Since the beginning of civilisation, people have been drawn to places of learning. And in ancient times, no place embodied that more than the library.
You may have heard about the Great Library of Alexandria, but this famous information hub was by no means the only one. Throughout history, great libraries have come and gone, but though most of them are now mere shadows of the grand places they used to be, or have been lost to us completely, they should not be forgotten. These important places provided a space for scholars to push human knowledge forward, and our world is a reflection of this continued effort.
In the little list below, I take a look at five of the most extraordinary libraries of the ancient world.
The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, Modern-day Iraq
Photo Credit: Ricardo Vacapinta
The oldest surviving royal library in the world is located in modern-day Iraq. It was built around 668-630 BCE for Ashurbanipal – the last great king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.
King Ashurbanipal was reportedly a great military commander, but it was his passion for collecting knowledge that secured him and his library a spot on this list. When the library was discovered in 1849 by Austen Henry Layard, it contained more than 30,000 clay tablets. One of the most significant findings was a 4,000-year-old poem called “Epic of Gilgamesh.”. It’s widely regarded as the oldest surviving great work of literature.
It’s believed that the library was abandoned in 612 BCE when a coalition of Babylonians, Scythians and Medes set fire to the library. As luck would have it, the fire actually baked the clay tablets which helped preserve them!
Rumour has it that Alexander the Great was inspired to build his own library after seeing the library of Ashurbanipal. However, before he was able to build his own, he died. Luckily for Mr Great, he had a good friend named Ptolemy who decided to build one for him in Egypt.
2. The Great Library of Alexandria, Modern-day Egypt
An artistic rendering of the Library of Alexandria (based on some archaeological evidence).
Probably the most famous library of all time! The renowned Library of Alexandria was built around 295 BCE by one of Alexander the Great’s generals, Ptolemy I.
The library was the most influential library in its time, and scholars from all over the Mediterranean came to study texts on e.g., history, mathematics, science and religion.
Unfortunately, it all came to an end – more than once. The library was famously damaged by fire in 48 BCE when Julius Caesar set fire to the city’s harbour which then spread. In 270 CE Emperor Aurelian took control of the city and damaged/destroyed the library. Some historians believe that the remains of the library were damaged in 391 CE when Emperor Theodosius I banned paganism. If anything was left after that, it was likely destroyed in 642 CE when Alexandria was captured by a Muslim army.
As the library was damaged and destroyed multiple times throughout the centuries, it’s impossible to know for sure how many texts the library held. Estimates range from 40,000 to 400,000 texts, and among the precious papyrus scrolls were (allegedly) works by Homer, Plato and Socrates.
Rumour has it that the library’s collection was greatly increased when Mark Antony gave 200,000 volumes to Cleopatra as a wedding present. The massive amount of scrolls came from another famous library in the ancient world: The Library of Pergamum.
3. The Library of Pergamum, Modern-day Turkey
Photo credit: Simon Jenkins
Founded around 197-159 BCE, the Library of Pergamum was a mighty information centre in the Mediterranean until Mark Antony decided to give the library’s collection of 200,000 volumes to his famous wife in 43 BCE. His generosity ended the rivalry between the Great Library of Alexandria and the Library of Pergamum – a rivalry which had existed since the library in Pergamum was founded.
Both libraries had competed to become the main knowledge hub of their time, and rumour has it that Egypt even refused to ship papyrus to Pergamum because they wanted to prevent the library from producing new texts. However, Pergamum was at that time a thriving centre of parchment production, so the need for Egyptian papyrus was not particularly great.
The beginning of the end came in 133 BCE when the Kindom of Pergamon fell to the Romans. The library was then neglected until Mr Antony came looking for the perfect wedding gift.
4. The Imperial Library of Constantinople, Modern-day Turkey
Photo credit: Ken and Nyetta
Established in the reign of Constantius II (337-361 CE), the library in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) was the last of the ancient world’s great libraries.
Whilst libraries such as the Great Library of Alexandria had fallen into ruin, the one in Constantinople continued to preserve its ancient knowledge of the Greeks and Romans for almost a millennium.
It included a large Scriptorium where Greek literature was copied from decaying papyrus onto parchment to ensure its preservation. The efforts to save the ancient knowledge held at the library meant that the majority of the Greek classics we know today came from Constantinople.
Like most of the libraries on this list, it was damaged by fire throughout the centuries. In 1204, the raids of the Fourth Crusade on Constantinople also damaged the library building and its content. However, the library survived and continued to be a major knowledge centre until 29th May 1453 when the city was conquered by the Ottoman Empire and the library’s content was destroyed.
5. Villa of the Papyri, Modern-day Italy
Photo credit: Erik Anderson
In 79 CE, the volcano Vesuvius erupted and covered the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum with 30 meters of volcanic ash. Trapped in the volcanic deposits was one of the most luxurious houses in the Roman world.
Discovered in 1752, the villa is named after its library, which was found on the top level of the house. The library contains over 1,800 carbonised papyrus scrolls and more may be found at the villa’s lower levels, which haven’t been excavated yet. The villa is the only library from classical antiquity to survive (more or less) in its entirety.
Fun fact: It’s thought that the luxurious villa may have been owned by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus.
If you want to see the magnificent finds from the villa, which include over 80 sculptures, many of them are on display at the Naples National Archaeological Museum. There is also limited public access to the villa, so if you want to see the place yourself, it’s doable.
Luckily, the importance of sharing free knowledge has been recognised in most places throughout history – something we reap the benefits of today, where the local library is never far away.
Which of the above libraries would you have loved to visit if you’d had the chance?