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Early Libraries: 1000s CE

Let's examine the variety of libraries worldwide.

Pitaka Taik, Library of Buddhist Scriptures

Built in 1058 CE, the Pitaka Taik was built to house 30 elephant loads of Buddhist scripture acquired by Anawratha (1014-1077 CE) during his conquest over Thaton. The square building has limited windows to reduce light exposure on the sensitive documents. The library had three doors and was decorated with lions on each side.

Nizamiyyah Madrassah
Baghdad, Iraq

One of the first Islamic universities, the institution offered education. Founded in 1065 by Nizam al-Mulk, the library was established with donations from individuals as well as the royal collection of Caliph an-Nasir. Librarians including Abu Zakariyyah al-Tibrizi and Yaqub ibn Sulaiman al-Askari were known to be well-paid. After surviving a fire in 1116, the building was rebuilt but it was destroyed again by the Mongol invasion of 1258.

Library of Rayy
Rayy, Persia

In 1029, the Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni burned the library and all the books found to be heretical.

Pelliot Cave Wikimedia Commons PDGansu Province is known as the western gateway to China. Dunhaung is an ancient town along the trade route known as The Silk Road. In 1900 a secret doorway was discovered. Documents dating from 406 to 1002 CE were found in what has become known as The Library Cave. Walled off in the early 11th century, up to 50,000 manuscripts were kept there. While some people think the cave was a storage room, others think it was a monastic library that was hidden from invaders.

The image on the right shows the Pelliot Cave 163.

Mostly written in Chinese, the silk, paper, and hemp scrolls focused on Buddhist content. However other words could also be found. Most of the documents were distributed to libraries around the world, but are coming together in the form of the International Dunhuang Project designed to make the documents available online at no cost.

Jingangjing Wikimedia Commons PD

The Chinese Diamond Sutra (above) is the oldest dated printed book in the world. It came from this collection and is currently in the British Library.

Learn more about this and other documents at the British Library.


Whether making books available to monks in a monastery or providing public access, books needed to organized in a way that would make them available for organization and transport.

Dresden codex Wikimedia commons PDThe Dunhuang collection has allowed researchers a unique look at the history of bookbinding in China.

Learn about the process of Bookbinding in China at the British Library.

Mesoamerican Civilization

The Dresden Codex is the oldest book that has been discovered in the Americas. This Maya codex created in the eleventh or twelfth century is believed to be a copy of the original that was probably created around the seventh or eighth century.

Like other societies, Mayas created copies of their work. In this case, eight different scribes worked on both sides of the paper to create this 74 page codex. The books contains accurate astronomical tables, along with an almanac, tables, and ritual schedules.

The image on the right shows the Dresden Codex.



During the 11th and 12th centuries, enthusiasm for monasteries spread. This was particularly evident in England and Wales.

While many libraries continued to carry Classic works known as libri scholastici, they were often cataloged separately from the rest of the collection.

Pomposa Monastery

Abbot Jerome brought together a great collection of manuscripts including some manuscripts that were considered inappropriate. In 1093, Henricus Clericus prepared a catalog of the library. According to Putnam (1898, 156),

"at the close of the catalogue he finds it necessary, as a matter of consistency, to apologise for the abbot who had ventured to include in the collection heathen books. The presence of such books, known at the time as libri scholastici, was, however by no means exceptional in monastery collections, and in many of these were to be found copies of Virgil, Ovid, and particularly Cicero."

Putnam (1898) notes that an inventory conducted in 1233 made at a monastery in Germany created a special list of titles that were Classics. The same was done when making a catalog of the the cathedral library of Lubeck in 1297.

St. John Theologian Monastery
Patmos, Greece

During the Roman period, Christ's disciple John preached on the island of Patmos. From the times of the Byzantine Empire 900 years ago, the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian has been in continuous operation. This Greek monastery and its library were founded by St. Christodoulos in 1088. During the 12th century, many books were donated from Rhodes, Chios, and Crete. Many of the materials were salvages by refugee monks who came to Patmos. Originally, the collection contained 330 handwritten codes. In 1890, the number was increased to 855 including 292 parchments, 563 chartooi, and 35 scrolls.

Today there are nearly 1200 manuscript codices. The "purple codex" contains 33 porfyrovafi leaves with excerpts from Mark's Gospel and dates from the 6th century and is the second oldest surviving gospel in the world. More than 13,000 documents are in Greek, Latin, Romanian, and Turkish. Over 3000 incunabula contain Patmians of the Neo-Platonism ammonia and Simplikiou, tragedies, poetry collections and anthologies of epigrams. The library collection dates from Classical to the post-Byzantine era. The current library was reconstructed beginning in 1978. The 1802 marble inscription contains the words "the soul infirmary".

Patmos Gospel Manuscript Courtesy Patmos Monastery

The image above shows a handwritten gospel manuscript (Courtesy Patmos Monastery).


The image above shows the Patmos stacks (Courtesy Patmos Monastery).



Casson, Lionel (2001). Libraries of the Ancient World. Yale University.

Clark, John Willis (1901). The Care of Books. Cambridge University Press Warehouse. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=uvQ_AAAAYAAJ

Putnam, George Haven (1898). Books and Their Makers During the Middle Ages. G.P. Putnam's Sons.

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