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Early Libraries: 1200s CE

Let's examine variety of libraries from the 1200s.

Although many libraries were created during the 13th century. Many were also destroyed. Mongol raiders led by Genghis Khan were responsible for destroying libraries in places like Bokhara, Samarkand, and Merv. When they reached Baghdad, the House of Wisdom was destroyed.

House of Wisdom - Madrassah Mustansiriyah
Baghdad, Iraq

Founded in 1227 by Caliph Mustansir Billah, the complex included both a library and a hospital. Ibn Batutah described the library in his book about a pilgrimage to the Middle East. The library with 80,000 volumes was established with donations including 150 camel-loads of rare books from the royal collection.

In 1258, Mongol invaders destroyed the library. Survivors say the Tigris River ran "black with ink" from the enormous quantities of books thrown into the river. The library was rebuilt and is now part of Al-Mustansiriya University.

Signing of the Magna CartaMagna Carta

In 1215, the Magna Carta set forth limitations on the power of the English monarch to prevent individuals from beginning exploited by the government. It stressed that everyone including the King must obey the laws of the land. Although the document was created to appease the upper class and had little lasting impact, it reflects a shift in thinking toward the ideals of liberty and justice.

The Magna Carta stated that

"'No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land."

The colored, wood engraving on the right depicts the signing of the Magna Carta by King John of England on June 15, 1215. The artwork was created in the 19th century.

Worcestershire, England

In 1215, a statue was enacted that money be reserved for the purpose of "buying parchment and for the increase of the library." (Putnam, 1898)

Chinguetti Wikimedia CommonsImperial Library of Constantinople

Destroyed around 1204, the library was the target of the knights of the Fourth Crusade. Much of the library contents were burned of sold. The rest was later absorbed into Ottoman Sultan's library after the capture of Constantinople in 1453.

Chinguetti Library
Chinguetti, Mauritania, Western Africa

A center of trans-Saharan trade during the 13th century, today the city is threatened by encroaching desert. The city was a gathering place for pilgrims heading to Mecca. It was known for its religious and secular schools.

See the photo on the right and below.

The city has five manuscript libraries containing Islamic texts as well as scientific materials.

Library looks much the way it did a thousand years ago.

Chinguetti Wikimedia Commons CC-A-SA Bidtankstelle

Chinguetti Wikimedia Commons CC-A-SA B JgremillotChinguetti Wikimedia Commons CC-A-SA Jgremillot

Chinguetti Wikimedia Commons BidtanketelleChinguetti Wikimedia Commons  Bidtankstelle


During the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) woodblocks continued to be used in China. Both scrolls and books were being produced. First came the sutra binding involving a scroll folded concertina-wise. Next, the butterfly binding was developed with two pages folded inward and woven into a codex.

The images below show woodblock printing.

Yuan Woodblock Wikimedia Commons PDHerbal Wikimedia Commons

Library of Nishapur (Nishabur)
Nishapur, (now Iran)

In 1154, Oghuz Turks sacked and burned the libraries along with part of the city.

Nalanda University Wikimedia CommonsNalanda University Library
Nalanda, India

The Nalanda University Library contained a renowned repository of Buddhist texts.

In 1193, the Turkic Muslin Bakhtiyar Khilji was destroyed the library.


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

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