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10 Libraries Deliberately Destroyed
1. The World’s First Book Burning
Before China was unified it was made up of smaller states. These states were constantly fighting each other. Tired of all the infighting, a man from the Qin state took charge. He created a universal system that included coinage, reading, writing, and axle size. Qin Shi Huang was not a saint, however. In his conquest, he squashed those who opposed him and saw scholars as threats to his new empire. He believed that the scholars were only concerned with the past; he was moving toward the future. During his reign, Qin ordered that any books about the past be destroyed. There were exceptions, including books about agriculture and medicine that escaped the fire. Qin Shi Huang is famous for his Terracotta Army that he was buried with. He is also known for rounding up 460 scholars and burying them alive. This has not been proven and may be a fiction produced by the next reigning dynasty as a way to make the Qin Dynasty look bad. Qin did pass a law that stated certain books should burn. On his advisor's council, those who possessed these books were executed. The books that burned were mostly books from the School of Thought. These books were originally not in a library but, Qin Shi Huang kept copies in his state archives in the capital city of Xianyang. These archives were later destroyed in a rebellion when the Han dynasty took power.
2. The Mysterious Alexandrian Library
The ancient library of Alexandria is quite the mystery. There is proof that it once existed, but its destruction is a debated subject. There are three possible culprits, and they all may have had a hand in her destruction. Alexander the Great founded the city of Alexandria. He left his general Ptolemy I in charge of the city. Under Ptolemy I’s guidance the library was born and housed in the Ptolemaic Mouseion Academy. It once held 400,000 to 700,000 books and scrolls. The Ptolemaic empire was so drawn to the knowledge that they were vicious when it came to collecting books for their library. Scholars seized books from ships when they arrived in the harbor. They would make copies and place the originals in the library. The scholars would borrow books and steal the originals, sending back copies they made. They would pay a fine for stealing the original. The most ruthless way the scholars received their books was through forced sales. They would force cities to surrender their books in exchange for food. This conquest for knowledge was fierce, but it was not above destruction. Julius Caesar claimed the first account of its destruction. In a fit of rage, he set fire to his own ships, which spread to the docks and destroyed part of the library in 48 BCE. In an attack in 272 CE by Aurelian, there was a great amount of damage done to the library. And up until 642 CE, there were many religious riots between Christians, Jews, and Muslims that took their toll. Unfortunately, the site of the library cannot have more excavations done.
3. The Library of Rayy (Rey)
Dating back to the rule of Zoroastrianism there was the capital city of Rayy. Once a cultural hub in Persia it was only rivaled by Damascus and Baghdad. When the city was captured by Muslim Arabs it began to prosper. Those who wrote about the city stated it was beautiful, made from fired bricks and earthenware covered in glaze. The city thrived until the 12th century when religious quarrels placed it into a weakened state. The city was a stopping place for those on the Silk Road. Travelers brought books and scrolls with them. Some made it to the library. In 1029 Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni wanted all books he deemed heretical burned. To protect these precious gems of knowledge scholars sealed them away in a cave. Yet, the scrolls in the secret cave that were discovered date from 406 to 1002 before Mahmud’s rule. The cave containing 50,000 scrolls and books might have been storage. Scholars might have also seen disaster on the horizon and hid away these scrolls to protect them.
4. Library of Banu Ammar
In the famous city of Tripoli in Lebanon sat the Library of Banu Ammar. This library was so grand it created a campus-like atmosphere. There were 180 paid scholars on hand so 30 scholars would be working at all times, day or night. Dorms housed students and travelers and gave access to the library at all times. The fate of the library was not a happy one. In 1099 Crusaders began to attack the city. For five years the King of the Coast, Ammar bin Muhammad bin 'Ammar, held off the invasion. He begged for help from the Caliph in Baghdad. The Caliph’s reply was something the people did not want to hear. He requested Ammar send him a beautiful woman he had heard about, but other than that there was no help. Tripoli surrendered and the Crusaders invaded. They entered the library and only seeing Qur’ans ordered it destroyed. Crusaders stole any remaining books.
