BMCR 2021.01.28

Libraries before Alexandria: ancient Near Eastern traditions

, , Libraries before Alexandria: ancient Near Eastern traditions. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. xvii, 491. ISBN 9780199655359 $130.00.


The reviewed work is a compendium of several articles concerning the evidence of libraries in the Ancient Near East and Egypt by leading specialists in the relevant disciplines. It is the publication of a conference held at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark nearly ten years earlier.[1] The volume includes 50 tables, thereby providing a better overview of the vast material evidence presented, as well as 69 maps and figures with a great number of color images. A map in color includes most of the major sites discussed in the book.

Chapter 1, “Libraries before Alexandria,” is an extensive introduction synthesizing the different chapters and including discussions of the theoretical background. The editors say the aim of this volume is to bring attention to the existence of libraries before the Hellenistic period: since at least the third millennium BC libraries and archives existed in the Near East, admittedly in a much smaller scale than the famous Library of Alexandria, with the exception of the Library of Assurbanipal at Nineveh (chapter 9). Furthermore, the editors seek to achieve this by bringing together leading experts in several sub-branches of research including Assyriology, Sumerology, Hittitology, and Egyptology.

In chapter 2, “The Rise of Libraries in Western Asia, c.2600-2300 BCE,” Kamran Vincent Zand offers a synthesis of the sometimes sketchy cuneiform evidence for the earliest archives and libraries that contain literary texts in their broadest definition, at the sites of Shuruppag (Tell Fara) and Tell Abu-Salabikh (Early Dynastic IIIa) in present day Iraq, and Ebla (Early Dynastic IIIb) in modern Syria.

Chapter 3 “Libraries in Ancient Egypt, c.2600-1600 BCE,” by Richard Bruce Parkinson gives a broad overview with examples mainly from the Middle Kingdom such as the “House of the Book” at Abydos (c.1700 BCE) and the possible “Temple Library” at Saqqara (c. 1800) but also discusses private archives.

In chapter 4 “Archives and libraries in the Old Babylonian Period, c.1900-1600 BCE,” Paul Delnero tackles the two major private archives of the period: Nippur “Tablet Hill” “House F” and Ur “No. 1 Broad Street”. The majority of tablets from Nippur “House F” came from locus TA 205 (See Figure), which possibly represents a courtyard and contains burnt brick boxes built into either the floor or mud benches, comparable with similar installations at Ur-Utu’s house in Sippar.

Plan of Nippur and House F
Nippur, House F and location of tablets

This is presented as the key evidence which led Eleanor Robson[2] and others to conclude that they represent in-house scribal training and not simple deposition through construction. Although the texts themselves give a clear picture of the scribal curriculum of the period, as Delnero rightly points out, it still remains unclear whether the majority of the texts were produced within House F or derived from the larger institution known from the texts as Edubba (sum.), “Tablet House.”[3] The former solution would also raise the question of where the vast amount of tablets which derived from the scribal production were stored since they were found within the intentional filling below the floors. With the assembled evidence, what led Herrmann V. Hilprecht to announce the discovery of the “Temple Library” within “Tablet Hill” in 1900 becomes more understandable.

Chapter 5, a shorter contribution by Paola Dardano, translated from German by Seraina Nett, gives an overview of “The Tablet Collections of the Hittite State” (pp. 192-209). Like Delnero, she concentrates on “Scribal Schools” and the organization of the tablet collections, including the function of catalogues and collection maintenance. Dardano concludes with the question of how best to distinguish between archives and libraries; she adds the factor time of preservation of the written material as the main criterion for a library since an archive would much more likely be discarded once the purpose and usefulness of its texts were fulfilled.

In chapter 6 “Libraries of Syrian and the Levant in the Late Bronze Age, c.1450-1100 BCE,” Matthew Rutz discusses the cuneiform evidence from Ugarit (Ras Shamra) and Emar (Eski Meskene), a difficult task given broad amount of data available from this sub-field of cuneiform studies. He starts in both cases with an elaborate description of the finding circumstances which helps the reader setting the discovery in relation to our modern era. This includes detailed descriptions of the archives of the “House of the High Priest”, with mainly local literature and the “House of Urtēnu” (Ugarit), with an incredibly wide array of high quality material deriving from Mediterranean trade like clay tags with short inscriptions in Cypro-Minoan script, a trilingual Sumerian-Akkadian-Hurrian lexical list beside extracts from the Epic of Gilgamesh, alabaster chariot pommels similar to the examples with Kassite inscription found in secondary context at Nippur in the late Parthian period constructions.[4]  The chapter concludes with “Temple M1” at Emar which, as Rutz rightly states, probably was an elite residence with literary texts including bilingual Sumerian-Akkadian versions of Gilgamesh.

