ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian institutions: Libraries
The various terms for 'library'
Accessibility of the libraries
The texts
Private libraries
The House of Books
The library of Thebes
The library of Alexandria

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Fragments 0f a papyrus scroll     Since the beginning of its history papyrus was the preferred writing material in Egypt. It was produced in handy sheets, which could be stuck together into long scrolls, the form books had in antiquity.[15]

Ptolemaic papyrus scroll fragments. Most surviving papyri look like this rather than like the Book of the Dead of Neskhons below.
Source: Petrie Museum website, UC55871

Compared with other media used at the time such as stone stelae, clay tablets, pottery sherds, wooden boards, wax tablets or parchment rolls, papyrus was light in weight, easy to handle, transport and store, and cheaper than most of the alternatives, but, unfortunately for us, also less permanent than some of the inorganic ones and survived only under special circumstances.

Excerpt of the Book of the Dead of Neskhons Excerpt of the Book of the Dead scroll from the tomb of Neskhons
Source: Wikimedia
License: Public domain

   Whatever the writing material, all ancient high cultures had repositories for important writings. The most substantial and varied of these collections of scrolls may to have been stored, for most of ancient Egypt's history, in the Houses of Life; possibly smaller numbers of texts were kept in the Houses of Books by some considered to have been repositories of religious writings only, by others [13] temple and government libraries. Buildings, which can be identified as ancient libraries are so rare, that generalized conclusions based on this architectural evidence are little more than educated guesses.
    Only fifteen to twenty libraries are certain to have existed, a small number given the size of the country and the length of its history. They were to be found all over the country, attached to cult centres.[21]

The various terms

    The House of Life, pr-anx, more than just a library and dealt with elsewhere, the House of Books, pr-mDA.t,[1] (lit. House of the Papyrus Scroll), the House of the God's Scroll, pr-mDA.t nTr, the House of Writings, pr-n-zXA.w,[2] and the House of Sacred Writings, pr n nTr zS, were libraries, probably most of which were attached to temples. Little is known about the former two and practically nothing about the latter three. which may have been synonyms for one or the other of the better known institutions. Just scraps of information have come to light about them: e.g. the House of Sacred Writings,[16] apparently the temple equivalent of a royal archive referred to as the King's writings in the same inscription by a Master of Sacred Writings under Senusret I,[3] was the place where the writings of Thoth were kept at Abydos.[4]

Magical papyrus boxes Magical papyrus boxes
Author: rame on Wikimedia
License: free under CeCILL

    The word 'house', pr|,[5] in these terms does not add much to their understanding, as it can refer to anything from a temple to a simple container.

Accessibility of the libraries

    Libraries, under whatever name, were not institutions designed to serve the public at large, the vast majority of which could not read anyway. They contained magical texts which had to remain secret and access to them was restricted to the initiated:
May he be glorified by the lector priest by means of the secret writing of the House of the God's Scroll (pr-mDA.t nTr) on New Years Day, the Thoth Festival, the Beginning of the Year, the Wag Festival, the Sokar (Festival), the Great Festival, the appearance of Min, the Burning Festival in the month, the half month and daily.
Mastaba of Hesi, Saqqara, reign of Teti.[12]

The texts

    Repositories of texts serve mainly three purposes, called by Bieri and Fuchs provision, archive and representation. the categories referring to the temporal aspect of their usefulness. Provision includes texts which will be used in the future, the archive stores material of times past, while with representation they mean texts used in the present. Because the textual material used for archival and reference purposes was written on papyrus and stored in mud brick buildings close to human habitation, it was to a large extent destroyed, while the 'provisional' texts which were destined to serve the dead in their quest for eternal life, survived much better in the drier conditions of the necropoles beyond the reaches of the flooding Nile, be they carved into tomb walls, inscribed on coffins or written on papyrus.[19]
    Many non-mortuary texts also survived in these surroundings. Such collections of writings are often referred to as archives by archaeologists, even though the material is not archival, i.e. they were not stores of historical material, as the term 'archive' is understood today.[15]
    Often papyri are unprovenienced: A collection from the late 18th dynasty which includes such titles as The Sporting King, The Pleasures of Fishing and Fowling, Sinuhe and the teachings of Ptahhotep and Merikare may have been buried with its owner at Thebes or at Saqqara.[20] The Athanasi[24], the Anastasi and the Sallier papyri[25] are all without archaeological contexts.
    Other finds are somewhat better documented. The 21st dynasty el-Hibeh papyri now in Moscow, consisting of The Tale of Wenamun, the Literary Letter of Lament and a copy of the Onomasticon of Amenemope, are said to have been found in a pottery jar, though whether in the town of el Hibeh or its cemetery is unknown.[26]
    Books were at times stored in chests. A magic book was hidden in an iron box in the Tale of Princess Ahura. Sometimes such chests contained what looks like portable libraries. The tomb inscription of Weshptah records that, when Weshptah, the vizier of Neferirkare, had a stroke, the king called in the chief physicians and His majesty [had] brought for him a case of writings, presumably all the medical texts a well-heeled medical man had at his disposal.[22]
    Much written material has not survived as recognizable papyrus scrolls, but was worked into cartonnage, of which mummy masks and the like were made. It is often archival material, the usefulness of which was deemed to have expired, and which was recycled.

