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8 Legendary Ancient Libraries

8 Legendary Ancient Libraries

1. The Library of Ashurbanipal

The world’s oldest known library was founded sometime in the 7th century B.C. for the “royal contemplation” of the Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal. Located in Nineveh in modern day Iraq, the site included a trove of some 30,000 cuneiform tablets organized according to subject matter. Most of its titles were archival documents, religious incantations and scholarly texts, but it also housed several works of literature including the 4,000-year-old “Epic of Gilgamesh.” The book-loving Ashurbanipal compiled much of his library by looting works from Babylonia and the other territories he conquered. Archaeologists later stumbled upon its ruins in the mid-19th century, and the majority of its contents are now kept in the British Museum in London. Interestingly, even though Ashurbanipal acquired many of his tablets through plunder, he seems to have been particularly worried about theft. An inscription in one of the texts warns that if anyone steals its tablets, the gods will “cast him down” and “erase his name, his seed, in the land.”

2. The Library of Alexandria

Following Alexander the Great’s death in 323 B.C., control of Egypt fell to his former general Ptolemy I Soter, who sought to establish a center of learning in the city of Alexandria. The result was the Library of Alexandria, which eventually became the intellectual jewel of the ancient world. Little is known about the site’s physical layout, but at its peak it may have included over 500,000 papyrus scrolls containing works of literature and texts on history, law, mathematics and science. The library and its associated research institute attracted scholars from around the Mediterranean, many of whom lived on site and drew government stipends while they conducted research and copied its contents. At different times, the likes of Strabo, Euclid and Archimedes were among the academics on site.

The great library’s demise is traditionally dated to 48 B.C., when it supposedly burned after Julius Caesar accidentally set fire to Alexandria’s harbor during a battle against the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy XIII. But while the blaze may have damaged the library, most historians now believe that it continued to exist in some form for several more centuries. Some scholars argue that it finally met its end in 270 A.D. during the reign of the Roman emperor Aurelian, while others believe that it came even later during the fourth century.

3. The Library of Pergamum

Constructed in the third century B.C. by members of the Attalid dynasty, the Library of Pergamum, located in what is now Turkey, was once home to a treasure-trove of some 200,000 scrolls. It was housed in a temple complex devoted to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and is believed to have comprised four rooms—three for the library’s contents and another that served as a meeting space for banquets and academic conferences. According to the ancient chronicler Pliny the Elder, the Library of Pergamum eventually became so famous that it was considered to be in “keen competition” with the Library of Alexandria. Both sites sought to amass the most complete collections of texts, and they developed rival schools of thought and criticism. There is even a legend that Egypt’s Ptolemaic dynasty halted shipments of papyrus to Pergamum in the hope of slowing its growth. As a result, the city may have later become a leading production center for parchment paper.

4. The Villa of the Papyri

While it wasn’t largest library of antiquity, the so-called “Villa of the Papyri” is the only one whose collection has survived to the present day. Its roughly 1,800 scrolls were located in the Roman city of Herculaneum in a villa that was most likely built by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. When nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., the library was buried—and exquisitely preserved—under a 90-foot layer of volcanic material. Its blackened, carbonized scrolls weren’t rediscovered until the 18th century, and modern researchers have since used everything from multispectral imaging to x-rays to try to read them. Much of the catalogue has yet to be deciphered, but studies have already revealed that the library contains several texts by an Epicurean philosopher and poet named Philodemus.

5. The Libraries of Trajan’s Forum

Sometime around 112 A.D., the Emperor Trajan completed construction on a sprawling, multi-use building complex in the heart of the city of Rome. This Forum boasted plazas, markets and religious temples, but it also included one of the Roman Empire’s most famous libraries. The site was technically two separate structures—one for works in Latin, and one for works in Greek. The rooms sat on opposite sides of a portico that housed Trajan’s Column, a large monument built to honor the Emperor’s military successes. Both sections were elegantly crafted from concrete, marble and granite, and they included large central reading chambers and two levels of bookshelf-lined alcoves containing an estimated 20,000 scrolls. Historians are unsure of when Trajan’s dual library ceased to exist, but it was still being mentioned in writing as late as the fifth century A.D., which suggests that it stood for at least 300 years.

6. The Library of Celsus

There were over two-dozen major libraries in the city of Rome during the imperial era, but the capital wasn’t the only place that housed dazzling collections of literature. Sometime around 120 A.D., the son of the Roman consul Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus completed a memorial library to his father in the city of Ephesus (modern day Turkey). The building’s ornate façade still stands today and features a marble stairway and columns as well as four statues representing Wisdom, Virtue, Intelligence and Knowledge. Its interior, meanwhile, consisted of a rectangular chamber and a series of small niches containing bookcases. The library may have held some 12,000 scrolls, but it most striking feature was no doubt Celsus himself, who was buried inside in an ornamental sarcophagus.

7. The Imperial Library of Constantinople

Long after the Western Roman Empire had gone into decline, classical Greek and Roman thought continued to flourish in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. The city’s Imperial Library first came into existence in the fourth century A.D. under Constantine the Great, but it remained relatively small until the fifth century, when its collection grew to a staggering 120,000 scrolls and codices. The size of the Imperial Library continued to wax and wane for the next several centuries due to neglect and frequent fires, and it later suffered a devastating blow after a Crusader army sacked Constantinople in 1204. Nevertheless, its scribes and scholars are now credited with preserving countless pieces of ancient Greek and Roman literature by making parchment copies of deteriorating papyrus scrolls.

8. The House of Wisdom

The Iraqi city of Baghdad was once one of the world’s centers of learning and culture, and perhaps no institution was more integral to its development that the House of Wisdom. First established in the early ninth century A.D. during the reign of the Abbasids, the site was centered around an enormous library stocked with Persian, Indian and Greek manuscripts on mathematics, astronomy, science, medicine and philosophy. The books served as a natural draw for the Middle East’s top scholars, who flocked to the House of Wisdom to study its texts and translate them into Arabic. Their ranks included the mathematician al-Khawarizmi, one of the fathers of algebra, as well as the polymath thinker al-Kindi, often called “the Philosopher of the Arabs.” The House of Wisdom stood as the Islamic world’s intellectual nerve center for several hundred years, but it later met a grisly end in 1258, when the Mongols sacked Baghdad. According to legend, so many books were tossed into the River Tigris that its waters turned black from ink.

What happened to the Great Library at Alexandria?

Once the largest library in the ancient world, and containing works by the greatest thinkers and writers of antiquity, including Homer, Plato, Socrates and many more, the Library of Alexandria, northern Egypt, is popularly believed to have been destroyed in a huge fire around 2000 years ago and its volumous works lost.

Since its destruction this wonder of the ancient world has haunted the imagination of poets, historians, travellers and scholars, who have lamented the tragic loss of knowledge and literature. Today, the idea of a 'Universal Library' situated in a city celebrated as the centre of learning in the ancient world, has attained mythical status.


The mystery has been perpetuated by the fact that no architectural remains or archaeological finds that can definitely be attributed to the ancient Library have ever been recovered, surprising for such a supposedly renowned and imposing structure. This lack of physical proof has even persuaded some to wonder if the fabulous Library actually existed at all in the form popularly imagined.

Ancient Alexandria

Once home to the massive Pharos lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonder of the Ancient World, the Mediterranean seaport of Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great around 330 BCE, and like many other cities in his Empire, took its name from him. After his death in 323 BCE, Alexander's Empire was left in the hands of his generals, with Ptolemy I Soter taking Egypt and making Alexandria his capital in 320 BCE. Formerly a small fishing village on the Nile delta, Alexandria became the seat of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt and developed into a great intellectual and cultural centre, perhaps the greatest city in the ancient world.


The Origins of the Ancient Library

The founding of the Library of Alexandria, actually two or more libraries, is obscure. It is believed that around 295 BCE, the scholar and orator Demetrius of Phalerum, an exiled governor of Athens, convinced Ptolemy I Soter to establish the Library. Demetrius envisioned a library that would house a copy of every book in the world, an institution to rival those of Athens itself. Subsequently, under the patronage of Ptolemy I, Demetrius organised the construction of the 'Temple of the Muses' or 'the Musaeum', from where our word 'museum' is derived. This structure was a shrine complex modeled on the Lyceum of Aristotle in Athens, a centre for intellectual and philosophical lectures and discussion.

The Temple of the Muses was to be the first part of the library complex at Alexandria, and was located within the grounds of the Royal Palace, in an area known as the Bruchion or palace quarter, in the Greek district of the city. The Museum was a cult centre with shrines for each of the nine muses, but also functioned as a place of study with lecture areas, laboratories, observatories, botanical gardens, a zoo, living quarters, and dining halls, as well as the Library itself. A priest chosen by Ptolemy I himself was the administrator of the Museum, and there was also a separate Librarian in charge of the manuscript collection. At some time during his reign from 282 BCE to 246 BCE, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the son of Ptolemy I Soter, established the 'Royal Library' to complement the Temple of the Muses set up by his father.

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It is not clear whether the Royal Library, which was to become the main manuscript Library, was a separate building located next to the Museum or was an extension of it. However, the consensus of opinion is that the Royal Library did form part of the Temple of the Muses.

