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7th C. BC – Ketef Hinnom Scroll

In a tomb at Ketef Hinnom in Israel, the oldest text of the Hebrew Bible was discovered. The text, inscribed on a silver scroll in the old Hebrew script dating to the 7th Century B.C., is the Aaronic blessing (Numbers 6:24-26), which begins, “yeverekh’kha YHWH Vayishmarekha” (May Yahweh bless you and keep you).

The Library of Ashurbanipal

Part of a clay tablet, Neo-Assyrian. (Credit: Public Domain)
Part of a clay tablet, Neo-Assyrian. (Credit: Public Domain)

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.

The Library of Alexandria

The Burning of the Library of Alexandria, 1876. Private Collection. (Credit: Fine Art Images/Getty Images)
The Burning of the Library of Alexandria, 1876. Private Collection. (Credit: Fine Art Images/Getty Images)

After Alexander, the Great’s death in 323 B.C., control of Egypt fell to his former general Ptolemy I Soter, the Library of Alexandria, which eventually became the intellectual jewel the ancient world was established. Little is known about the site’s architecture, 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 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.

The Library of Pergamum

Reconstruction of Pergamon.  (Credit: De Agostini/Getty Images)
Reconstruction of Pergamon. (Credit: De Agostini/Getty Images)

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.

The Villa of the Papyri

The long-buried Villa of the Papyri opened to the public almost 2000 years after it was submerged in volcanic mud in Herculaneum. (Credit: Eric VANDEVILLE/Getty Images)
The long-buried Villa of the Papyri opened to the public almost 2000 years after it was submerged in volcanic mud in Herculaneum. (Credit: Eric VANDEVILLE/Getty Images)

The “Villa of the Papyri” is the only one whose collection has survived to the present day. It 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 were rediscovered in the 18th century. Modern researchers have since used everything from multispectral imaging to x-rays to try to read them. Much of the catalogue still waiting to be deciphered, however, studies have revealed that the library contains several texts by an Epicurean philosopher and poet named Philodemus.

The Libraries of Trajan’s Forum

Trajan's Forum. (Credit: John Harper/Getty Images)
Trajan’s Forum. (Credit: John Harper/Getty Images)

 The Emperor Trajan completed construction  around 112 A.D.on a sprawling, multi-use building complex in the city of Rome. There were plazas, markets and religious temples,  and also 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.

The Masoretes (Hebrew: בעלי המסורה Ba’alei ha-Masora) were groups of Jewishscribe-scholars who worked between the 6th and 10th centuries CE, based primarily in present-day Israel in the cities of Tiberias and Jerusalem, as well as in Iraq (Babylonia

The Library of Celsus

Library of Celsus. (Credit: Public Domain)
Library of Celsus. (Credit: Public Domain)

There were over two-dozen major libraries in the city of Rome during the imperial era. 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. 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.

The Imperial Library of Constantinople

The Theodosian city walls originally built in the 5th century during reign of Theodosius II. (Credit: Ken Welsh/Getty Images)
The Theodosian city walls originally built in the 5th century during reign of Theodosius II. (Credit: Ken Welsh/Getty Images)

Even 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 was created 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 demish 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.

The House of Wisdom

Portrait of Razi polymath, physician and alchemist in his laboratory in Bagdad, Iraq. (Credit: Leemage/Getty Images)
Portrait of Razi polymath, physician and alchemist in his laboratory in Bagdad, Iraq. (Credit: Leemage/Getty Images)

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.

Modern day militants have reportedly ransacked Mosul library, burning over a hundred thousand rare manuscripts and documents spanning centuries of human learning.Initial reports said approximately 8,000 books were destroyed by the extremist group.

The Timbuktu Libraries

Around 60 libraries in Timbuktu are still owned by local families and institutions, collections that have survived political turbulence throughout the region, as well as the ravages of nature. A good example is the Ahmed Baba Institute, established in 1970, which was named after the famous 16th/17th-century scholar, the greatest in Africa.

Ahmed Baba wrote 70 works in Arabic, many on jurisprudence but some on grammar and syntax. Deported to Morocco after the Moroccan invasion of Songhay in 1591, he is said to have complained to the sultan there that the latter’s troops had stolen 1,600 books from him and that this was the smallest library compared to those of any of his friends.

Today, the Ahmed Baba Institute has nearly 30,000 manuscripts, which are being studied, catalogued and preserved. However, during the period of French colonial domination of Timbuktu (1894–1959), many manuscripts were seized and burned by the colonialists, and as a result, many families there still refuse access to researchers for fear of a new era of pillaging. Other manuscripts were lost due to adverse climatic conditions – for example, following droughts, many people buried their manuscripts and fled.

The Nag Hammadi library (also known as the “Chenoboskion Manuscripts”, or as the “Gnostic Gospels”[1]) is a collection of Gnostic texts discovered near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. Twelve leather-boundpapyrus codices buried in a sealed jar were found by a local farmer named Muhammed al-Samman.[2] The writings in these codices comprised fifty-two mostly Gnostic treatises, but they also include three works belonging to the Corpus Hermeticum and a partial translation/alteration of Plato‘s Republic. In his introduction to The Nag Hammadi Library in English, James Robinson suggests that these codices may have belonged to a nearby Pachomian monastery, and were buried after Saint Athanasius condemned the use of non-canonical books in his Festal Letter of 367 A.D. The discovery of these texts significantly influenced modern scholarship into early Christianity and Gnosticis

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