Legendary Libraries of The Ancient World

Legendary Libraries of The Ancient World

The habit of collecting books has always had a significant place for humankind since the invention of writing in the Middle East five thousand years ago.

Libraries have been an important demonstration of civilization throughout history. The first collections of these libraries that have been established for preserving and storing purposes in Mesopotamia and Egypt consisted of clay tablets.

A library of cuneiform tablets

The passion for collecting clay tablets on different subjects of the Assyrian King Asurbanipal (668-627 BC), who comes to prominence as a sage because of his interest in sciences, arts, and religion, brings out the thirst in him for the knowledge they contain. Although the existence of libraries in Mesopotamia before Asurbanipal, in other words before the mid 7th century BC, is known, the project of the king differs from the others in  terms of two aspects, which are cataloging and genre, making it closer to being a true library. The possibility of being able to pass the collection of the sage king, who had established the first systematic library of the Middle East in Nineveh, Iraq, on to the future generations and libraries was a milestone for our cultural history. Over twenty thousand clay tablets of this library that are survived until today are displayed in the British Museum in London.

Unrivaled and legendary

The Library of Alexandria is among the legendary libraries of the ancient world, although history did not treat it well. It has been told that many books of the library were burned during a fire started while Caesar was trying to have them transferred into the harbored ships after invading the city and damaging the library. The city of Alexandria is established by Alexander the Great of Macedonia in 382 BC. After the premature death of Alexander the Great in the mid 4th century, the empire falls into pieces and one of his commanders’ son, Ptolemaeus, the son of Lagus, acclaims himself as the new king in Egypt. Interested in sciences, literature, and books, hated battles, Ptolemaeus establishes the library in the royal academy called Museion located near the palace. The city develops ultimately and becomes an important city inhabited by significant people of the various nations and religions.

The miracle of papyrus

The king provides a large collection by inviting Greek scholars to the city. He develops the library even more by benefiting the papyrus plant, the only writing material of the antiquity raised in the fertile Nile Delta of Egypt, to preserve the works by Euripides, Sophocles, and Homer. The ancient texts inscribed on papyrus pages and attached to each other forming strips wrapped around a stick and labeled before shelved. The sagas, tragedies, and cooking recipes were preserved in clay cups or wooden crates. Each cup contained a list of papyrus.

Each book is owned by the empire

Each book entered Egypt had to be brought to the library. As the original remained in the library, a copy of the book was given to the person who brought it in. Officers were tasked to travel foreign countries and increase the number of books in the library by bringing newly found books into the library. The library owned books translated into Greek from other languages of the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Indian countries as well as literary works of Greek. The fact that this place held thousands of Greek, Hebrew and Mesopotamian papyrus were attracting many scientists, and statesmen who wanted to learn about Greek, Assyrian, Jewish, and Roman cultures. According to the Greek author Galen, the foreigners who came to the port were asked to turn in the books they brought along. The library that had lived its golden age between the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, held about five hundred thousand papyrus rolls.

The invention of the ‘Pergamon Paper’

Although it was built half a century after the Library of Alexandria was built, the Library of Bergama is one of the richest libraries of the world. Bergama was an advanced civilization with its temples and palaces. Therefore, the King of Pergamon Eumenes the 2nd (197-159 BC) had a library, the name of which was mentioned rather frequently both then and now, built near the Temple of Athena. It was even thought to leave some space between the shelves and the walls to protect the books from humidity at the reading halls. The building was decorated with beautiful god and goddess statues, busts of important poets and authors. Book, leaf, page and index were invented here. According to rumors, the Alexandrians that were annoyed by the competition stopped exporting the essential writing material papyrus. This accelerated the invention of the parchment (the skin of a sheep prepared as a material on which to write) by the Pergamons. The word parchment comes from Pergamon and it was derived from the Latin words ‘Charta Pergamena’ which mean ‘Pergamon Paper’ later adopted by all other languages.

Books as gifts for Cleopatra

The Romans invaded Pergamon in 133 BC and the library lost its significance after that. Again according to rumors, the books in this library were gifted to the Queen of Egypt Cleopatra by Marcus Antonius to enrich the Library of Alexandria after Caesar burned it down. The library was destroyed during a battle in Aurelianus’ rule at the end of the 3rd century AD. Ptolemaeus the 2nd had the remaining books transferred to the library of the Serapeum Temple established in Alexandria. It is known that this library, which was open to the public as well as scholars and courtiers, had about fifty thousand rolls. Both the library and the temple were destroyed by the order of the patriarch in a war between the Christians and the pagans in Alexandria. The Athena Parthenos statue, a part of which is located now in the Berlin Museum but used to be in the Library of Alexandria once upon a time, gives us a clear clue in regards of the magnificence of the structure.

Book warranty through inheritance

Despite the fact that it was used only for 150 years as a library, the Library of Celsus in Ephesus is a structure which has gained a place in the cultural history of the ancient world. The Roman consul Gaius Julius Aquila had this marble library built to honor his senator father Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus in 135 AD, using the inheritance from his father. Aquila left an inheritance of twenty-five thousand gold coins to ensure the protection of the building and the continuity of the book procurement. This is a striking example of providing books through procurement in the empire. The library is also an example of a public library established as a foundation. The proximity of the library to the auditorium where scholars, speakers, and poets used to give conferences makes this attribute stronger.

A solution even for humidity

Although a system for cataloging was unencountered, according to assumptions the library was the home of between nine thousand five hundred and twelve thousand book rolls. A gallery surrounding the room was built between the inner wall and the outer wall to protect the books from humidity. Some researchers think that the purpose was to leave some space between the reader and the books but some think that the aim was only to create an aesthetic appearance. The sarcophagus which is still visible today is the tomb of Celsus.

History stands straight

The four women statues located at the facade that appears to be wider than it actually is due to an illusion created by the architects during the construction represent wisdom, morality, intelligence, and knowledge. The originals are at the Ephesus Museum in Vienna. The library was burned and destroyed during a terrible earthquake in the 3rd century AD. It was damaged during the Goth pillages. It eventually became the back wall of a fountain built in front of it in the 4th century AD. When it was unearthed  during the digs in 1905, it was completely ruined. It was brought to its feet by a team of Austrian archaeologists following an extensive restoration work in 1970.