One story goes that the hunger of Ptolemy III for knowledge was so great that he decreed that all ships docking at the port should surrender their manuscripts to the authorities. Copies were then made by official scribes and delivered to the original owners, the originals being filed away in the Library.


An often quoted figure for the ancient Library holdings at its peak is half a million documents, though whether this refers to the amount of books or the number of papyrus scrolls is unclear. However, in view of the fact that many papyrus rolls were needed to make up an entire book, it is more likely that it refers to the number of scrolls. Even 500,000 scrolls has been thought too high by some scholars, as the construction of a building with such a vast amount of storage space would be an immense, though not impossible undertaking. Nevertheless, during the reign of Ptolemy II the collection at the Royal Library became so vast that a daughter library was established. This library was situated in the precincts of the temple of Serapis, in the Egyptian district of Rhakotis, in the south eastern part of the city. During the librarianship of the Greek writer Callimachus (c. 305 BCE - c . 240 BCE), the daughter library contained 42,800 scrolls, all of which were copies of those in the main Library.

The Burning of the Great Library?

The infamous destruction by fire of the Library of Alexandria, with the consequent loss of the most complete collection of ancient literature ever assembled, has been a point of heated debate for centuries. What exactly happened to this amazing storehouse of ancient knowledge, and who was responsible for its burning? However, it is probable 'the greatest catastrophe of the ancient world', may never have taken place on the scale often supposed.

The prime suspect in destruction of the Library of Alexandria is Julius Caesar. It is alleged that during Caesar's occupation of the city of Alexandria in 48 BCE, he found himself in the Royal Palace, hemmed in by the Egyptian fleet in the harbour. For his own safety he had his men set fire to the Egyptian ships, but the fire got out of control and spread to the parts of the city nearest the shore, which included warehouses, depots and some arsenals.


After Caesar's death it was generally believed that it was he who had destroyed the Library. Roman philosopher and dramatist Seneca, quoting from Livy's History of Rome, written between 63 BCE and 14 CE, says that 40,000 scrolls were destroyed in the fire started by Caesar. Greek historian Plutarch (died 120 CE) mentions that the fire destroyed 'the great Library' and Roman historian Dio Cassius (c. 165 – 235 CE) mentions a warehouse of manuscripts being destroyed during the conflagration.

In his book The Vanished Library, Luciano Canfora interprets the evidence from ancient writers to indicate the destruction of manuscripts stored in warehouses near the port waiting for export, rather than the great Library itself. The great scholar and stoic philosopher Strabo, was working in Alexandria in 20 BC and from his writings it is obvious that the Library was not at that time the world-renowned centre for learning it had been in previous centuries. In fact Strabo does not mention a library as such at all, though he does mention the Museum, which he describes as 'part of the royal palace'. He goes on to say that 'it comprises the covered walk, the exedra or portico, and a great hall in which the learned members of the Museum take their meals in common.'

If the great Library was attached to the Museum then Strabo obviously felt there was no need to mention it separately, and, perhaps more importantly, if he was there in 20 BCE, the Library had obviously not been burned down by Caesar twenty-eight years previously. The existence of the Library in 20 BCE, though in a much less complete form, means that we have to look to someone other than Caesar as the destroyer of Alexandria's ancient wonder.


The last suggested perpetrator of the crime is the Caliph Omar. In 640 CE the Arabs under General Amrou ibn el-Ass, captured Alexandria after a long siege. According to the story, the conquering Arabs heard about a magnificent library containing all the knowledge of the world and were anxious to see it. But the Caliph, unmoved by this vast collection of learning, apparently stated 'they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.'

The manuscripts were then gathered together and used as fuel for the 4,000 bathhouses in the city. In fact there were so many scrolls that they kept the bathhouses of Alexandria heated for six months. These incredible facts were written down 300 years after the supposed event by Christian polymath Gregory Bar Hebraeus (1226-1286 CE). However, while the Arabs may have destroyed a Christian library at Alexandria, it is almost certain that by the mid 7th century CE the Royal Library no longer existed. This is made clear by the fact that no mention is made of such a catastrophic event by contemporary writers such as Christian chronicler John of Nikiou, Byzantine monk and writer John Moschus and Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem.

The Volatile City of Alexandria

Attempting to identify one single devastating fire that destroyed the great Library and all of its holdings is a futile task. Alexandria was often a volatile city, especially during the Roman period, as witnessed by Caesar's burning of the ships, and also in the violent struggle between the occupying forces of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra and the Roman emperor Aurelian in 270-71 CE. Aurelian eventually recovered the city for Rome from Queen Zenobia's armies, but not before many parts of Alexandria had been devastated, and the Bruchion district, which contained the palace and the Library, were apparently 'made into a desert'.

The city was again sacked a few years later by Roman Emperor Diocletian. Such repeated destruction spread over several centuries, along with neglect of the Library's contents as people's opinions and affiliations changed, means that the 'catastrophe' that ended the ancient Library at Alexandria was gradual, taking place over a period of four or five hundred years.

The last recorded Director of the great Library was scholar and mathematician Theon (c. 335 - c. 405 CE), father of the female philosopher Hypatia, brutally murdered by a Christian mob in Alexandria in 415 CE. Perhaps one day, in the deserts of Egypt, scrolls that were once part of the great Library will be discovered. Many archaeologists believe that the buildings that once composed the legendary seat of learning at ancient Alexandria, if not buried under the modern metropolis, could still survive relatively intact somewhere in the north-eastern part of the city.

Libraries in the Ancient World

Libraries were a feature of larger cities across the ancient world with famous examples being those at Alexandria, Athens, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Nineveh. Rarely ever lending libraries, they were typically designed for visiting scholars to study and copy whatever they were most interested in. Not until the Roman period did genuinely public libraries allow all comers to come and read as they wished. Texts in ancient libraries were typically kept on papyrus or leather scrolls, inscribed on wax and clay tablets or bound in parchment codexes, and they covered everything from how to read omens to the letters sent between ancient rulers. Books were acquired through purchase, copying, and donations but were also one of the items taken away from cities by their conquerors such was the value put on knowledge in antiquity.

The Concept of a Library in Antiquity

Libraries in antiquity were not always designed for the public to freely consult texts or take them off-site as libraries function today, although some did offer this service. Many libraries in the Near East and Egypt were attached to sacred temple sites or were part of an administrative or royal archive, while in the Greek and Roman worlds these types continued but private collections became much more common, too. When libraries were open to the public, then they were usually aimed at permitting visiting scholars to consult and copy texts rather like a modern reference library or the archive of a research institute functions today. Libraries began to offer more than just books in the Roman period, with lectures put on, orators invited to impress, and intellectuals gathering to discuss matters with fellow visitors in the tranquillity of the library audience hall or garden.


Ancient texts could come in many forms such as scrolls made of papyrus (the dominant form) or leather, or be inscribed on wax or clay tablets. Papyrus scrolls were long, 6-8 m (20-26 ft.) being the standard and sometimes both sides were used to write on, typically in columns and with a wide margin left blank for later notes. The papyrus was wrapped around a wooden stick and could be treated to preserve the material, for example, cedar oil was added to ward off worms. Leather scrolls were made by tanning the material or, in the case of vellum or parchment, soaked in slake lime and then scraped and smoothed using pumice. In the Roman period (1st to 4th century CE), sheets of parchment could also be tied together using leather thongs or stitching to form a codex book, sometimes with a leather or wooden cover. The codex was much more user-friendly as it allowed for more text, one could more easily find specific passages (hence the bookmark was born) and it took up less shelf-space than a scroll. The subject matter of ancient texts involved all aspects of ancient societies and included religion, sciences, mathematics, philosophy, medicine, and the correspondence of rulers.

Near Eastern Libraries

Libraries were a fixture of Near Eastern cities from the second half of the second millennium BCE. The Assyrians, Babylonians, and Hittites all had them, as did Syrian cities like Emar and Ugarit. The texts in them took different forms and could be written on leather scrolls (magallatu), wooden writing boards covered in wax, papyrus, and clay tablets. The latter are the only ones to survive (in prodigious numbers), but they themselves make mention of the other media used to keep written records and texts safe for future generations of readers. Often a text runs across several tablets, sometimes as many as 100. Languages used included cuneiform, Akkadian, Sumerian, Hurrian, and Greek.


The cultures of the Near East had three types of libraries, a diversification which was seen in many later states elsewhere. These were the library within a royal palace, at temple sites, and in private homes. The most common was the second category as this was where most scholars and those able to read and write were found.

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The Assyrian palace library at the capital Nineveh, often called the Library of Ashurbanipal after the King of Assyria of that name (r. 668-627 BCE) but actually put together by several different rulers, was begun in the 7th century BCE if not earlier. This library was largely composed of texts in cuneiform and covered just about everything the kings could get their hands on from hymns to myths. The texts were acquired by copying or simply taking those found in other libraries, via donations from private individuals, and as a result of conquest. Scholars estimate that just the tablet section consisted of 30,000 clay tablets, and those that were part of Ashurbanipal's private collection are especially finely written and sealed. While everyone mourns the loss of the Library of Alexandria (see below), Nineveh's library suffered a similar tragedy when it was destroyed during the invasion of the Medes in 612 BCE. Fortunately, many of the works had already been copied and survived in other Assyrian libraries.