Private libraries

    Even if the library of the Ramesseum and its contents have vanished without trace, the area was not denuded of all books: A Middle Kingdom tomb discovered in its confines contained a box with a number of manuscripts, among them The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, Sinuhe, copies of administrative despatches, an onomasticon, the Teaching of Sasobek, hymns and incantations,[23] a private library of more than twenty books belonging to a healer and lector priest.[27]
    A similar collection had belonged to a New Kingdom inhabitant of Deir el Medina, cultic and medical books together with love poetry and wisdom literature, apparently another physician's.[27]

The House of Books

    A few Houses of Books are known to have existed: on Philae and at Esna, where lists of writings have been inscribed on temple walls, but the repository rooms have not been identified,[13] at Tod, where some blocks with parts of an inventory have been found,[9] and at Edfu.[6]

The House of Books at Edfu The Horus temple at Edfu

    The library in the temple of Edfu, which was called the House of Books of Horus equipped with the Souls of Horus-Re,[7] the souls being the ba.w, the forms of manifestation of the god and his powers,[8] and consisted of a single small room in the temple, which had niches in the walls for the books, but its contents had disappeared long before its rediscovery. Yet quite a bit is known about the kinds of books that were kept in there, thanks to a short library catalogue carved into its wall:
  • The books and the great rolls of pure leather that enable the smiting of demons, the repelling of the crocodile, the protection of the hour, the preservation of the barque and carrying of the barque
  • (The book of) bringing out the king in procession
  • (The book of) conducting the ritual
  • The protection of the city, the house, the White Crown, the throne, and the year
  • The book of appeasing Sakhmet
  • (The book of) driving away lions, repulsing crocodiles and repelling reptiles
  • Knowing all the secrets of the laboratory
  • Knowing the divine offerings in all their details... and all the inventories of the secret forms (of the god), and all the aspects of the associated deities, which are copied daily for the temple, every day, each one after the other, so that the "souls" of the deities will remain in (this) place and will not leave (this) temple, ever...
  • The book of the inventory of the temple
  • The book of the capture (of enemies)
  • The of all the writings of combat
  • The book of the conduct of the temple
  • Instructions for decorating a wall
  • Protection of the body
  • The book of magical protection for the king in his palace
  • Spells for repelling the evil eye
  • Knowing the periodic returns of the two heavenly bodies
  • List of all the (sacred) places and knowing what is in them
  • Every ritual related to (the god's) leaving his temple on festival days [9]
According to this catalogue this House of Books was apparently a reference library containing frequently consulted ritual texts,[9][10] but not everybody is convinced that this is all Houses of Books were. The great number of positions, reflected in titles such as Supervisor of the House of Books, Supervisor of the Seal of the House of Books, Priest of the House of Books, Head in the House of Books, Supervisor of Secrets in the House of Books, the jry-mDA.t, the servant in the House of Books and the scribes, described as knowing everything and knowing the scrolls in the House of Books,[11] suggests something more substantial than a cubicle a few metres across containing two dozen scrolls.
    The significance of the House of Books as early as the sixth dynasty is also borne out by its being referred to together with some of the most important institutions of the kingdom in the following list:
As to a nobleman, a dignitary, an official of the Great Hall, the granary, the treasury, the House of Books or ////
Mastaba of Neb-kau-Hor, Saqqara.[14]
    Clement of Alexandria (c.150 - c. 215 CE) wrote about these temple libraries as containing fourty-two books with knowledge essential to the running of the temple and the understanding the world, with the various ranks of priests learning certain texts by heart. The singers, who led temple processions, studied the two books containing hymns and the biography of the reigning king. They were followed by the astrologer, who was an expert in the four astrological books and by the scribe, who studied the ten books about geography and cosmography. The stolist was knowledgable about the ten books dealing with education, cults and sacrifices. The highest ranked priest, the prophet, who closed the procession, had learnt the ten books of the gods, their laws, and the education of the priests. The library also held six books on medicine.[28]

The library of Thebes

    One would expect the great cultural, religious and administrative centres Thebes and Memphis to have been well furnished with libraries and archives. But no evidence for such institutions at Memphis has been forthcoming, and, like all the other famous Egyptian libraries, the Ramesseum library at Thebes disappeared without leaving a trace. We are left with a reference by Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian of the 1st century BCE. By this time Thebes had declined and the library must have suffered as well, and Diodorus had little to say about it:
Next comes the sacred library, which bears the inscription "Healing-place of the Soul," and contiguous to this building are statues of all the gods of Egypt, to each of whom the king in like manner makes the offering appropriate to him, as though he were submitting proof before Osiris and his assessors in the underworld that to the end of his days he had lived a life of piety and justice towards both men and gods.
Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1933, Vol. I, 49

