7 greatest libraries of the world

A photograph from the Jaffna Library, Sri Lanka

A photograph from the Jaffna Library, Sri Lanka

JAFFNA LIBRARY (Destroyed: 1981) 

The library was built in many stages starting from 1933, from a modest beginning as a private collection. Soon, with the help of primarily local citizens, it became a full-fledged library. The library also became a repository of archival material written in palm leaf manuscripts, original copies of regionally important historic documents in the contested political history of Sri Lanka and newspapers that were published hundreds of years ago in the Jaffna peninsula. It thus became a place of historic and symbolic importance to all Sri Lankans. On Sunday May 31, 1981, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), a regionally popular democratic party, held a rally in which three majority Sinhalese policemen were shot and two killed. On the night of May 31, according to many eyewitnesses, police and government-sponsored paramilitias set fire to the Jaffna public library and destroyed it completely. Over 97,000 volumes of books along with numerous culturally important and irreplaceable manuscripts were destroyed.. Among the destroyed items were scrolls of historical value and the works and manuscripts of philosopher, artist and author Ananda Coomaraswamy and prominent intellectual Prof. Dr. Isaac Thambiah. The destroyed articles included memoirs and works of writers and dramatists who made a significant contribution toward the sustenance of the Tamil culture and those of locally reputed physicians and politicians.

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Institut für Sexualwissenschaft

Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Destroyed: 1933)

 

The Institut für Sexualwissenschaft was an early private sexology research institute in Germany from 1919 to 1933. The name is variously translated as Institute of Sex ResearchInstitute of SexologyInstitute for Sexology or Institute for the Science of Sexuality. The Institute of Sex Research was opened in 1919 by Hirschfeld and his collaborator Arthur Kronfeld, a once famous psychotherapist and later professor at the Charité. As well as being a research library and housing a large archive, the Institute also included medical, psychological, and ethnological divisions, and a marriage and sex counselling office. The Institute was visited by around 20,000 people each year, and conducted around 1,800 consultations. Poorer visitors were treated for free. In addition, the institute advocated sex education, contraception, the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, and women’s emancipation, and was a pioneer worldwide in the call for civil rights and social acceptance for homosexual and transgender people. After the Nazis gained control of Germany in the 1930s, the institute and its libraries were destroyed as part of a government censorship program.

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Imperial Library of Constantinople

Imperial Library of Constantinople (Destroyed 1204 AD)

The Imperial Library of Constantinople, in the capital city of the Byzantine Empire, was the last of the great libraries of the ancient world. Long after the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria and the other ancient libraries, it preserved the knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans for almost 1,000 years. Most of the text and literature of Ancient Greece was written on papyrus and as the material making up the text began to deteriorate there was a movement to transfer the text to parchment. Around the 4th century, Constantine the Great began the movement to transfer text (specifically Holy Scripture) from papyrus to parchment. Constantine’s heir to the throne Constantius II continued this movement. It was his work that culminated in the first Imperial Library of Constantinople. The library is estimated to have contained some 100,000 volumes of ancient text. The movement was headed by one Themistios, who commanded a group of calligraphers and librarians. In 1204, the library suffered damage by the knights of the Fourth Crusade. The great part of the library that was saved was later destroyed or lost after the forces of Mehmed II, Sultan of the Ottoman Turks, captured Constantinople at the end of the siege of 1453.

Statue of Apis, 30th Dynasty, Louvre.

Statue of Apis, 30th Dynasty, Louvre.

  Serapeum of Alexandria (Destroyed : 392 AD)

The Serapeum of Alexandria in Ptolemaic Egypt was a temple built by Ptolemy III (reigned 246–222 BCE) and dedicated to Serapis, the syncretic Hellenistic-Egyptian god who was made the protector of Alexandria. By all detailed accounts, the Serapeum was the largest and most magnificent of all temples in the Greek quarter of Alexandria. Besides the image of the god, the temple precinct housed an offshoot collection of the great Library of Alexandria. The geographer Strabo tells that this stood in the west of the city. Nothing now remains above ground. The Serapeum in Alexandria was destroyed by a Christian crowd or Roman soldiers in 391. Excavations at the site of the column of Diocletian in 1944 yielded the foundation deposits of the Temple of Serapis. These are two sets of ten plaques, one each of gold, of silver, of bronze, of faience, of sun-dried Nile mud, and five of opaque glass. The inscription that Ptolemy III Euergetes built the Serapeion, in Greek and hieroglyphs, marks all plaques; evidence suggests that Parmeniskos was assigned as architect. The foundation deposits of a temple dedicated to Harpocrates from the reign of Ptolemy IV were also found within the enclosure walls.

