Our learning institutions are no exception to the march of time. Libraries, like the books they contain, have evolved over the ages. From sacred space to haunt of the learned, from the private collection to the public recreational center, our idea of what constitutes a library gets regularly reinvented.
In its earliest known developments, the library was typically just a collection of various writings, with public lending being less common. Often, it was affiliated with some sort of cultic practice. It was not rare for an accumulation of written works to be housed in a temple, so high an opinion had the ancients regarding learning. Perhaps this religious affiliation contributes to the tradition of reverent silence that most public libraries maintain to this day.
When libraries came on the scene, they offered some literary variety, not to mention a broad gathering of human knowledge and culture into one place. Libraries and the collections they contain have contributed to the shaping of peoples and nations. In modern history, social advocates and political leaders have been molded by their private libraries, or at least by the books they read. And almost everyone living in a developed nation has benefited from the library. The modern library, on a local level, often becomes a center for voting, ventures furthering public health, and social events galore.
Yet, as already noted, it's indebted to the organized religions from which it sprang. Let's travel over many miles and years to explore some of the great libraries of antiquity. Some remain extant, while others have come and gone. The writings from some linger still, while others—once monumental architectural achievements—exist but in memory alone.
The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal
Discovered among the ruins of Ninevah, another ancient city of biblical repute, the “Library of Ashurbanipal” refers to an extensive series of stone tablets once amassed by the Assyrian king after whom they take their name. Ashurbanipal (alternatively spelled Assurbanipal) ruled from 668 to 627 BCE, and took tremendous pride in his wealth of learning. His library consisted of books intended to deliver interpretations of decrees and desires of the gods. But the ruler stored up literary works as well.
In his own day and beyond, the collection held notoriety throughout the ancient world. It was lauded by Babylonian writers centuries after its namesake had passed away. One modern writer went so far as to call Assurbanipal's library “the most precious source of historical material in the world.” Today, the tablets collected by this ancient Assyrian king provide researchers with some of the most substantial data we have about ancient Mesopotamia.
The Library of Alexandria
Practically no learning institution among the ancients was so luxurious, academic, or renowned as the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. The Egyptians had had libraries before, but nothing on the scale seen here. Having dominated the Egyptians in battle, Alexander the Great made Alexandria the new capital of his empire and may have planned to build a library there. Though he never lived to see his brainchild become reality, the library began construction circa 295 BCE under Ptolemy II Philadelphus's rule.
The library, or Biblion, was conjoined to the Museion, or “museum,” where instruction took place. Together, they stood as an intellectual powerhouse, particularly focusing on the humanities, although earlier the museum had promoted scientific studies as well.
Because it was the most famous of libraries, we know more about it than we do about other institutions of the ancient world. The library is said to have held the whole body of Greek literature, including works attributed to Plato, Aristotle, and Homer. Zenodotus served as the first librarian, and he conducted the invaluable task of annotating the epics (such as The Iliad and The Odyssey) and arranging them in chronological order.
From this learning center came copies of classics and, through the academic discourse it fostered, new works were written. After Zenodotus, Apollonius Rhodius filled the shoes as head of the library. Some sources suggest he got into a disagreement with the poet Callimachus, who believed the Greeks could no longer produce lengthy epic poems. To prove him wrong, Apollonius wrote the Argonautica, a story which readers may be familiar with through the film adaptation, Jason and the Argonauts (1963).
The Library of Alexandria came to an end under circumstances neither fully understood nor wholly agreed upon by modern scholars. Most sources allude to the library or its contents being burned. As for the perpetrator of this crime, well, his identity changes depending who you ask. However, no less than Julius Caesar is among the chief suspects. Exactly what the grand library was like in its heyday, and how it met its downfall, are mysteries lost to the past...
The Library of Pergamum
The famed Library of Alexandria stimulated interest, even stringent competition, among other world powers to amass great libraries of their own. During the third century BCE, the Attalid king Eumenes II established a new library at Pergamum (or Pergamon) to challenge the prestige lavished upon its Egyptian predecessor. According to Plutarch, it housed 200,000 works on papyrus rolls.
Plutarch also stated that Mark Anthony took these documents from Pergamum and gave them to Cleopatra. Intended to become part of the Library of Alexandria's collection, these scrolls could have been in the great library when it went up in a conflagration. If so, the fates of both libraries, inextricably linked, together went up in flames.
The Villa of the Papyri
What we now refer to as the “Villa of the Papyri” was located at the seaside town of Herculaneum. Herculaneum was situated near Vesuvius, a picturesque mountain that hadn't stirred for the better part of 300 years. However, its eruption in 79 CE clearly identified it as a volcano.
Herculaneum and other cities close to the volcano (such as Pompeii) were destroyed and enveloped in debris. Fast forward to the 1700s: the villa was unearthed and a library was found holding more than 1,000 papyrus scrolls. Some of these were charred to such a degree that, blackened as they were, they were initially dismissed as little more than fire starters. They narrowly escaped a fate similar to the documents of the Library of Alexandria.
The Villa of the Papyri, thus dubbed because of the exciting discovery, is “the only library to survive from the Graeco-Roman world.”
The Bibliotheca Ulpia
Under the governance of Emperor Trajan, Rome enjoyed holding its most expansive jurisdiction. During his last years as emperor, Trajan established the Bibliotheca Ulpia at the Forum of Trajan in Rome. This “Ulpian Library” would grow more famous over the years, especially once the Library of Alexandria was destroyed. Meanwhile, Rome gradually fell victim to up-and-coming regional powers and eventually caved in on itself.
Saint Catherine's Monastery
Inspired writings and liturgical readings have always been integral to the Abrahamic religions. As Christianity spread throughout the world in the first centuries CE and outcrops of monasticism (the lifestyle adopted by monks living in community) sprouted up, these communities spent a lot of time working as scribes. Monks copied down sections of the Bible and other works.
Located in Egypt, Saint Catherine's Monastery, officially named the Sacred Autonomous Royal Monastery of Saint Katherine of the Holy and God-Trodden Mount Sinai, touts itself as “the oldest and most important Christian monastic library collection.” According to some reports, there were relevant manuscripts and copiers at work on location by the sixth century, or even as early as the fourth century.
The library at the Sinai monastery contains some 3,000 or so manuscripts ranging in languages from Arabic to Syriac, from Hebrew to Slavonic, and beyond. Saint Catherine's Monastery remains a popular tourist attraction in Egypt, despite a 2017 attack carried out nearby for which Islamic extremists claimed responsibility.
The House of Wisdom
During the Islamic Golden Age, which took place from the 8th century to the 14th century, few libraries were as well-respected as Bayt al-Hikma, or the “House of Wisdom.” Likely established in the 8th century by the caliph Harun al-Rashid, the House of Wisdom was located in Baghdad, a city which the caliphs fortified with the intent to make it the leading metropolis in all the known world.
Much as the Library of Alexandria had been an invaluable resource to Western ancients, so was the House of Wisdom now to the Middle East. It was not only a library, but a school of translation and a collective of scholars. Throughout the Islamic Golden Age, the library prospered, serving as a bright lamp of learning. Many of the duties performed at the House of Wisdom involved translating classics from the rich Greek literary tradition. The works of Plato, Aristotle, and many others were sought by the translators, with Greek thought influencing Muslim culture and philosophy.