Famous temple libraries existed at Babylon, Kalhu, Sippar, and Uruk. Here, scholars - in residence or just visiting - would make copies of texts, many of which might end up in a private library. The latter were not quite so private as the name suggests but were, rather, bodies of texts on specific subjects to be used by certain teachers or other professions and might be linked to a temple site. The works covered subjects like ritual and religion (especially incantations, prayers for exorcism, and any other ritual that required a precise formula to be spoken), scholarly findings in mathematics and astronomy, medicine and how to read omens correctly.


Egyptian Libraries

Collections of textual resources similar to modern archives were kept in ancient Egypt from the Old Kingdom onwards, and these included documents regarding cults, sacred texts, magical texts, and administrative records. Egyptian libraries were more than repositories of old texts, though, and were regularly added to with contemporary texts, especially regarding government and even the letters of pharaohs. The Egyptians also had many different types of library, which were distinguishable from pure archives and which could carry such names as 'house of books' (per-medjat), 'house of writings' (per-seshw), and 'house of the divine words' (per-medw-netjer). The precise meaning of these terms is not known and no doubt varied over time. As in the Near East, Egyptian libraries were frequently associated with temple sites and royal palaces. A small excavated library at Edfu reveals that papyrus scrolls were kept there in chests in niches in the walls.

The Egyptians possessed perhaps the most famous library of all time at Alexandria, although despite its celebrity we still do not know exactly when it was founded or when it was destroyed. Most ancient sources credit Ptolemy II Philadelphos (r. 285-246 BCE) with its foundation. A combination of a royal and public library, it was one of the earliest to permit someone not actually charged with looking after the library to enter and study therein the 500,000-700,000 scrolls. It is doubtful, though, that just anyone could enter the library as it was most likely reserved for the use of a small community of scholars.

The Ptolemaic Dynasty spent a great deal of time and money building up the library of Alexandria, acquiring texts from all over the Mediterranean. Books were bought at markets in such cities as Athens and Rhodes, any official correspondence was added, copyists and commentators created whole new books, and even ships arriving at Alexandria might have any texts they carried confiscated and added to the city's collection. The librarians, operating under a director, were ruthless and absolutely determined to build the world's greatest store of knowledge by leaving no source and no subject uncovered.


To make finding a scroll again a little easier, the library's vast contents were divided into genre sections such as tragic poetry, comedy, history, medicine, rhetoric, and law. The librarians did not merely accumulate texts as they also catalogued them, organised them into books, chapters and numbering systems (many of which are still used today), and they added such notes as when a play had been performed and where. Sometimes a brief critical evaluation was added to a text and guides were written about groups of texts, lists were drawn up of which authors should be consulted on a given topic, and mini-encyclopedias created which gave brief biographies of authors and their major works. There were even scholars who specialised in checking the authenticity of antiquarian texts.

The library, no longer fully supported by the state, fell into decline from the mid-2nd century BCE. Julius Caesar (l. 100-44 BCE) was blamed by such ancient writers as Plutarch (l. c. 45 - c. 125 CE) for burning down the library, although it survived in some form, only to suffer more fires c. 270 CE and in 642 CE. Whatever the exact history of the library's demise, fortunately for posterity, many of the Alexandrian texts were copied over the centuries and these often ended up in Byzantine libraries which were then printed during the Renaissance creating a tangible link between the ancient papyrus scrolls and those editions found today in university libraries and elsewhere.

Greek Libraries

Greek libraries continued to be dominated by papyrus scrolls although an indicator that books were now becoming a more common sight outside of institutions is that for the Greeks, the term library could refer both to the place where texts were stored and any small collection of books, now easily available in the 5th-century BCE markets of Athens. One of the owners of a celebrated collection was the tyrant Polycrates of Samos (r. 538-522 BCE). The first Greek public library is credited by ancient authors to the efforts of Peisistratos of Athens (d. c. 527 BCE). The thoughts of the famous Greek philosophers were one of the great sources of books - Aristotle was a noted collector himself - but there did continue to be a debate on which was superior for teaching: the spoken or written word.


Hellenistic leaders often saw libraries as a way to promote their rule and present themselves as learned and enlightened rulers. They might thus publicly sponsor or endorse certain writers who gained scholarly (and political) acceptance by having their works admitted to an official library. We have already seen the Ptolemies' efforts in Alexandria, but others of the period included Pella, Antioch, and at Pergamon, created by the Attalids (282-133 BCE), said to have had 200,000 scrolls. Another developing trend was for the gymnasium present in many Greek cities to receive a library as that place became just as associated with learning as physical exercise.

Roman Libraries

The first reference to a library in Rome is the collection of books the general and consul Aemilius Paullus (c. 229 - 160 BCE) brought home after he defeated Perseus of Macedon (c. 212 - 166 BCE) in 168 BCE. This was a model oft-repeated, perhaps most infamously by Sulla's appropriation of Aristotle's library when he sacked Athens in 84 BCE. As in earlier cultures, libraries were particularly associated with temples, palaces, and state archives, and, as in Greece, the gymnasium-library combination, now called the palaestra, was continued. Roman writers were prolific commentators on the works of their Greek predecessors and so clearly they had access to those texts in libraries. Roman libraries tended to be divided inside into two areas: one for Latin and another for Greek works.

The increasing number of children sent to educators was a boom to book-creation, and there developed the idea that a respectable Roman citizen should not only possess a good knowledge of literature but also have his own collection of books, a private library which was often made available to a wide circle of family and friends. One such library has been excavated at Herculaneum. Belonging to L. Calpurnius Piso (Julius Ceasar's father-in-law), there are the charred remains of some 1,800 scrolls which would have been kept in wall niches or partitioned cupboards (armaria) arranged around a central reading table.

By the end of the Roman Republic, figures such as Julius Caesar, the consul Asinius Pollio (75 BCE - 4 CE) and then emperor Augustus (r. 27 BCE - 14 CE), began to act on the idea that books belonged to everyone and so they built the first genuinely public libraries as opposed to the scholars-by-invite institutions of previous eras. That famous libraries were actually available to all and designed to be so is referenced by such writers as Ovid (43 BCE - 17 CE) and Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE). One sign that survives from the library of Pantaenus in Athens states: 'No book shall be taken out…Open from dawn to midday' (Hornblower, 830). Typically, an attendant would fetch the desired scroll while copyists and restorers might be at work behind the scenes.

There were so many libraries - the city of Rome would end up with perhaps 28 public libraries alone - that Vitruvius (c. 90 - c. 23 BCE), the famed architect and scholar, devoted a section of his On Architecture to the proper considerations when building a library. He recommended that a library face east for both the best light and to reduce damp. Other writers advised that library floors should be of green marble and ceilings should certainly not be gilded so as to avoid any glare and unnecessary strain on the eyes.

Roman libraries came to be the place where an author first released their work to the public, reading out loud to a small audience. Augustus' Palatine library was additionally used for all kinds of meetings, including imperial audiences and sessions of the Roman Senate. Another possible combination of function was to have libraries in Roman baths the baths of Trajan (r. 98-117 CE), Caracalla (r. 211-217 CE), and Diocletian (r. 284-305 CE) in Rome all have rooms identified by at least some scholars as libraries, although presumably, if they were, one was not permitted to take a scroll into the steam room. As with other elements of their culture, the Romans spread the idea of public libraries across their empire with famous ones being established at Ephesos (the Library of Celsus, completed in 117 CE) and Athens (the Library of Hadrian, completed c. 134 CE). Other famous libraries of the 2nd century CE included those at Rhodes, Kos, and Taormina (Tauromenium).

Byzantine Libraries

Although the Byzantine Empire possessed an imperial library and a patriarchal one (headed by the chief bishop) for much of its history and boasted one of the great libraries at Constantinople with its 120,000 scrolls (it burnt down c. 475 CE) generally, in Late Antiquity, public libraries began to disappear in the Roman-Greek world. Books certainly did not disappear altogether though, and Byzantine monasteries became the great preservers of ancient texts in their libraries. Acquired through diligent copying and the donations of kind patrons, a typical monastery was doing well if it could boast 50 books, and these were really only for scholars to consult as libraries returned to the more limited role they had played in the Near East and Egypt.

New books were produced, largely thanks to the Christian religion which, unlike with the older pagan beliefs, transferred ideas to new followers using the written word rather than just oral instruction. The converted were also reminded of stories, hymns, and rituals thanks to texts. The endless debates that Christian scholars created with new ideas and interpretations of older texts, their commentaries and the resulting schisms all caused a boom in both book production and reading (but also sometimes the destruction of those books considered subversive). Notable examples of Byzantine libraries are those in the monasteries on Mount Athos and Mount Sinai which contain around one-quarter of all surviving medieval manuscripts. It is largely thanks to Byzantine monks, then, forever busy producing their beautiful but expensive illuminated manuscripts, that today we can read, study, and enjoy the works of such names as Herodotus, Sophocles, and Thucydides.

8 Most Beautiful Libraries In Germany

Who said the printed word is dying? Not Germany, clearly. Germany is home to a handful of truly beautiful and historic libraries, as well as several modern masterpieces. From vast open spaces to baroque masterpieces, Germany has libraries that stretch across many architectural traditions. For bibliophiles everywhere, this is a list of the most outrageously beautiful libraries in Germany.

