Libraries in Mesopotamia

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Probably the oldest libraries were in Mesopotamia of the Sumerian era. The basis of the libraries in ancient Mesopotamia were the clay tablets inscribed in cuneiform and the palace archives , which were based on a pronounced practice of registering economic factors such as taxes, levies and administrative tasks.


Counting, listing and recording left a real bureaucracy in Sumerian times since the 4th millennium BC. And found its climax in the III. Dynasty of Ur . However, a persistent tradition of tradition was also beneficial for the development of the library system. Old stories were told and copied over and over again. For example, a collection of proverbs in the old Assyrian version (approx. 2400 BC) can be traced back over 1300 years, up to its Central Assyrian translation around 1100 BC. Sumerian sound poems from 1800 BC. Were in the 1st century BC. Chr. Written down unchanged, provided with a translation in Akkadian language.

In the 3rd Dynasty of Ur, the Sumerian Renaissance , there was another boom in the administrative system. Conditions in Babylonia were rearranged, centralization and bureaucratization intensified. Administration and jurisdiction were reorganized, as shown by the cadastral texts and the Codex Ur-Nammu .

Writing and language

The most important thing, however, was the cuneiform script itself, the Sumerian and Akkadian languages, which became a regular diplomatic script and language and which, even after its disappearance from everyday use, was maintained by palace scribes for over 2000 years. One finds the astonishing fact that the documents of widely scattered libraries in the entire Middle East including Anatolia and Egypt are in the same script and language. In addition, the cuneiform script was also applied to other languages ​​such as Assyrian, Egyptian and Hittite .

The scribes had to do a considerable job of copying lists of syllables and characters over and over again. To make matters worse, Sumerian differed significantly from the later Semitic languages.

The clay tablet was particularly suitable because it was fireproof and forgery-proof. Unburned tablets were burned by fire; the fire could no longer harm pottery that had already been burned. Impressing the characters with the wedge-shaped stylus did not require any special calligraphic skills. In addition, the clay tablet was extremely cheap, and when it was no longer needed, the tablets were often used as building material or flooring - today a blessing for archeology. But clay tablets also had disadvantages: They were heavy and fragile, and when writing you had to keep them moist enough to allow the characters to be impressed. Therefore, in the Babylonian period, wooden tablets with wax fillings were also used for important texts. For particularly important boards there was also a kind of slipcase, a thin layer of clay into which the board was wrapped.


The beginning of all writing and collecting of script is undoubtedly in the economy. These are the oldest texts that were found in Uruk and date from 3200 to 3000 BC. Were written and whose language level (a pre-form of cuneiform writing) could not even be clearly determined, certainly about business texts. Goods and services are listed in a more tabular form without syntactic connections, and the place and persons involved are named. Obviously, the numerals formed first and foremost, in the uruct texts already in the hexagesimal system . In addition, the oldest written documents of Egypt show the names of rulers, victories, tribute payments, but also here, in relation to the subjects, above all tax listings.

The written material could be classified as follows:

  • administration
  • Law ( Codex Hammurapi )
  • Diplomacy (international treaties, correspondence)
  • annals
  • Decrees
  • Speeches from the throne
  • Wills
  • Festival u. War descriptions
  • astronomical, mathematical calculations
  • Dictionaries (often bilingual)
  • Oracles
  • Mythological stories ( Gilgamesh epic )

In Mesopotamia we find an abundance of word lists, lists of officials, bird lists (Ebla), tables of places and lists of wars.


Since the Ebla archive was recovered almost intact in the 1960s , it has also been known how the clay tablets were stored. In private households, the boards were simply leaned against the wall, placed in a corner or stored in ceramic vessels, sometimes covered with cloths or wrapped in them. In the case of the larger archives, a distinction was made between storage in a lying form, in a fan-shaped form, i.e. set up vertically, and in containers. Most of the time, the panels were piled up on wooden frames in small rooms. In Ebla you could still make out the holes for the wooden frame strips. In the event of a conflagration or earthquake, the panels would then fall on top of each other.

In Uruk, a kind of air conditioning was found in the rooms, in which floor gutters, which presumably carried water, ensured uniform humidity. This prevented the unfired clay tablets from crumbling. But there were also clay jugs whose lids were closed with pitch, as well as wooden boxes and wicker baskets.

The Ur-III archives in Telloh were equipped with long benches to spread out the panels. Indications from the texts suggest that some rooms were sealed. In other cases the boards were placed next to each other on the wall and could be read at any time.

In addition to the official palace archives, the numerous private archives should not be underestimated, e.g. B. the family archives of long-distance traders who maintained agencies abroad. Such archives have been found since the 3rd millennium BC. BC, in the 2nd millennium they are particularly numerous. There was even a kind of credit and banking system, as the Neo-Babylonian archives suggest for the early tradition. Such family archives often spanned three generations and up to 200 years.


