion, politics, law, economics, and administration. The discovery of libraries belonging to common citizens so early on in history was a major archaeological find.
Archives at Ebla
The Ebla Tablets, also known as the archives at Ebla, are made up of 1800 clay tablets and 4700 fragments that make up the earliest known library in the ancient world. The ancient city of Ebla is located in Syria, and the tablets found there date all the way back to 2500 B.C. The archaeologists who discovered the tablets also found the original cataloguing that the ancient librarians had used to keep track of them—quite an impressive feat. The tablets are written in two languages—Sumerian and a formerly unknown language now called “Eblaite”. They contain information about the major cities and empires located around them, helping archaeologists learn more about the cultures they were excavating. The library that contained the tablets was destroyed in a fire that “accidentally” preserved the formerly unbaked clay tablets.
Villa of the Papyri
This ancient library is located in the ancient city of Herculaneum, currently known as Ercolano in southern Italy. The house that the library was located in was owned by the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. In AD 79, when the volcano Vesuvius erupted, the entire town of Herculaneum was covered with 30m of volcanic ash. Archaeologists finally began to uncover the remains of the town in 1750, and the library in the villa was eventually found. The “Villa of the Papyri” received its nickname after 1,785 papyrus scrolls were found inside, all having been preserved by the ash that buried the town. Although the scrolls were burned, new technology was developed that allowed the writings on them to be read.
Theological library of Ceasarea Maritima
This library was put together and kept by ancient Christians located in Palestine. It was known for being the largest theological library in ancient times—it contained over 30,000 religious manuscripts by many important theologians in the ancient world. Pamphilus of Caesarea was the curator of this library, and essentially spent his life looking for books to add to the collection. Unfortunately, he was martyred in AD 309 and the library was eventually destroyed after the Saracens captured Caesarea in the 7th century AD.
Library of Ashurbanipal
Now located in modern-day Iraq, the library at Ashurbanipal once held thousands of clay tablets containing information and stories from all around the ancient world. In fact, the Library was once rumored to contain the Epic of Gilgamesh. Unfortunately, the remains of the tablets were poorly handled, which meant that cataloguing and piecing them back together has been an extremely difficult task. Interestingly enough, Alexander the Great once saw this library and was then inspired to create his own—this is how the Library at Alexandria came about. The ancient town of Ninevah was destroyed in 612 BC, when the library was set on fire.
Library of Celsus
This ancient library was located in Ephesus, now modern-day Turkey. It was one of the largest libraries in the world, and was praised for its efficient design that allowed easy access to its thousands of scrolls. The library is an example of some of the beautiful architecture that was built in ancient times and also showcases the remarkable way that scrolls were stored, in order to be protected from mildew and insects. Unfortunately the Goths burned the 15,000 scrolls in 262 AD, and an earthquake destroyed the building in the 10th century.
So there you have it. Eight ancient libraries that were probably a lot more interesting than the one you have to deal with—but, hey, at least you don’t have to worry about an invasion by a foreign army, or a tyrant setting fire to it, right?