8 Of The Oldest Known Songs, You Should Listen To

Source: Greece-is.com

When perceived from the lens of history, music and songs are counted among the fundamental expressions that are unique to humanity. And while rudimentary forms of music probably hark back to the prehistoric times, the evolved (and thus more refined) nature of musical expressions and songs in history pertain to what experts characterize as ‘ancient music’. This article does cover some of the specimens from such an era, including the world’s oldest known song and the world’s oldest known complete song. Other ‘oldest’ tags are used for variable parameters, like the world’s oldest known polyphonic music and the earliest surviving secular English song.

1) The Oldest Known Song In The World –

Hurrian Song to Nikkal(circa 1450 – 1200 BC).

The northern Syrian settlement of Ugarit had been inhabited since at least the Neolithic age (6000 BC), while by 15th century BC, it had turned into a strategic port city that had trade connections with the Hittite Empire, the Egyptian Empire, and even distant Cyprus. Given such extensive trade networks, the city-state reached its zenith in the epoch between 1450 BC – 1200 BC and its rise to glory could be surmised from varied archaeological remains that ranged from a grand palace, temples to even libraries (containing clay tablets) that were unique in such a period of history.

But beyond relics of past, archaeologists (in the 1950’s) were also able to discover something that had present-day context. We are talking about what turned out to be the oldest known piece of music ever found in the history of mankind – and it pertains to a 3,400-year-old hymn composed of cuneiform signs in the Hurrian language.

The musical compilation (found in the form of a musical notation system etched on clay tablets) is better known as the Hurrian Songs. These were probably played on contemporary lyres, while the most ‘complete’ of this musical series pertains to the Hurrian Song to Nikkal. Nikkal was a goddess entity of Ugarit/Canaan (and later of Phoenicia), and she was worshiped as the safe-keeper of orchards and gardens. Interestingly enough, experts have been able to recreate the melody of the Hurrian Song to Nikkal. Musician Michael Levy has a produced his lyre interpretation for the A Hurrian Cult Song from Ancient Ugarit, and the soulful version can be heard from the video above.

The midi keyboard version below offers a modern take on this ancient composition (oldest song), based on the interpretation produced by Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, professor of Assyriology at the University of California, back in 1972.

2) Epic of Gilgamesh –

Opening lines of the Mesopotamian Epic (circa 18th century BC).

In the previous entry, we had talked about the oldest known song in the world, better known as the Hurrian Song to Nikkal, which was originally composed in the northern Syrian settlement of Ugarit almost 3,400-years ago. Well, this time around we are witness to yet another Mesopotamian cultural achievement in the form of Epic of Gilgamesh – possibly the oldest known epic in the world and also the earliest surviving great work of literature.

Now the literary history of the titular character Gilgamesh comes down to us from five Sumerian poems, though the first iterations of the epic itself were possibly compiled in ‘Old Babylonian’ versions (circa 18th century BC). Simply put, while the provenance of these literary works is based on Sumerian language and literature, the end product/s (as available to common people) of the epic were possibly composed in Babylonian and related Akkadian – languages that were different from Sumerian, based on their Semitic origins.

But since we are talking about origins, few ancient Mesopotamian bards and scholars might have still sung some of Gilgamesh’s heroic exploits in Sumerian. To that end, Canadian musician Peter Pringle has presented his version of the Epic of Gilgamesh in ancient Sumerian (above), with the video covering the opening lines of the epic poem. According to the musician –

What you hear in this video are a few of the opening lines of part of the epic poem, accompanied only by a long-neck, three-string, Sumerian lute known as a “gish-gu-di”. The instrument is tuned to G – G – D, and although it is similar to other long neck lutes still in use today (the tar, the setar, the saz, etc.), the modern instruments are low tension and strung with fine steel wire. The ancient long neck lutes (such as the Egyptian “nefer“) were strung with gut and behaved slightly differently. The short-neck lute known as the “oud” is strung with gut/nylon, and its sound has much in common with the ancient long-neck lute although the oud is not a fretted instrument and its strings are much shorter (about 25 inches or 63 cm) as compared to 32 inches (82 cm) on a long-neck instrument.

3) Oldest Known Complete Song –

Song of Seikilos, from the Seikilos epitaph (circa 1st century AD).

From the historical perspective, many scholars believe that music played an integral role in the lives of ordinary ancient Greeks, given its role in most social occasions – ranging from religious rites, funerals to the theater and public recitation of ballads and epic-poetry. Both archaeological and literary pieces of evidence rather bolster such a theory that points to the crucial nature of music in ancient Greece.

In fact, the Greeks attributed the ‘creativity’ of musical compositions to divine entities, and as such etymologically the very word ‘music’ is derived from ‘Muses‘, the personifications of knowledge and art who were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Interestingly, Mnemosyne herself was the personification of memory and was also one of the Titans, the children of Uranus the Sky and Gaia the Earth.

As for the historical side of affairs, scholars came across the world’s oldest (known) complete song – and this musical piece (in its entirety) was etched on the Seikilos epitaph. Judging by the ancient Greek characters on the inscription, the song is Hellenistic Ionic in origin, and the etching was probably made sometime in the 1st century AD. The vocalized recreation presented above was made by the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble (SAVAE). And in case one is interested, the lyrics roughly translated to English, excluding the musical notation, goes like this –

While you live, shine

have no grief at all

life exists only for a short while

and time demands its toll.

The discovery of the epitaph was made way back in 1883 by Sir W. M. Ramsay in Tralleis, a small town near Aydin (Turkey). The epitaph, according to some stories, was lost again, to finally reemerge after the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922, due to its rediscovery in Smyrna in 1923. And interestingly, the region of Aydin has had a long tryst with human civilization in its flowering form, so much so that Aydin in itself translates to ‘lettered, educated, intellectual’. Consequently, the archaeological site in Tralleis boasts many cultural artifacts from human history, including theatrical masks that were symbolically arrayed alongside human burials.

Furthermore, when it came to the ancient Greek musical instruments, the musicians had a penchant for lyres (and kithara), aulos pipes and syrinx, and even the hydraulis – a setup that was the precursor to the modern organ. And with the aid of the flurry of archaeological and literary pieces of evidence of vocal notations and musical ratios, combined with the identification of these instruments, researchers have been able to recreate precise renditions of ancient Greek music. For example, Dr. David Creese, Head of Classics & Ancient History at the University of Newcastle, has devised the following reconstruction of a musical piece that was etched on the ‘Seikilos epitaph’ dating from 1st century AD –

4) 1500-Year Old Latin Songs Recreated For the First Time in a Millenium –

Excerpts from The Consolation of Philosophyby Boethius (circa 6th century AD).

If there is a God, whence proceed so many evils? If there is no God, whence cometh any good?” – one of the oft-quoted Roman philosophers who was born four years after the Western Roman Empire ‘technically’ ceased to exist, Boethius or Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius (480 AD – 525 AD) held many offices, including that of a senator, consul, and magister officious.

In 2017, one of his lingering legacies in the form of an ancient song known as the ‘Songs of Consolation’ was recreated and performed for the first time in the last thousand years. The musical piece pertains to the poetic portions of Boethius’ magnum opus The Consolation of Philosophy, considered as one of the most important and widely-read philosophical works of the Middle Ages.

In fact, from the historical perspective, the work’s eminence stemmed from its various translations by renowned personalities like King Alfred the Great, Chaucer and even Elizabeth I. And since we brought up the scope of history, the medieval period also witnessed a plethora of Latin songs being composed in neumes, in the period between circa 9th century to 13th century. Many of these musical pieces were not only derived from the works of late antiquity authors like Boethius, but also from the works of classical ancient authors like Horace and Virgil.

Cambridge University’s Dr. Sam Barrett had to delve into one of these incredible historical journeys to identify and then recreate the ‘Songs of Consolation’. And while the statement may seem straightforward, the process was anything but, especially since the medieval music was written on the basis of melodic outlines, as opposed to the modern-day recognition of what we know as notes. In other words, the thousand-year musical compositions were more dependent on the oral traditions of contemporary musicians. As Barrett clarified –

Neumes indicate melodic direction and details of vocal delivery without specifying every pitch and this poses a major problem. The traces of lost song repertoires survive, but not the aural memory that once supported them. We know the contours of the melodies and many details about how they were sung, but not the precise pitches that made up the tunes.

In spite of such limitations, Barrett was able to compile and piece together around 80 percent of what can be technically known about the melodies for Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. And while the project was painstaking, he was fortunately helped by Benjamin Bagby, the co-founder of Sequentia, a three-piece group of experienced performers who have formulated “their own working memory of medieval songs”. With their expertise, the two researchers tried versions that combined both the theoretical and practical approaches (based on periodic instruments), and step-by-step resurrected a musical side to the poems of The Consolation of Philosophy.

5) Earliest Known Practical Example of Polyphonic Music –

Chant Dedicated to Saint Boniface (circa 10th century AD).

A research completed in 2014 shed light into the what had been termed as the “earliest known practical example of polyphonic music”. Pertaining to an inscription found on a British Library manuscript in London, the piece of choral music was judged to be composed (written) for more than one part. The scholars believe that this composition (comprising a short chant) dates back to the early 10th century (circa 900 AD), and was dedicated to Boniface, patron Saint of Germany. In essence, it predates what was previously thought to be the earliest polyphonic music, from an 11th-century collection called The Winchester Troper, by almost a hundred years.