5. Library of Nishapur
In the Middle East stood the medieval city of Nishapur. Situated along the Silk Road it was a place of great wealth and knowledge. It housed many universities and at least thirteen libraries. The city birthed many famous individuals, including the poet Omar Khayyam. Along with famous people who were born in the city, many travelers passing along the Silk Road also studied in Nishapur. In a time of peace in the region, it was one of the biggest and best for intellectual learning in the world. When the Seljuk Empire was coming to an end the city too saw a decline. Struck by earthquakes in 1145 many parts of the city fell. Mongol hordes sacked the universities and libraries, later on, completing the city's decline.
Nalanda wasn’t just a library. It was one of the first universities of its kind. Inside contained dormitories, gardens, lakes, meditation halls, and much more. It could claim housing 10,000 students and 2,000 professors. Founded in India in the 5th century the university was a hub for Buddhist learning. They took in foreign students as well, some coming from as far as West Asia. In 1197 Muslim invaders demolished it due to their intolerance. The invaders rounded up several monks and slaughtered them. The books, including The School of Thought, were all burned. The ruins of Nalanda still stands and serves as a reminder of what greatness India had in Buddhist teachings.
7. House of Wisdom
Many ancient libraries settled in the Middle East, as did the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. It was created by Caliph Harun al-Rashid. His son, al-Ma’mun stocked the House with its many tomes. A scholar himself, al-Ma’mun ensured that others were free to learn. He invited scholars from all over the world to come and learn. Even students who were not allowed to study in their own country came. The idea of welcoming everyone was what the House promoted most. The most amazing thing was that both men and women studied together. The House would meet an awful fate. Floods and other natural disasters struck the city, destroying parts of the library. When the Mongol hordes arrived they destroyed everything remaining.
8. Bibliotheca Corviniana
Located in Hungary during the Renaissance, the Bibliotheca Corviniana was second only to the Vatican. It was a hub of knowledge as the Renaissance movement was taking place. Scholars from everywhere would come study a variety of topics including geography, philosophy, medicine, science, literature, and astronomy. It was the greatest humanist library and took books based solely on their contents. King Mathias was the one who commissioned the library and loved to collect books. When he married his wife she brought her own extensive collection with her. In 1526 the Turks invaded the city and destroyed the library. Several of the texts survived and are now in libraries around the world.
9. The Library of Congress
Thomas Jefferson appointed the first two librarians for the Library of Congress. It was his love for books that sparked the initial setup of the library. In 1812 the British were fighting the French and in turn placed a blockade against French ships. This interfered with the United States and French trade, causing the US to declare war on the British. In 1814 the British invaded and burned down the Capitol housing the library. The collection of 3,000 tomes were burned. To assist the library he loved so much, Jefferson offered to sell his private collection of over 6,000 books to restart the library. Originally the library only had law texts, but Jefferson's collection was all-encompassing. It included philosophy and ancient Greek texts, giving the library more variety. Today the building that houses the library is named after Jefferson.
10. Maya codices of the Yucatán
The Mayan people are very well-known today, and they created art and their own written language. We may not know if they had a formal library setting, but we do know that they had many books. These books ranged from daily life to religious ceremony to history. These books contained the history of the Maya and burned because of the Spanish. The Spanish viewed the texts as heretical. Catholicism became normal and anyone who disobeyed saw the wrath of Diego de Landa. He believed the pictures he saw were Satan worship. Later in his life, he realized his mistake and tried to correct it. Today we only have three codices that are authentic. There may be hope though. In 2015, in a Mayan Pyramid 1,000 texts arose. The authentication process is underway, and if real we may be able to translate more than ever before.
We have lost so much history through wars, jealousy, and disaster. The destruction of this priceless knowledge even continues to this day. The use of technology might be able to curve this loss, keep books preserved digitally. Until humanity learns to not destroy itself we will continue to lose our past.
The Tomb of Omar Khayyâm, George Sarton, Isis, Vol. 29, No. 1 (July 1938):16.