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The Beginnings of Libraries: 3000-1700s BCE

Let's explore the impact of Hammurabi on government documents and archives.

Code of Hammurabi Wikimedia Commons Rama SS-AIncreasingly, writing on clay tablets was used to record legal work. Many contract tablets and other legal documents and letters date from this time period. Known as cuneiform law, these legal codes were used throughout the Middle East.

Most of these laws have a common organizational structure containing a prologue and epilogue explaining the purpose of the law, the authority, and commanding readers to abide by the law.


Hammurabi rose to power during the 1700s BCE and is known as the "law-giver". The sixth Babylonian king, he enacted a code that was written on a human-sized stone and clay tablets. It is one of the oldest deciphered writings of significant length and includes well-known phrases such as "an eye or an eye, a tooth for a tooth." Containing 282 laws on 12 tablets, the code was written and distributed in Akkadian so any literate person in Babylon could read the document.

A large number of letters, contracts, and other government documents have been found. However it's unclear whether a Hammurabi maintained a formal archive or library.

In addition to legal materials, other interesting tablets have been found. For instance, three tablets from around 1700 BCE contain 35 recipes providing insights into the cuisine of the time.

Mari Archives
Mari (now Iraq)

During the Amorite dynasty around 1900 BCE, the state archives in Mari were built. The city was an important trade center among regions such as Iran, Mesopotamia, Carchemish, and Anatolia.

Mari cityscape wikimedia commons by Balage Balogh CC-ASA

Tablet Zimri Lim Louvre Wikimedia Commons PDOver 25,000 clay tablets have been found in the archives including more than 8,000 letters.

For instance, the tablet on the right is of Zimri-Lim, King of Mari. It concerns the foundation of an ice-house in Terqa. This baked clay dated from around 1780 BCE.

A majority of the tablets can be dated to the end of Mari's independence between 1800 BCE and 1750 BCE.

Plimpton 322 is a famous cuneiform tablet containing a mathematical tables from this period. Tablets from this time also show that scribes knew the Pythagorean Theorem.

The city including the archives was destroyed by Hammurabi around 1759 BCE.


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