#FolkloreThursday, Ancient Libraries, Avatar: the last airbender, folklore, Great Library of Alexandria, lost libraries, preview of work, Ronel Janse van Vuuren, The Adventures of Saphira the Faery Dog, The Lost Library, Winx Club, writing
Libraries have a magical appeal. One can get lost in them. One can find oneself in them. They hold all the secrets, knowledge and folklore in the world.
Libraries, even before bound books had existed, housed scrolls, clay tablets and other sources of knowledge. They were temples of culture and learning.
Yet throughout history, libraries had been destroyed to conquer a people. That’s one reason for libraries to be kept secret.
Even today, libraries are threatened by religious or political pressures.
Somewhere beneath the streets of Damascus, books that had been saved from bombed-out buildings have found a new home. Though Syria’s secret library is kept in an undisclosed location, visitors still dodge shells and bullets to reach this underground haven.
“In a sense the library gave me back my life,” one regular user, Abdulbaset Alahmar, told the BBC. “I would say that just like the body needs food, the soul needs books.”
Libraries of wisdom and wonder that had been lost for generations had recently been discovered.
The Library Cave on the edge of the Gobi Desert in China is one of those places. It is part of a network of cave shrines known as the Thousand Buddha Grottoes and had been sealed for almost a thousand years.
In 1900, Taoist monk Wang Yuanlu – an unofficial guardian of the caves – discovered the hidden door that led to a chamber filled with manuscripts dating from the fourth to the 11th Centuries.
No one knows why the cave was sealed: Stein argued that it was a way of storing manuscripts no longer used but too important to be thrown away, a kind of ‘sacred waste’, while French sinologist Paul Pelliot believed it happened in 1035, when the Xi Xia empire invaded Dunhuang. Chinese scholar Rong Xinjiang has suggested that the cave was closed off amid fears of an invasion by Islamic Karakhanids, which never occurred.
Apparently the Vatican also has secret archives that even scholars have no access to, though a selection from the archives is on exhibition at the Capitoline Museums in Rome.
In Egypt a collection had been defended by centuries of forgetting. If Jacob Saphir hadn’t recognised its significance in the 1800s, it probably would have still been silently waiting. Though it’s more of a collection of shopping lists and letters, the Cairo Genizah is an unparalleled archive of life in Egypt for the last thousand years or so.
“Medieval Jews hardly wrote anything at all – whether personal letters or shopping lists – without referring to God,” says The New Yorker. And according to Jewish law, nothing written that contains the name of God can be thrown away. So it’s stored in an area in the synagogue until it can be buried.
There were impressive libraries in the ancient world that actually housed scrolls, books, clay tablets and more.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Though it wasn’t all about preserving the written word and the knowledge it held…
While libraries were flourishing in the West, they were being burned in the East. The act of burning books also known as biblioclasm or libricide, as a means of controlling information can be seen throughout history.
Chin (Qin) Dynasty Library
Lasting just fourteen years, the Ch’in dynasty (221 BCE-207 BCE) left a lasting impact. China is named for this empire that brought unification as well as destruction. The government ordered the burning of all ancient books. The only books preserved were those of practical use such as agriculture, war, and medicine. The government sought to control access to all information. Those who did not adhere to these rules were killed or sent to build the Great Wall.
This event (213B CE-206 BCE) is known as the “burning of book and burying of scholars”. Beginning in 213 BCE, all works of the Hundred Schools of Thought, except those sanctioned by the government were burned. In addition more than 460 scholars in the capital were buried alive.
Although many books were destroyed, many individuals sealed books in the walls of their homes for safe keeping.
There are libraries that archaeologists and historians cannot prove existed except that there’s a lot of folklore and belief about them.
The Great Library of Alexandria is one of these. It is also one of the most disputed libraries of the ancient world.
Alexandria, one of the greatest cities of the ancient world, was founded by Alexander the Great after his conquest of Egypt in 332 BC. After the death of Alexander in Babylon in 323 BC, Egypt fell to the lot of one of his lieutenants, Ptolemy. It was under Ptolemy that the newly-founded Alexandria came to replace the ancient city of Memphis as the capital of Egypt. This marked the beginning of the rise of Alexandria. Yet, no dynasty can survive for long without the support of their subjects, and the Ptolemies were keenly aware of this. Thus, the early Ptolemaic kings sought to legitimize their rule through a variety of ways, including assuming the role of pharaoh, founding the Graeco-Roman cult of Serapis, and becoming the patrons of scholarship and learning (a good way to show off one’s wealth, by the way). It was this patronage that resulted in the creation of the great Library of Alexandria by Ptolemy. Over the centuries, the Library of Alexandria was one of the largest and most significant libraries in the ancient world. The great thinkers of the age, scientists, mathematicians, poets from all civilizations came to study and exchange ideas. As many as 700,000 scrolls filled the shelves. However, in one of the greatest tragedies of the academic world, the Library became lost to history and scholars are still not able to agree on how it was destroyed.
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.
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.
Others are blamed for the destruction of the library too. From Emperor Theodosius I trying to wipe out paganism to Caliph Omar believing that they were either superfluous or heresy.
Looking at history, the city of Alexandria had often been the battle ground of great forces. Most notably the Romans against everyone else. So I think that the above premise of Caesar being the culprit is very possible.
Or perhaps the Great Library had been magically saved…
In the popular TV series Winx Club, the Great Library of Alexandria had been kept safe by fairies for centuries – until it was lost somehow. The Winx find the library hidden in a mountain in Egypt.
In Avatar: The Last Airbender, a great library holding all the knowledge that can be found in the world is lost in a desert. This library is a lot like the Great Library of Alexandria. Aang and his friends find it, only for it to be pulled to the spirit world by its keeper when once again humans abuse the knowledge the spirit guards.
Even in my own writing, whispers of this amazing library that held all knowledge can be found. Not only does Saphira and her friends try to fill a library beneath a mountain that seemingly goes on forever, but the Dragon of Caledonian forest hoards books, scrolls and other forms of knowledge.
She looked up at the others who were busy in the library. The brownies were cleaning; Jade was stretched out in front of the hearth; Cian and Eolande were going through the newest scrolls, books and tapestries he’d acquired that week. Saphira walked away, deeper into the library where it was only one level that stretched deep into the mountain.
It wasn’t as brightly lit as the three storey part where the others were busy with whatever, but it was private and quiet. Perfect for her to think about everything that had transpired.
– Saphira and the Library Beneath the Mountain, The Adventures of Saphira the Faery Dog, Ronel Janse van Vuuren
I hope you enjoy reading the ninth tale in the series. Comments can be left here or on Wattpad – I always appreciate feedback. What are your feelings towards libraries? Any folklore you’d like to share about libraries? Do you think it’s odd that incredible libraries always seem to flourish beneath the Earth’s surface?