The musical piece was discovered by Giovanni Varelli, a Ph.D. student from St John’s College who specializes in early musical notation. His initial analysis revealed that the music consisted of two complementary vocal parts. The later assessment confirmed that the piece composed as a short antiphon (a sentence sung before or after a psalm) was accompanied by a secondary vocal arrangement. Interestingly enough, this type of composition goes against the contemporary convention – as mentioned in 10th-century musical treatises, thus suggesting that medieval composers were already beginning to experiment with their musical scopes at an intrinsic level. As Varelli said –

What’s interesting here is that we are looking at the birth of polyphonic music and we are not seeing what we expected. Typically, polyphonic music is seen as having developed from a set of fixed rules and almost mechanical practice. This changes how we understand that development precisely because whoever wrote it was breaking those rules. It shows that music at this time was in a state of flux and development, the conventions were fewer rules to be followed than a starting point from which one might explore new compositional paths.

Technically labeled as an organum, this early type of polyphonic music didn’t immediately come into the historical limelight probably because of the ‘rudimentary’ musical notation used for the piece, which could be rather abstruse to modern readers and aficionados. But as with a bevy of historical artifacts and discoveries, researchers are still not sure about the original composer of this earliest known practical example of polyphonic music. However, judging by the type of notation (probably Eastern Palaeo-Frankish), the origin of the music might have pertained to a monastic center in north-west Germany, possibly in proximity to Paderborn or Düsseldorf.

6) Oldest Known Secular Norse Song –

Drømde mig en drøm i nat(circa 13th century AD).

Codex Runicus, the medieval manuscript dating from circa 1300 AD, comprises around 202 pages composed in runic characters. Known for its content of the Scanian Law (Skånske lov) – the oldest preserved Nordic provincial law, the codex is also touted to be one of the very rare specimens that have its runic texts found on vellum (parchment made from calfskin). And interestingly enough, as opposed to Viking Age usage of runes, each of these ‘revivalist’ runes corresponds to the letters of the Latin Alphabet.

Now while a significant section of the Codex Runicus covers the Scanian Ecclesiastical Law (pertaining to Danish Skåneland), the manuscript also chronicles the reigns of early Danish monarchs and the oldest region along the Danish-Swedish border. But most interestingly, the last page of the codex also contains what can be defined as the oldest known musical notations written in Scandinavia, with their non-rhythmic style on a four-line staff.

One such Norse song verse, more famously known in modern Denmark as the first two lines of the folk song Drømde mig en drøm i nat (‘I dreamt a dream last night’), is presented in the video above, performed under the tutelage of renowned Old Norse expert – the ‘Cowboy Professor’ Dr. Jackson Crawford. One can also listen to the short instrumentation of this old Norse song by clicking here.

Lyrics (Old Norse):

Drøymde mik ein draum i nótt

um silki ok ærlig pell,

um hægindi svá djupt ok mjott,

um rosemd með engan skell.

Ok i drauminom ek leit

sem gegnom ein groman glugg

þá helo feigo mennsko sveit,

hver sjon ol sin eiginn ugg.

Talit þeira otta jok

ok leysingar joko enn —

en oft er svar eit þyngra ok,

þó spurning at bera brenn.

Ek fekk sofa lika vel,

ek truða þat væri best —

at hvila mik á goðu þel´

ok gløyma svá folki flest´.

Friðinn, ef hann finzt, er hvar

ein firrest þann mennska skell,

fær veggja sik um, drøma þar

um silki ok ærlig pell.

Lyrics (English translation):

I dreamed a dream last night

of silk and fair furs,

of a pillow so deep and soft,

a peace with no disturbance.

And in the dream I saw

as though through a dirty window

the whole ill-fated human race,

a different fear upon each face.

The number of their worries grow

and with them the number of their solutions —

but the answer is often a heavier burden,

even when the question hurts to bear.

As I was able to sleep just as well,

I thought that would be best —

to rest myself here on fine fur,

and forget everyone else.

Peace, if it is to be found, is where

one is furthest from the human noise —

and walling oneself around, can have a dream

of silk and fine furs.

And in case you are interested, the famous folk song (partly derived from the oldest secular Norse song) is presented below. It was performed by the Danish singer Louise Fribo.

7) Earliest Surviving Secular English Song –

Mirie it is while sumer ilast (circa 1225 AD).

Shifting our focus to another Germanic language which still retains around 400 million native speakers, we have come across what might be the earliest surviving secular English song, dating from the first half of 13th century (circa 1225 AD). Known as Mirie it is while sumer ilast (‘Merry it is while summer lasts’), the preservation of the song is quite fortuitous since it was composed on a paper that was kept inside an unrelated historical manuscript.

The manuscript in question here pertains to the Book of Psalms, originally written in Latin on parchment, dating from the latter half of 12th century AD. However after a few decades of its composition, an anonymous writer (probably not the original scribe) added a flyleaf – a blank page, at the beginning of the manuscript. This particular page contained handwritten compositions of two French songs, along with a verse (in Middle English) of what is now considered as the earliest surviving secular English song – Mirie it is while sumer ilast. This ‘rudimentary’ music has been recreated and performed on a medieval harp by Ian Pittaway, in the above video.

Translation to modern English –

Miri it is while sumer ilast with fugheles song, oc nu

neheth windes blast and weder strong. ei ei what this

niht is long. and ich with wel michel wrong, soregh and

murn and fast.

Merry it is while summer lasts with the song of birds

but now draws near the wind’s blast and harsh weather.

Alas, Alas! How long this night is! And I, most unjustly,

sorrow and mourn and fast.

And in case, you prefer a more standardized version of the medieval English song, the following performance was conducted for the Melodious Melancholye album by the Ensemble Belladonna.

8) First Computer-Generated Song Ever Recorded (1951) –

Alan Turing, the man widely hailed as the father of modern computing, was also a brilliant music innovator, according to a team of researchers from New Zealand. As part of a project conducted in 2016, the scientists managed to recover what is most likely the first electronic song ever recorded. Dating back to 1951, the computer-generated music was produced with the help of a giant contraption designed by the British mathematician and cryptanalyst.

As pointed out by the scientists, the device eventually paved the way for a variety of modern-day musical instruments, including synthesizer. Speaking about the man who is best known for decrypting the famous WWII Enigma code, Jack Copeland and Jason Long of Christchurch-based University of Canterbury (UC), said:

Alan Turing’s pioneering work in the late 1940s on transforming the computer into a musical instrument has been largely overlooked.

The music was generated by one of BBC’s outside-broadcast unit using the enormous machine built by Turing. The contraption, the scientists reveal, was housed in the Computing Machine Laboratory, located in Manchester in the northern part of England. In fact, the device was so big that it took up most of the building’s ground floor.

Opening with Britain’s national anthem “God Save the Queen”, the two-minute-long audio included portions of two other songs: “In the Mood” by Glenn Miller and “Baa Baa Black Sheep”. It was recorded onto a 12-inch (approx. 30.5 cm) acetate disc that sadly damaged, leaving the music distorted. The team added:

The frequencies in the recording were not accurate. The recording gave at best only a rough impression of how the computer sounded.

The Burning of the Library of Alexandria

The loss of the ancient world's single greatest archive of knowledge, the Library of Alexandria, has been lamented for ages. But how and why it was lost is still a mystery. The mystery exists not for lack of suspects but from an excess of them.

Alexandria was founded in Egypt by Alexander the Great. His successor as Pharaoh, Ptolemy I Soter, founded the Museum (also called Museum of Alexandria, Greek Mouseion, “Seat of the Muses”) or Royal Library of Alexandria in 283 BC. The Museum was a shrine of the Muses modeled after the Lyceum of Aristotle in Athens. The Museum was a place of study which included lecture areas, gardens, a zoo, and shrines for each of the nine muses as well as the Library itself. It has been estimated that at one time the Library of Alexandria held over half a million documents from Assyria, Greece, Persia, Egypt, India and many other nations. Over 100 scholars lived at the Museum full time to perform research, write, lecture or translate and copy documents. The library was so large it actually had another branch or "daughter" library at the Temple of Serapis.

The first person blamed for the destruction of the Library is none other than Julius Caesar himself. In 48 BC, Caesar was pursuing Pompey into Egypt when he was suddenly cut off by an Egyptian fleet at Alexandria. Greatly outnumbered and in enemy territory, Caesar ordered the ships in the harbor to be set on fire. The fire spread and destroyed the Egyptian fleet. Unfortunately, it also burned down part of the city - the area where the great Library stood. Caesar wrote of starting the fire in the harbor but neglected to mention the burning of the Library. Such an omission proves little since he was not in the habit of including unflattering facts while writing his own history. But Caesar was not without public detractors. If he was solely to blame for the disappearance of the Library it is very likely significant documentation on the affair would exist today.