In chapter 7 “Libraries in Ancient Egypt 1600-800 BCE,” Fredrik Hagen gives a summary of the “Place of Documents” at Tell el-Amarna, which leads to study of the place of origins of the famous “Amarna Texts”. Temple and palace archives and libraries are also dealt with. Another focal point is the “House of Life” and “House of Books” as well as “private libraries” although for most of them the term archive would have been more fitting.

In chapter 8 “Scholarly Tablet Collections in First-Millennium Assyria and Babylonia,” Eleanor Robson and Kathryn Stevens aim to update the standard work of Pedersén 1998.[5] This the authors achieved particularly successfully with southern Babylonian sites such as Uruk.[6]

Irving Finkel’s contribution in chapter 9 “Assurbanipal’s Library: An Overview,” is a concise presentation of the only serious ancient competitor for the Library of Alexandria, mainly based on the work of Julian Reade, especially the short presentation of the archaeological context, as far as it is reconstructable nowadays. About 31000 items are preserved to give a glimpse of what had been collected by Assurbanipal from his realm (p. 375-378) and consists, therefore, of a nearly complete corpus of the known Assyrian and Babylonian literature from the first millennium BCE, although Akkadian texts from the Old and Middle Babylonian period are less frequently represented. Through a few hints concerning once existing wax tablets within the library one can only estimate what was lost from this collection forever.

The volume closes with chapter 10, “Libraries from Late Period and Graeco-Roman Egypt, c.800 BCE-250 CE,” a massive contribution by Kim Ryholt, one of the two editors of the volume. Kushite rule (25th Dynasty) from 747-656 BCE is included but most of the chapter concerns the time after Libyan domination. There is a chronological chart provided by the author, but a more chronological order of the sub-chapters starting with the oldest evidence would have aided the broader audience, though this does not diminish the general value of the contribution.

A few minor suggestions for improvement are added here. For the compatibility of the different chapters it would have been good to unify the bibliographic references.[7] Consistency is not always achieved in the bibliographies to individual chapters, and, although the quality of the images (mainly in color) is generally adequate, in some instances (Figs. 2.6, 8.1, 10.7a) higher quality would have been helpful. Furthermore, in the printed book version the bibliographical information attached below the footnotes at the title page of each chapter is given. In my opinion this should be reserved for the online version only but it seems to be the standard chosen by the publisher. On the other hand, it can be appreciated that also in the printed version sometimes tables in broad view (e. g. Table 7.5) can merit a broader space than the general layout of the volume to provide a vast amount of information in relatively few pages.

The volume is valuable for specialists but also a useful introduction into the topic of ancient libraries for an interested broader public, though the price may dissuade them. It can be hoped that in the near future a paperback version of this book will be produced to reach a well-deserved broader audience. In other respects, the goal of the editors is fully met with this up-to-date collection of essays from the different disciplines of the Ancient Near East and Egypt.[8]


[1] The publication of a St. Andrews conference concerning ancient libraries held in 2008 (Jason König, Katerina Oikonomopoulou and Greg Woolf (eds.), Ancient Libraries, Cambridge 2013) is in no place replicated by the current volume except for some unavoidable overlapping in parts of the chapters by Kim Ryholt as well as Eleanor Robson and Kathryn Stevens as the former two authors participated in this earlier endeavor.

[2] Eleanor Robson 2001, The Tablet House: A Scribal School in Old Babylonian Nippur, in Revue d’Assyriologie et d’Archéologie Orientale, 44-45.

[3] Such an institution could have existed also at a different part of the city, for example at the “Westmound” (“Mound X”). Brick boxes (pp. 176 and 188), so far, comprise the sole archaeological evidence for the private school theory. Study of the stratigraphy in combination with the curricular material is required as the bulk of the material comes from several different phases recognized by the excavators (1948-52).

[4] Clayden, T. 2011, The Nippur hoard, in Al-Rāfidān 32, 1-56.

[5] Olof Pedersen, Archives and Libraries in the Ancient Near East 1500-300 B.C. Bethesda 1998.

[6] Concerning the Absummu archive from Nippur I could not find any reference to this archive in Robson (2018) which was referred to without any page number.

[7] For example, in the bibliography of chapter 8 (p. 364): “Reade, J. E. 1998-2001. ‘Ninive (Nineveh)’ Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie 9: 388-433.” The same article was referred to in chapter 9 (p. 389) as “Reade, J. E. 2000, ‘Nineve (Nineveh)’, in G. Frantz Szabó, Reallexikon der Assyriologie 9.5/6, 388-433. Also, the German rendering of Nineveh is misspelled as “Nineve” in the Bibliography (p. 389) whereas in footnote 1 it is written correctly as “Ninive”. Within the same Bibliography (p. 388) the title of the article by Grant Frame and Andrew R. George 2005 the term “Collection” is mistaken for “Collecting”.

[8] The reviewer is funded within the Post-DocTrack program of the OeAW (Austrian Academy of Sciences).