A kind of blueprint was kept of important correspondence, duplicates of the outgoing cuneiform tablets. Except for tax estimates, population censuses, and land sales, the archives were not centrally organized. Everyone put aside what concerned themselves at home. Often the private was mixed with the official. There was also a rudimentary indexing system, small tablets that only contained the titles or key words of the tablets. In Lagash , 180 small tablets were found that were intended for raffia baskets. We know about 300 of them in total. "Keywords" were e.g. B. "Inspections", "Accounts", "Allocations", "Payouts", "Deliveries", "Final Judgments", "Flocks and Shepherds", "Temples and Settlements" or "Fields, Farms, Gardens" (according to Barth) .

At the foot of the panels, separated by a line ( colophon ), there was more detailed information on the purpose, origin, installation site, usage restrictions - family and name of the scribe, etc. There were real "works" that consisted of several panels Series. The colophon was z. B. for the library of Assurbanipal from signature, the custodian , the beginning of the text of the next panel, then the number of the panel, the series title, which mostly corresponded to the first word of the first panel. Then the source that has been copied and where it is located, as well as the standard information of the archive, here: "Palace of Assurbanipal, King of the World, King of Assyria" (according to Milkau).

There were also table and series catalogs, but apparently no complete directories. In Hattuscha one noted where the board ended. Authors and writers were noted with name, family and place of residence, along with information on the state of preservation of the original. In the old Babylonian administration boards you can even find a recourse or abstract in the top left. In Akkadian written tablets one finds from the 7th century BC Aramaic short notes, apparently for quicker orientation, because reading the cuneiform had become tedious.


Little is known about who had access to the libraries. But we know from Mari that there was a possibly rather cumbersome approval system in place, with several people having to give their consent, and interestingly, obviously not all of them had to be able to read.

State of research

Despite the abundance of material that is available to us today, opinions differ significantly on individual issues relating to the library and archive system of the old days. The individual findings are interpreted differently, some are controversially discussed:

  • Delimitation library - archive
  • Storage time of the tablets, how long were they consciously used, was there already historical awareness?
  • Archival material - there is an opinion that the abundance of material is more like mountains of files than deliberate archive material.
  • Against this is the fact that the archives played a central role in diplomatic and political actions.
  • In terms of content, the originally purely administrative texts developed into traditions of cult and myth. So they helped the transmission of social good, from around the 2nd millennium BC. Perhaps from here the archive will become a library.
  • But it was not until Assurbanipal (669 BC – 627 BC) that collecting was planned. The Babylonian Archives Tiglat-Pileser III. (745 BC – 726 BC) were deliberately taken over into the library to document the history and older experiences.
  • In Egyptology, the bybliothek is also understood to mean houses in which not only the scrolls were kept, but also where writing was carried out, while in the archive you can especially see the storage rooms for documents.