The second story of the Library's destruction is more popular, thanks primarily to Edward Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". But the story is also a tad more complex. Theophilus was Patriarch of Alexandria from 385 to 412 AD. During his reign the Temple of Serapis was converted into a Christian Church (probably around 391 AD) and it is likely that many documents were destroyed then. The Temple of Serapis was estimated to hold about ten percent of the overall Library of Alexandria's holdings. After his death, his nephew Cyril became Patriarch. Shortly after that, riots broke out when Hierax, a Christian monk, was publicly killed by order of Orestes the city Prefect. Orestes was said to be under the influence of Hypatia, a female philosopher and daughter of the "last member of the Library of Alexandria". Although it should be noted that some count Hypatia herself as the last Head Librarian.

Alexandria had long been known for its violent and volatile politics. Christians, Jews and Pagans all lived together in the city. One ancient writer claimed that there was no people who loved a fight more than those of Alexandria. Immediately after the death of Hierax a group of Jews who had helped instigate his killing lured more Christians into the street at night by proclaiming that the Church was on fire. When the Christians rushed out the largely Jewish mob slew many of them. After this there was mass havoc as Christians retaliated against both the Jews and the Pagans - one of which was Hypatia. The story varies slightly depending upon who tells it but she was taken by the Christians, dragged through the streets and murdered.

Some regard the death of Hypatia as the final destruction of the Library. Others blame Theophilus for destroying the last of the scrolls when he razed the Temple of Serapis prior to making it a Christian church. Still others have confused both incidents and blamed Theophilus for simultaneously murdering Hypatia and destroying the Library though it is obvious Theophilus died sometime prior to Hypatia.

The final individual to get blamed for the destruction is the Moslem Caliph Omar. In 640 AD the Moslems took the city of Alexandria. Upon learning of "a great library containing all the knowledge of the world" the conquering general supposedly asked Caliph Omar for instructions. The Caliph has been quoted as saying of the Library's holdings, "they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous." So, allegedly, all the texts were destroyed by using them as tinder for the bathhouses of the city. Even then it was said to have taken six months to burn all the documents. But these details, from the Caliph's quote to the incredulous six months it supposedly took to burn all the books, weren't written down until 300 years after the fact. These facts condemning Omar were written by Bishop Gregory Bar Hebræus, a Christian who spent a great deal of time writing about Moslem atrocities without much historical documentation.

So who did burn the Library of Alexandria? Unfortunately most of the writers from Plutarch (who apparently blamed Caesar) to Edward Gibbons (a staunch atheist or deist who liked very much to blame Christians and blamed Theophilus) to Bishop Gregory (who was particularly anti-Moslem, blamed Omar) all had an axe to grind and consequently must be seen as biased. Probably everyone mentioned above had some hand in destroying some part of the Library's holdings. The collection may have ebbed and flowed as some documents were destroyed and others were added. For instance, Mark Antony was supposed to have given Cleopatra over 200,000 scrolls for the Library long after Julius Caesar is accused of burning it.

It is also quite likely that even if the Museum was destroyed with the main library the outlying "daughter" library at the Temple of Serapis continued on. Many writers seem to equate the Library of Alexandria with the Library of Serapis although technically they were in two different parts of the city.

The real tragedy of course is not the uncertainty of knowing who to blame for the Library's destruction but that so much of ancient history, literature and learning was lost forever.

Selected sources:
"The Vanished Library" by Luciano Canfora
"Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" by Edward Gibbons


Empereur, J.-Y., 2008. The Destruction of the Library of Alexandria: An Archaeological Viewpoint. In: M. El-Abbadi & O. M. Fathallah, eds. What Happened to the Ancient Library of Alexandria?. Leiden Boston: Brill, pp. 75-88.

Newitz, A., 2013. The Great Library at Alexandria was Destroyed by Budget Cuts, Not Fire. [Online]
Available at: http://io9.com/the-great-library-at-alexandria-was-destroyed-by-budget-1442659066
[Accessed 8 May 2014].

Plutarch, Life of Julius Caesar ,
[Perrin, B. (trans.), 1919. Plutarch's Lives. London: William Heinemann.]

Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods. Read More

Different types of specialists worked under the House of Wisdom: translators, scientists, scribes, authors, researchers of different subjects, and writers. Many manuscripts and books of a variety of philosophical and scientific subjects were translated there and held as of great importance for the community. The House of Wisdom was open to both men and women. Students of all ethnicities and faiths were welcomed, and those scholars who were persecuted by the Byzantine Empires were encouraged to study there. Many different languages were spoken in that facility including Arabic, Farsi, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, Greek and Latin.

13th-century Arabic translation of Materia Medica ( Public Domain )

It should not come as a surprise the implementation of new technological developments since the House of Wisdom was open to a great diversity of cultures and ideas. Brought from China, paper became a new and cheaper material for writing, which was previously done on parchment from the skin of animals, a much more time consuming and expensive process.

Education has always been given great prominence in Indian society since the times of the Vedic civilization, with Gurukul and ashrams being the centers of learning. And with evolving times, a large number of centers of learning were established across ancient India of which Takshashila and Nalanda are the most famous ones known today. Here is the list of major ancient universities of India that flourished across ancient India.

1. Nalanda


Nalanda is one of the well-known ancient universities of India. Nalanda is located in the Indian state of Bihar, about 55 miles south-east of Patna, and was a Buddhist center of learning from 427 to 1197 CE. It has also been called “one of the first great universities in recorded history. It a large Buddhist monastery in the ancient kingdom of Magadha (modern-day Bihar) in India. At its peak, the university attracted scholars and students from as far away as China, Greece, and Persia. Archaeological evidence also notes contact with the Shailendra dynasty of Indonesia, one of whose kings built a monastery in the complex. However, it was later sacked by Turkic Muslim invaders under Bakhtiyar Khalji in 1193, a milestone in the decline of Buddhism in India.

Nalanda University was established by Shakraditya of Gupta dynasty in modern Bihar during the early 5th century and flourished for 600 years till the 12th century. The library of this university was the largest library of the ancient world and had thousands of volumes of manuscripts on various subjects like grammar, logic, literature, astrology, astronomy, and medicine. The library complex was called Dharmaganja and had three large buildings: the Ratnasagara, the Ratnadadhi, and the Ratnaranjaka. Ratnadadhi was nine stories tall and stored the most sacred manuscripts including the Prajnaparamita Sutra and the Samajguhya.

In 2010, the parliament of India passed a bill approving the plans to restore the ancient Nalanda University as a modern Nalanda International University dedicated for post-graduate research. Many East Asian countries including China, Singapore, and Japan have come forward to fund the construction of this revived Nalanda University. According to the Kevatta Sutta, in the Buddha’s time, Nalanda was already an influential and prosperous town, thickly populated, though it was not until later that it became the center of learning for which it afterward became famous. Mahavira is several times mentioned as staying at Nalanda, which was evidently a center of activity of the Jains.

Nalanda was very likely ransacked and destroyed by an army of the Mamluk Dynasty of the Muslim Delhi Sultanate under Bakhtiyar Khilji in c. 1200 CE.[20] While some sources note that the Mahavihara continued to function in a makeshift fashion for a while longer, it was eventually abandoned and forgotten until the 19th century when the site was surveyed and preliminary excavations were conducted by the Archaeological Survey of India. Systematic excavations commenced in 1915 which unearthed eleven monasteries and six brick temples neatly arranged on grounds 12 hectares (30 acres) in the area. A trove of sculptures, coins, seals, and inscriptions have also been discovered in the ruins many of which are on display in the Nalanda Archaeological Museum situated nearby. Nalanda is now a notable tourist destination and a part of the Buddhist tourism circuit.

2. Takshashila


Ranked as the top tourist destination in Pakistan by The Guardian newspaper in 2006. Taxila or Takshashila was an ancient capital city of the Buddhist kingdom of Gandhara and a center of learning, what is now North-Western Pakistan. It is one of the most known Ancient universities of India. Taxila was an early center of learning dating back to at least the 5th century BCE. It is considered a place of religious and historical sanctity by Hindus and Buddhists and was the seat of Vedic learning where the emperor Chandragupta Maurya was taken there by Chanakya to learn in the institution. The institution is very significant in Buddhist tradition since it is believed that the Mahayana sect of Buddhism took shape there.

Taxila is known from references in Indian and Greco-Roman literary sources and from the accounts of two Chinese Buddhist pilgrims, Faxian and Xuanzang. According to the Indian epic Ramayana, by Bharata, younger brother of Rama, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. The city was named for Bharata’s son Taksha, its first ruler. Buddhist literature, especially the Jatakas, mentions it as the capital of the kingdom of Gandhara and as a great center of learning. Greek historians accompanying the Macedonian conqueror described Taxila as “wealthy, prosperous, and well governed.” Taxila was situated at the pivotal junction of South Asia and Central Asia. Its origin as a city goes back to c. 1000 BCE. Some ruins at Taxila date to the time of the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BCE followed successively by Mauryan, Indo-Greek, Indo-Scythian, and Kushan periods. Owing to its strategic location, Taxila has changed hands many times over the centuries, with many empires vying for its control. When the great ancient trade routes connecting these regions ceased to be important, the city sank into insignificance and was finally destroyed by the nomadic Hunas in the 5th century. The archaeologist Alexander Cunningham rediscovered the ruins of Taxila in the mid-19th century.