The library of Alexandria

    Although a repository of Greek culture, the libraries of Alexandria stood in the long Egyptian library tradition. It began probably under Ptolemy I with a library attached to the royal palace. Later another Alexandrine library was established, apparently as part of the Serapeum, which was destroyed a first time in the year 39 CE and none of the books kept there are known to have survived,[13] the alleged burning of the library by Caesar in 48 BCE probably being a myth. The final end of the palace quarter of Alexandria where the Museum and its library were located came 272 CE under the emperor Aurelianus. The smaller Serapeum library became a victim of the zeal of the patriarch Theophilus in the year 389, and the conquering Muslims under the caliph Omar seem to have destroyed a remaining library in 640,[17] though circumstances remain unclear.[18]
[1] pr-mDA.t Wb 1, 515.12; 2, 187.8;
[2] pr n zXA.w, Wb 3, 479.3
[3] Richardson 1914, p.62
[4] Baumgarten 1981, p. 73
...pure incense, pleasant of smell, (as) is (written) in the (corresponding) scroll of Yu (i.e. Thoth) in the House of the Sacred Writings (pr-mDA.t nTr).
Library of the temple of Sobek, Tebtunis, early Roman period.
Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => späte Ritualbücher => Tempelbibliotheken => Bibliothek des Sobektempels von Tebtynis => pFlorenz PSI inv. I 70 => Tägliches Ritual für Sobek den Herrn von Beten (Tebtynis)
[5] pr, Wb 1, 511.7-516.1
[6] Strouhal & Forman 1992, p.235
[7] accessed November 2009
[8] From Sinuhe: The bow-peoples flee before him, as before the ba.w of the Great One,
Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften => 1. Erzählungen => Mittelägyptische Erzählungen => Die Geschichte des Sinuhe => Textzeugen des Mittleren Reiches => Papyrus Berlin P 3022 und Fragmente Pap. Amherst m-q (B) => Sinuhe
[9] Sauneron 2000, pp.134ff
[10] Dunand & Zivie-Coche, 2005, p.102
[11] Abdel-Halim Nureddin, The Library in Ancient Egypt,, accessed November 2009
[12] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Grabinschriften => Sakkara => Teti-Friedhof => Mastaba des Hesi => Eingangsvorhalle => Südwand => Architrav => Inschrift
[13] Shaw & Nicholson 1995, p.161
[14] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Grabinschriften => Sakkara => Unas-Friedhof => Mastaba des Neb-kau-Hor => Pfeilerhalle => Westwand => nördlicher Teil => Inschrift A
[15] A History of the Library in Egypt at accessed November 2009
[16] The translation of the terms is not consistent. Breasted translates pr-anx (House of Life) as House of Sacred Writings.
[17] Bibliotheksgeschichte der Antike at accessed November 2009
[18] Lerner 2001, p.30
[19] Bieri & Fuchs 2001, pp.31f.
[20] University College London website: History of the Library: a group of late Eighteenth Dynasty literary manuscripts at accessed November 2009
[21] Universitäsbibliothek Bern: Ägypten at, accessed November 2009
[22] Lerner 2001, p.18
[23] University College London website: History of the Library: late Middle Kingdom manuscripts from a tomb under the Ramesseum at, accessed November 2009
[24] University College London website: The Athanasi Papyri - a literary 'library' of the late Middle Kingdom? at accessed November 2009
[25] University College London website: A group (or groups) of books from Ramesside Egypt at accessed November 2009
[26] University College London website: History of the Library: group of books from el-Hibeh at accessed November 2009
[27] Bieri & Fuchs 2001, p.33.
[28] Assmann 2002, p.412
Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt, Metropolitain Books New York, 2002
Albert I. Baumgarten, The Phoenician history of Philo of Byblos: a commentary 1981
Susanne Bieri, Walther Fuchs, Bibliotheken bauen: Tradition und Vision, Birkhäuser, 2001
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Chicago 1906
Rosalie David, Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press 1999
Rosalie David, Guide to Religious Ritual at Abydos, Aris & Phillips Ltd. 1981
Françoise Dunand, Christiane Zivie-Coche, Gods and men in Egypt: 3000 BCE to 395 CE, Cornell University Press, 2005
Frederick Andrew Lerner, The story of libraries: from the invention of writing to the computer age, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001
Ernest Gushing Richardson, Biblical Libraries, Oxford University Press 1914
Serge Sauneron, The Priests of Ancient Egypt, Cornell University Press 2000, translated by David Lorton
Ian Shaw, Paul Nicholson, Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, British Museum Press 1995
Evzen Strouhal, Werner Forman, Life of the ancient Egyptians, Editorial Galaxia, 1992

- -Index of topics
-Main index and search page
Offsite links   (Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the content of these sites
EgyptUniversitätsbibliothek Bern: Ägypten
The Foundation and Loss of the Royal and Serapeum Libraries of AlexandriaThe Foundation and Loss of the Royal and Serapeum Libraries of Alexandria
A History of the Library in EgyptUniversity College London website: A History of the Library in Egypt
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© November 2009
Updates: November 2010


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