The 10 Greatest Libraries of Antiquity

The appearance of the writing in different ancient civilizations quickly asked for a way to store tablets, papyri or scrolls for safekeeping, as well as a registration system that would allow locate them quickly for your request. This last is not nothing, because any current librarian and all the analysts of big data.

The importance of finding a method of classification grew as the number of written documents increased. It was not just about quickly retrieving a text to satisfy people’s curiosity about an area of ​​knowledge. As historian Yuval Noah Harari said in Sapiens. From animals to gods (Debate, 2014), imagine how to resolve a dispute between two alleged owners of a wheat field to Mari, that arrive in 1776 a. C. in the real estate file looking for the title deed.

How will the amanuensis find a writing from thirty years ago, and how will he know that the property has not changed hands since? Of course, knowledge is power. The libraries of the ancient world were born linked to the centers of power of the time, as archives of a kingdom or an empire, or as repositories of the sacred writings of the temples. They were often in the hands of government or religious educational centers.

Titles like “History” by Strabo or “Poetics” by Aristotle will be lost forever.

Over time, some copies will remain within the reach of wealthy individuals, who will gradually hoard their own bibliographic capital. Great the enemy of all would be natural disasters, wars, invasions and fires, intentional or accidental. Titles of which we know nothing will be lost forever, and others which have reached us mentioned by third parties, such as the Margaretes of Homer, the Story of Strabo or the famous second book of Poetic of Aristotle, centered on comedy, who played so much Umberto Eco in The name of the rose .

We know of the existence of many ancient archives or centers of knowledge across the planet: that of Ebla (Syria) or that of the temple of Nippur (Iraq), both from the 3rd millennium BC. VS. ; those of Ugarit or Mari (Syria, 2nd millennium BC); that driven by Buddhism in Taxila (Pakistan, 6th century BC); the one protected by the Qin dynasty (China, s. III a. C.); those of Kos and Rhodes (Greece, 2nd century AD); the theological library of Caesarea Maritima (Israel, 3rd century)… We highlight the ten most important or famous:

1 Hattusa Archives
Bogazköy (Turkey), 1900-1190 BC. vs.
Its ruins discovered in 1906, it contains the largest known collection of Hittite texts, with about thirty thousand tablets inscribed in cuneiform and arranged with an admirably precise system. One is the earliest known example of an international peace treaty: it details the terms of an agreement between the Hittites and Egyptians years after the Battle of Kadesh.

2 Ashurbanipal Royal Library
Nineveh (Iraq), 668-627 BC. vs.
The center is named last king of the neo-Assyrian empire, a monarch proud of his high intellectual preparation. The library was destroyed, along with the city of Nineveh, shortly after his death, following an invasion by an alliance of former vassal peoples. The remains of the library were discovered in 1853, with multiple fragments of tablets, including parts of the Poem of Gilgamesh. Administrative texts were very useful for deciphering cuneiform script.

Bust of the Greek philosopher Aristotle.


3 Aristotle’s Library
Athens (Greece), c. IV ac
In the famous Greek thinker, who was the tutor of Alexander the Great and creator of the Athens High School, we already find a private library example, at least the oldest of these characteristics reflected in the writings. It is not known what volumes it contained and in what number. Some sources indicate that they became part of the later library of Alexandria.

4 Royal Library of Alexandria
Egypt, c. 295 BC C.-¿s. III AD C.?
It was the great nucleus of Hellenistic knowledge and one of the greatest libraries of antiquity. It was founded by Ptolemy I Soter, one of the generals of Alexander the Great and his successor in Egypt. It is said that the library once housed some four hundred thousand manuscripts and that the Serapeum building served as a branch. There were conference rooms, meeting centers and even gardens. Its complete destruction under fire has great dramatic force, but it’s a myth: The library gradually declined, affected by political crises, several fires and at least one earthquake.

5 Royal Library of Antioch
Antakya (Turkey), 221 BC. c.-363 AD c.
It was commissioned by the Seleucid emperor Antiochus III the Great from Euphorion of Chalcis, who would also become the chief librarian of this royal library. Open to scholars, it will become a capital center, until the Christian Emperor Jovian ordered it to be burned in the 4th century. It seems that neither pagans nor Christians liked this measure.


The castle hill of ancient Pergamon on which the library stood.

Cassius Ahenobarbus / CC-BY-SA-2.0

6 Pergamon Library
Bergama (Turkey), c. II ac
The Attalids, who made Pergamum a kingdom between 282 and 133 BC. VS., copied the Alexandria formula and they procured the second best library in the Hellenistic world, with perhaps two hundred thousand volumes. The scarcity of Egyptian papyrus led them to invent a substitute made from bovine hide which would become known as parchment… In fact, it is another myth: The scroll already existed before the rise of Pergamon.

The truth is that the city was a major producer, which is why it ended up giving its name to the material. The library should much of its funds to the efforts of one woman, Flavia Melitene, wife of a city councillor. The center ended up being abandoned after the arrival of the Romans.


Remains of the Library of Celsus, at Ephesus.


7 Library of Celsus
Ephesus (Selçuk, Turkey), 1st-3rd centuries AD. vs.
The third of the great libraries of the ancient Mediterranean, along with Alexandria and Pergamon. This center was also a Mausoleum of Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemean, Roman senator and consul and benefactor of the city, buried in a crypt. The library contained 12,000 scrolls. It was destroyed by an earthquake (or possibly an invasion) in the 3rd century, and the facade collapsed in another earthquake in the 10th or 11th century. The frontispiece that can be seen today is the product of an anastylosis: an assembly piece by piece, carried out in the 1970s.

8 Villa of the Papyri
Ercolano (Italy), c. Identifier. vs.
It was another example of a private library, and the only one that has survived in its entirety (or almost) to the present day. The name by which we know this mansion –perhaps belonging to the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, Lucio Calpurnio Pisón Cesonino– responds to its exceptional collection of papyri, more than one thousand eight hundred scrolls…which were charred by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. vs.

The scrolls, Greek philosophical texts, have been partially studied since their discovery in the 18th century. Currently they are apply non-destructive techniques in an attempt to retrieve the information.


Model of the Ulpia Library, founded in Rome by Trajan.

Cassius Ahenobarbus / CC-BY-SA-3.0

9 Ulpia Library
Rome (Italy), s. II-V dc
It was founded by Emperor Trajan in 114 in the forum that bears his name, and became the largest in the West after the disappearance of that of Alexandria. In fact, it would be the only one to survive until the fall of the Roman Empire. There are about ten thousand scrolls stored in Greek and Latin. It was, at the same time, the public register of Rome, and contained more than twenty thousand rolls of information on the population of the capital.

10 Imperial Library of Constantinople
Istanbul (Turkey), 337/361-1453
Created by Constantin II, son of the first Christian emperor of Rome, it is the last of the great libraries of Antiquity. Although it was hit by a few partial fires and military incursions, it managed preserve Greco-Roman knowledge (including some documents from Alexandria) for a millennium.

The conquest of Byzantium by the The Ottoman Empire meant the end of their funds, destroyed or lost forever. The only exception is the Palimpsest of Archimedes, a Byzantine copy of a Greek scientific work discovered in the 19th century.

This article was published in issue 602 of the magazine History and life. Do you have something to contribute? Write to


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