Some scholars date Takshashila’s existence back to the 6th century BCE or 7th century BCE.It became a noted center of learning at least several centuries before Christ and continued to attract students from around the old world until the destruction of the city in the 5th century CE. Takshashila is perhaps best known because of its association with Chanakya. The famous treatise Arthashastra (Sanskrit for The knowledge of Economics) by Chanakya, is said to have been composed in Takshashila itself. Chanakya (or) Kautilya the Maurya Emperor Chandragupta and the Ayurvedic healer Charaka studied at Taxila.

Generally, a student entered Takshashila at the age of sixteen. The Vedas and the Eighteen Arts, which included skills such as archery, hunting, and elephant lore, were taught, in addition to its law school, medical school, and school of military science.

3. Vikramashila

Vikramashila was one of the two most important centers of Buddhist learning in India during the Pala Empire. Vikramashila was established by King Dharmapala (783 to 820) in response to a supposed decline in the quality of scholarship at Nalanda and flourished for 400 years till 12th century until it was destroyed by the forces of Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji around 1200. Atisha, the renowned Pandita, is sometimes listed as a notable abbot. Vikramashila (village Antichak, district Bhagalpur, Bihar) is located at about 50 km east of Bhagalpur and about 13 km north-east of Kahalgaon, a railway station on Bhagalpur-Sahebganj section of Eastern Railway. It is approachable through 11 km long motorable road diverting from NH-80 at Anadipur about 2 km from Kahalgaon. Interestingly, it gave direct competition to Nalanda University with over 100 teachers and over 1000 students listed in this University.

This university was well known for its specialized training on the subject of Tantra (Tantrism). One of the most popular graduates from this University was Atiśa Dipankara, a founder of the Sharma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism who also revived the Buddhism in Tibet.

The remains of the ancient university have been partially excavated in Bhagalpur district, Bihar state, India, and the process are still underway. Meticulous excavation at the site was conducted initially by B. P. Sinha of Patna University (1960–69) and subsequently by Archaeological Survey of India (1972–82). It has revealed a huge square monastery with a cruciform stupa in its center, a library building and cluster of votive stupas. To the north of monastery, a number of scattered structures including a Tibetan and a Hindu temple have been found. The entire spread is over an area of more than one hundred acres.

4. Valabhi

Valabhi University was established in Saurashtra of modern Gujarat at around 6th century and it flourished for 600 years till the 12th century. The University of Valabhi was an important center of Buddhist learning and championed the cause of Hinayana Buddhism between 600 CE and 1200 CE. Chinese traveler Itsing who visited this university during the 7th century describes it as a great center of learning. For some time, the university was so good that it was even considered to be a rival to Nalanda, in Bihar, in the field of education.

Gunamati and Sthiramati, the two famous Buddhist scholars are said to have graduated from this University. This University was popular for its training in secular subjects and students from all over the country came to study in this University. Because of its high quality of education, graduates of this University were given higher executive posts. Though Valabhi is known to have championed the cause of Hinayana Buddhism, it was neither exclusive nor insular. Brahmanical sciences were also taught here along with the doctrines of Buddhism. References have been found to Brahmanic students who came to learn at this university from the Gangetic plains. Apart from religious sciences, courses offered included Nīti (Political Science, Statesmanship), Vārtā (Business, Agriculture), Administration, Theology, Law, Economics, and Accountancy. Students graduating from Valabhi were usually employed by kings to assist in the government of their kingdoms.

The prominence of Valabhi was known over the whole of Northern India. Kathasaritsagara narrates the story of a Brahmana, who was determined that he would rather send his son to Valabhi, than to Nalanda or Banaras. Gunamati and Sthiramati were two of its Panditas very little is known about the other famous teachers and scholars who lived here. It is quite certain that a stamp of approval of doctrines preached by various scholars by the Panditas of Valabhi, who were of authority, was valued highly in learned assemblies of many kingdoms. Valabhi was visited by Xuanzang, a Chinese pilgrim, in the 7th century and by Yijing towards the end of the century. Yijing described the university as at par with the Buddhist monastic center Nalanda.

When Hiuen Tsiang (also known as Xuanzang) visited the university in the middle of the 7th century, there were more than 6000 monks studying in the place. Some 100 monasteries were provided for their accommodation, as, the citizens of Valabhi, many of whom were rich and generous, made available the funds necessary for running the institution. The Maitraka kings, who ruled over the country, acted as patrons to the university. They provided enormous grants for the working of the institution and equipping its libraries.

In 775 CE, the patron kings succumbed to an attack by the Arabs. This gave the university a temporary setback. Even afterward, the work of the university continued incessantly, as the successors of the Maitraka dynasty continued to patronize it with bountiful donations. Not much information has been retrieved regarding the university during and after this period. The defeat of its patron kings had definitely led way to the slow death of all its educational activities in the 12th century. In September 2017, the Indian central government started to consider a proposal to revive the ancient university.

5. Somapura

Somapura Mahavihara was established by Dharmapala of Pala dynasty during the late 8th century in Bengal and flourished for 400 years till the 12th century. The University spread over 27 acres of land of which the main complex was 21 acres was one of the largest of its kind. It was a major center of learning for Bauddha Dharma (Buddhism), Jina Dharma (Jainism) and Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). Even today one can find ornamental terracotta on its outer walls depicting the influence of these three traditions. It is one of the largest and best known Buddhist monasteries in the Indian subcontinent with the complex itself covering more than 20 acres, almost a million square feet (85,000 sq. meters). With its simple, harmonious lines and its profusion of carved decoration, it influenced Buddhist architecture as far away as Cambodia. Epigraphic records testify that the cultural and religious life of this great Vihara, was closely linked with the contemporary Buddhist centers of fame and history at Bodhgaya and Nalanda, many Buddhist treatises were completed at Paharpur, a center where the Vajrayana trend of Mahayana Buddhism was practiced. The Mahavihara is important for the three major historical religions in the region, serving as a center for Jains, Hindus, and Buddhists.

Excavations show that it was built by the second Pala king, Dharmapala, around 781-821 AD. This comes from clay seals with inscriptions that were discovered. It is one of the five great mahaviharas, or monasteries, which were established in ancient Bengal during the Pala period. As mentioned above, these five monasteries existed together, forming a system of coordination among themselves. The Somapura Mahavihara was inhabited steadily for a few centuries, before being abandoned in the 12th century following repeated attacks and being burnt nearly to the ground in the 11th century by the Vanga army. About a century later Vipulashrimitra renovated the Vihara and added a temple of Tara.

Over the next centuries, the Somapura Mahavihara steadily declined and disintegrated, left abandoned by the new Muslim rulers of the area, until reaching its current state of decay. The Mahavihara was entirely covered by grass over the centuries after its abandonment, and it was more or less forgotten at that point. In the 1920s the site began to be excavated, and more and more was uncovered over the next decades. Work increased drastically after independence, and by the early-1990s the site was at roughly its current level of excavation. A small site-museum built in 1956-57 houses the representative collection of objects recovered from the area. The excavated finds have also been preserved at the Varendra Research Museum at Rajshahi. The antiquities of the Museum include terracotta plaques, images of different gods and goddesses, pottery, coins, inscriptions, ornamental bricks, and other minor clay objects. The importance of Somapura Mahavihara has resulted in its being included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Today it is one of the prime tourist destinations in Bangladesh.

6. Jagaddala

Jagaddala Mahavihara was a Buddhist monastery and seat of learning in Varendra, a geographical unit in present north Bengal in Bangladesh. It was founded by the later kings of the Pāla dynasty, famously believed to be King Ramapala (c. 1077-1120), which was the largest construction works undertaken by the Pala Kings.

Little is known about Jagaddala compared with the other mahaviharas of the era. For many years, its site was could not be ascertained. A.K.M. Zakaria inspected five likely locations, all called Jagdal or Jagadal, in the Rajshahi-Malda region: in Panchagarh in Haripur Upazila of Thakurgaon in Bochaganj Upazila in Dinajpur in Dhamoirhat Upazila of Naogaon Bamangola block of Malda, India.[3] Of these, significant ancient ruins were present only near the Jagdal in Naogaon district. Excavations under the aegis of UNESCO over the past decade have established the site as a Buddhist monastery.

A large number of monasteries or viharas were established in ancient Bengal and Magadha during the four centuries of Pala rule in North-eastern India. Dharmapala is said to have founded 50 viharas himself, including Vikramashila, the premier university of the era. Jaggadala was founded toward the end of the Pāla dynasty, most likely by Rāmapāla. According to Tibetan sources, five great Mahaviharas stood out: Vikramashila, Nalanda, past its prime but still illustrious, Somapura, Odantapurā, and Jagaddala. The five monasteries formed a network “all of them were under state supervision” and their existed “a system of co-ordination among them … it seems from the evidence that the different seats of Buddhist learning that functioned in eastern India under the Pāla were regarded together as forming a network, an interlinked group of institutions,” and it was common for great scholars to move easily from position to position among them.

Jagaddala specialized in Vajrayana Buddhism. A large number of texts that would later appear in the Kanjur and Tengjur were known to have been composed or copied at Jagadala. It is likely that the earliest dated anthology of Sanskrit verse, the Subhāṣitaratnakoṣa, was compiled by Vidyākara at Jaggadala toward the end of the 11th century or the beginning of the 12th.