Ruins of Nalanda

Ruins of Nalanda

NALANDA UNIVERSITY (Destroyed:1193)

Nalanda was an ancient centre of higher learning in Bihar, India. The site is located about 88 kilometres south east of Patna, and was a religious centre of learning from the fifth century CE to 1197 CE. The complex was built with red bricks and its ruins occupy an area of 14 hectares. At its peak, the university attracted scholars and students from as far away as Tibet, China, Greece, and Persia. Nalanda was one of the world’s first residential universities, i.e., it had dormitories for students. It is also one of the most famous universities. In its heyday, it accommodated over 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers. The university was considered an architectural masterpiece, and was marked by a lofty wall and one gate. Nalanda had eight separate compounds and ten temples, along with many other meditation halls and classrooms. On the grounds were lakes and parks. The library was located in a nine storied building where meticulous copies of texts were produced. Evidence in literature suggests that in 1193, the Nalanda University was sacked by the fanatic Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turk. Muslim conquest in India is seen by scholars as one of the reasons of the decline of Buddhism in India. The Persian historian Minhaj-i-Siraj, in his chronicle the Tabaqat-I-Nasiri, reported that thousands of monks were burned alive and thousands beheaded as Khilji tried his best to uproot Buddhism the burning of the library continued for several months and “smoke from the burning manuscripts hung for days like a dark pall over the low hills.”

Library of Alexandria

Library of Alexandria

 

LIBRARY OF ALEXANDRIA (Destroyed: BC Date disputed) 

 

The Royal Library of Alexandria, or Ancient Library of Alexandria, in Alexandria, Egypt, was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world.  It flourished under the patronage of the Ptolemaic dynasty and functioned as a major centre of scholarship from its construction in the 3rd century BC until the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BC. The Library at Alexandria was charged with collecting all the world’s knowledge, and most of the staff was occupied with the task of translating works onto papyrus paper. It did so through an aggressive and well-funded royal mandate involving trips to the book fairs of Rhodes and Athens According to Galen, books were taken off of every ship that came into port and were listed as “books of the ships“. Official scribes then swiftly copied these writings, some copies proving so precise that the originals were put into the library, and the copies delivered to the unsuspecting owners. Plutarch (AD 46–120) wrote that during his visit to Alexandria in 48 BC Julius Caesar accidentally burned the library down when he set fire to his own ships to frustrate Achillas’ attempt to limit his ability to communicate by sea. After its destruction, scholars used a “daughter library” in a temple known as the Serapeum, located in another part of the city.

The house of wisdom, Baghdad

The house of wisdom, Baghdad

 

Bayt Al Hiqma (Destroyed: 1258)

The House of Wisdom was a library, translation institute and research centre established in Abbasid-era Baghdad, Iraq. It was a key institution in the Translation Movement and is considered to have been a major intellectual hub during the Islamic Golden Age. The House of Wisdom was founded by Caliph Harun al-Rashid and culminated under his son al-Ma’mun, who reigned from 813–833 AD and is credited with its institution. During the reign of al-Ma’mun, observatories were set up, and the House was an unrivalled centre for the study of humanities and for science in medieval Islam, including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy and chemistry, zoology and geography and cartography. Drawing on Greek, Persian and Indian texts, the scholars accumulated a great collection of world knowledge, and built on it through their own discoveries. By the middle of the ninth century, the House of Wisdom was the largest repository of books in the world. Along with all other libraries in Baghdad, the House of Wisdom was destroyed by the army of Hulagu during the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258. Survivors said that the waters of the Tigris ran black with ink from the enormous quantities of books flung into the river and red from the blood of the scientists and philosophers killed.

                                                                               List compiled by Sourabh Tiwary, editor