List of archives and libraries of antiquity

  • Assyria
  • Major Sarrukin
  • Nimrud and
  • Nineveh - the library of Assurbanipal , most important u. Well-researched palace library, it was already started by Sennacherib and according to estimates it had housed up to 25,000 tablets, of which we now have around 20,000 fragments. Other estimates assume 5,000 to 10,000 clay tablets, the text corpus of which contains a maximum of 1,500 texts. The library was built in 612 BC. Destroyed BC and rediscovered in 1850. Assurbanipal's library had consciously taken over and integrated the clay tablets Tiglat-Pileser I brought from Babylon . The texts can be classified as follows:
  1. Clay tablets with prophecies : lists of observations, accidents and precisely described events that allow a prediction about the country or a person
  2. Tables with lists of the above characters and words in Sumerian and Akkadian
  3. About a hundred bilingual boards with texts of spells and prayers
  4. Another hundred panels with texts of apotropaic (disaster-warding) incantations as well as fables and proverbs
  5. About 40 panels with epic literature: Gilgamesh , Creation Story , Etana
  6. Fragments of probably around 200 other panels with various texts that also contain the panels' catalogs.
  • Ebla (Tell Mardikh) - Ebla had its heyday 2400–2250 BC. The excavations began in 1964 and the library was found in 1975. In 1977 around 15,000 clay tablets, which were well preserved, were secured from a single room. So far only a small part has been published. The panels were z. Some of them were quite small, but could store up to 3000 characters with an edge length of 30 cm. The stocks could also be classified in Ebla:
  1. Diplomatic correspondence
    Palace correspondence with foreign kings Correspondence
    with agents at other courts
    Copies of state treaties
  2. general administration
    tax levies
    information on wood, metal or grain deliveries
  3. Provincial administration
    Correspondence with the provincial governors
    Correspondence with agents of the king
  4. "Administrative files" of the officials, e.g. B.
    Settlements from various depots inside and outside the palace.
    Information on the king's meals.
    Information on sacrificial animals that the palace provided for daily sacrifices or for festivities.
    Wages for the staff of the palace and the workshops
  • Ur - The remains of the palace library are believed to be near the ancient city of Ur. The Iraqi archaeologist Silvia Chiodi, who is involved in setting up a virtual museum that is supposed to document the state of the Baghdad Museum before the destruction, found the remains of a wall in southern Iraq near the city on an aerial photo in 2006. On closer inspection, she found numerous panels made of clay and bitumen. These tables cover the period from 2700 BC. BC to 2100 BC BC (1st – 3rd Dynasty of Ur). The inscriptions are of literary and historical content. One reckons with thousands of buried tablets and believes that they have discovered the palace library.
  • Lagasch (Tello) - The royal palace archive was found in 1894 and also dates from around 2350 BC. About 70,000 tablets were seized.
  • Sippar - In Sippar, where u. a. When excavations were carried out in 1986, clay tablets from the archives in the temple of the sun god Shamash in northern Babylon were found still arranged on the shelves. A complete neo-Babylonian library. The temple was probably built by Nabonid (555-539 BC), the last Babylonian king before the Persian conquest. In the small room, still 1.50 m high, there were niches built out of the adobe bricks in the walls, or compartments, which were arranged in rows of small compartments 17 cm × 30 cm. The archaeologists have calculated 56 compartments, which were sufficient for about 2000 panels that were fanned upright in them. The content of the texts was almost exclusively literary texts, copied from the archives in Babylon, Nippur, Agade and other Babylonian cities. With them one could partly close the gaps in other archives. The last tablet recorded the year 529 BC. Copies of stone steles and metal panels were also found. Copies of royal inscriptions that were up to 1,500 years older were also discovered. They were z. Partly still unknown. The genres of literary texts included hymns, prayer texts, prophecies, astrological omens, astronomical, mathematical and lexical texts, also Atrahasis and the creation epic Enuma Elish , as well as the standard myths of the Babylonian Circle were found. The tablets were marked with the names of the scribes. One of the most common was the scribe Nabium-etir-napshati from the Pakcharu family. The final publication of the table finds is still pending. ( Lit .: Sasson).
  • Mari
  • Hattusa (Boghazköy) around 1500–1200 BC BC - A wealth of political, religious and literary texts were found in the royal library.
  • Elephantine , Upper Egypt - the papyrus archive of the Jewish colony is the most important archive of antiquity that no longer used the cuneiform script. The scroll finds at the Dead Sea in
  • Qumran - Parchment and papyrus rolls with Hebrew and Greek texts from the Jewish Bible and its surroundings.

The most important libraries of classical antiquity also followed the model of Assurbanipal

( Lit .: Barth, Mesopotamia)

See also

Akkad , Babylonia , stele , inscription , papyrus , parchment , scroll

Individual evidence

  1. Matthew Battles: The World of Books: A History of the Library . Artemis and Winkler, Düsseldorf 2003, ISBN 3-538-07165-9 , pp. 32-33 .
  2. Uwe Jochum: Small Library History (=  Reclams Universal Library . No. 17667 ). 4th edition. Reclam, Stuttgart 2017, ISBN 978-3-15-017667-2 , pp. 15 .
  3. Uwe Jochum: Small Library History (=  Reclams Universal Library . No. 17667 ). 4th edition. Reclam, Stuttgart 2017, ISBN 978-3-15-017667-2 , pp. 14 .
  4. adventure archeology , 2006/2, p. 11


  • Uwe Jochum: Short library history. 2. verb. Edition. Reclam, Stuttgart 1999, ISBN 3-15-008915-8 .
  • Fritz Milkau : Handbook of library science . Leipzig 1931ff .; Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 1952ff.
  • Olof Pedersén : Archives and Libraries in the Ancient Near East 1500-300 BC CDL Press, Bethesda 1998. ISBN 1-88305-339-0
  • Jack M. Sasson (Ed.): Civilizations of the Ancient Near East . Vol. 4. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York 1995; Alban, Bristol 2001, ISBN 1-56563-607-4 .
  • Hans Nissen, Peter J. Damerow, Robert K. Englund (Hrsg.): Early writing and techniques of economic administration in the ancient Middle East. Information storage and processing 5000 years ago. Franzbecker, Bad Salzdetfurth 1991, ISBN 3-88120-110-6 .
  • Adelheid Schlott: Script and scribe in ancient Egypt. Beck, Munich 1989, ISBN 3-406-33602-7 .
  • Klaas R. Veenhof (Ed.): Cuneiform Archives and Libraries. Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologische Instituut te Istanbul, Leiden 1986, ISBN 90-6258-057-2 .
  • JN Postgate: Early Mesopotamia. Society and economy at the dawn of history. Routledge, London 1992, 1996, ISBN 0-415-11032-7 .
  • Jean-Cl. Margueron: Les Mésopotamiens. A. et J. Picard, Paris 2003, ISBN 2-7084-0693-0 .