Śakyaśrībhadra, a Kashmiri scholar who was the last abbot of Nalanda Mahavihara and instrumental in transmitting Buddhism to Tibet, is said to have fled to Tibet in 1204 from Jagaddala when Muslim incursions seemed imminent. Historian Sukumar Dutt tentatively placed the final destruction of Jagadala to 1207 in any case, it seems to have been the last mahavihara to be overrun.

In 1999 Jaggadala was submitted as a tentative site for inclusion on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. UNESCO reports that excavation has revealed “an extensive mound, 105 meters long by 85 meters, which represents the archaeological remains of a Buddhist monastery . . . finds have included terracotta plaques, ornamental bricks, nails, a gold ingot and three stone images of deities.

7. Odantapuri

Ancient Odantapuri University Ruins located on Hiranya Prabat in Bihar sarif is also known as odantpura vihar or odantapuri Buddhist mahavira. Founded in the 8th century by emperor Gopala of Pala Dynasty, it flourished for 400 years till the 12th century. It was basically one of the sixth universities in ancient India established primarily for the purpose of propagating Buddhist learning and teachings. Apart from this, It is also regarded as the second oldest university after Nalanda established in ancient times. It is comparatively a lesser known important tourist destination in Bihar as we still know little about this place.

What we know today about Odantapuri history is primarily from the sources of books written by Tibetan and Chinese travelers during that period. According to Tibetan books, there were 12000 students at odantpuri. Acharya Sri Ganga who used to be a student of Vikramshila university was a professor at the Vikramashila University was a graduate of this Odantapuri University as later on he joined Odantapuri and regarded as one of the famous alumni of this university.

It remained in existence as a great learning center for Buddhist teachings for almost four centuries. In 1193 AD when Notorious Muslim Turkish invader Bhakhtiyar Khilji found this university, he mistakenly believed it as a fortress due to its long walls and ordered his army to destroy it. This was the same time when Nalanda university too was set on fire by his army. His misdeeds proved to be the last nail in the coffin for both the glorious university of ancient India. This led them to undergo almost oblivion for more than six centuries until excavation started in the 19th century. Ancient Tibetan texts mention this as one among the five great Universities of its time, the other four being Vikramashila, Nalanda, Somapura and Jagaddala Universities – all located in ancient India.

8. Pushpagiri

Puspagiri University was a prominent seat of learning that flourished until the 11th century in India. Today, its ruins lie atop the Langudi hills, low hills about 90 km from the Mahanadi delta, in the districts of Jajpur and Cuttack in Orissa. The actual university campus, spread across three hilltops, contained several stupas, monasteries, temples, and sculptures in the architectural style of the Gupta period. The Kelua river, a tributary of the Brahmani river of Orissa flows to the northeast of Langudi hills and must have provided a picturesque background for the university. The entire university is distributed across three campuses on top of the three adjoining hills, Lalitgiri, Ratnagiri, and Udayagiri. Recently a few images of Emperor Ashoka have been discovered here, and it has been suggested that the Pushpagiri University was established by Emperor Ashoka himself.

Excavation work carried out at Lalitgiri-Ratnagiri-Udayagiri hills has brought to surface the ruins of a wonderful brick monastery with beautiful carvings, a temple with bow shaped arches, 4 monasteries and a huge stupa. The Buddhist treasures unearthed from here also include a large number of gold & silver articles, a stone container, earthen pot and traces of Kushana dynasty and Brahmi script. A massive image of the Buddha is a unique find, the image has pursed lips, long ears, and wide forehead.

Iconographic analysis indicates that Lalitgiri had already been established during the Sunga period of the 2nd century BC and making it one of the oldest Buddhist establishments in the world. The architectural remnants found in Lalitgiri remind one of the Gandhar & Mathura craftsmanship. Set in the valley of two rivers, Birupa and Chitrotpala, the monastery was “discovered” by a local British official in 1905. A seven-year excavation of the site by the Archeological Survey of India beginning in 1985 yielded number if stone inscriptions, seals, sealings, and pot-shreds, which established the site as having flourished between 2nd-3rd to 14-15th century AD. Lalitgiri is especially interesting because here, one could observe the evolution of Buddhism from the Theravada sect with its austere and plain worship of a stupa to the growth of Mahayana and Vajrayana (tantric) sects with their elaborate pantheon of Bodhisattvas and other deities. Many fine examples of these deities can be found in a small sculpture shed built near the main stupa at Lalitgiri. These include images of Tara, Aparajita, Prajnaparamita, and Maitreya, as well as are images of Buddha Muchalinda, Buddha in Bhumisparsa (touching the earth) and Dhyani (meditation) poses, and a bas-relief depicting Buddha’s descent from heaven. Scattered near the ruins of the monastery are several stray images, including a magnificent reclining Buddha in his final resting place lying underneath a huge Banyan tree. The main stupa at Lalitgiri is 15 meter in diameter and is constructed in Sanchi style. It is visible from afar. The ruins of four monasteries have been discovered in the nearby area.

The changing role of libraries

Libraries are collections of books, manuscripts, journals, and other sources of recorded information. They commonly include reference works, such as encyclopaedias that provide factual information and indexes that help users find information in other sources creative works, including poetry, novels, short stories, music scores, and photographs nonfiction, such as biographies, histories, and other factual reports and periodical publications, including magazines, scholarly journals, and books published as part of a series. As home use of records, CD-ROMs, and audiotapes and videotapes has increased, library collections have begun to include these and other forms of media, too.

Libraries were involved early in exploiting information technologies. For many years libraries have participated in cooperative ventures with other libraries. Different institutions have shared cataloging and information about what each has in its collection. They have used this shared information to facilitate the borrowing and lending of materials among libraries. Librarians have also become expert in finding information from on-line and CD-ROM databases.

As society has begun to value information more highly, the so-called information industry has developed. This industry encompasses publishers, software developers, on-line information services, and other businesses that package and sell information products for a profit. It provides both an opportunity and a challenge to libraries. On the one hand, as more information becomes available in electronic form, libraries no longer have to own an article or a certain piece of statistical information, for example, to obtain it quickly for a user. On the other hand, members of the information industry seem to be offering alternatives to libraries. A student with her own computer can now go directly to an on-line service to locate, order, and receive a copy of an article without ever leaving her home.

Although the development of digital libraries means that people do not have to go to a building for some kinds of information, users still need help to locate the information they want. In a traditional library building, a user has access to a catalog that will help locate a book. In a digital library, a user has access to catalogs to find traditional library materials, but much of the information on, for example, the Internet can not be found through one commonly accepted form of identification. This problem necessitates agreement on standard ways to identify pieces of electronic information (sometimes called meta-data) and the development of codes (such as HTML [Hypertext Markup Language] and SGML [Standard Generalized Markup Language]) that can be inserted into electronic texts.

For many years libraries have bought books and periodicals that people can borrow or photocopy for personal use. Publishers of electronic databases, however, do not usually sell their product, but instead they license it to libraries (or sites) for specific uses. They usually charge libraries a per-user fee or a per-unit fee for the specific amount of information the library uses. When libraries do not own these resources, they have less control over whether older information is saved for future use—another important cultural function of libraries. In the electronic age, questions of copyright, intellectual property rights, and the economics of information have become increasingly important to the future of library service.

Increased availability of electronic information has led libraries, particularly in schools, colleges, and universities, to develop important relationships to their institutions’ computer centres. In some places the computer centre is the place responsible for electronic information and the library is responsible for print information. In some educational institutions librarians have assumed responsibility for both the library collection and computer services.

As technology has changed and allowed ever new ways of creating, storing, organizing, and providing information, public expectation of the role of libraries has increased. Libraries have responded by developing more sophisticated on-line catalogs that allow users to find out whether or not a book has been checked out and what other libraries have it. Libraries have also found that users want information faster, they want the full text of a document instead of a citation to it, and they want information that clearly answers their questions. In response, libraries have provided Selective Dissemination of Information (SDI) services, in which librarians choose information that may be of interest to their users and forward it to them before the users request it.

The changes in libraries outlined above originated in the United States and other English-speaking countries. But electronic networks do not have geographic boundaries, and their influence has spread rapidly. With Internet connections in Peking (Beijing), Moscow, and across the globe, people who did not have access to traditional library services now have the opportunity to get information about all types of subjects, free of political censorship.

As libraries have changed, so, too, has the role of the librarian. Increasingly librarians have assumed the role of educator to teach their users how to find information both in the library and over electronic networks. Public librarians have expanded their roles by providing local community information through publicly accessible computing systems. Some librarians are experts about computers and computer software. Others are concerned with how computer technologies can preserve the human cultural records of the past or assure that library collections on crumbling paper or in old computer files can still be used by people many centuries in the future.

The work of librarians has also moved outside library walls. Librarians have begun to work in the information industry as salespeople, designers of new information systems, researchers, and information analysts. They also are found in such fields as marketing and public relations and in such organizations as law firms, where staffs need rapid access to information.

Although libraries have changed significantly over the course of history, as the following section demonstrates, their cultural role has not. Libraries remain responsible for acquiring or providing access to books, periodicals, and other media that meet the educational, recreational, and informational needs of their users. They continue to keep the business, legal, historical, and religious records of a civilization. They are the place where a toddler can hear his first story and a scholar can carry out her research.

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