So, I am about halfway done with an article that will become the basis for the first chapter of my new book on ancient libraries. The article, which is entitled “Is it a Library? Qumran: A Test Case”, examines the criteria currently being used in the fields of Classical Studies, Levantine Archaeology, and Library Science to determine whether or not certain architectural features and artifacts from the Hellenistic and Roman periods are indicative of a library. In using Khirbet Qumran as a test case I hope to simultaneously evaluate the usefulness of the criteria and determine whether or not there is sufficient evidence to identify the Dead Sea Scrolls and Khirbet Qumran as the remains of an ancient library.
Having scrutinized two of the tests that are used to identify ancient libraries, (i.e., the presence of dedicatory inscriptions and references to libraries in ancient sources), I am now contemplating the architectural features of Greco-Roman libraries and whether or not any of these features are present at Qumran.
Present in virtually all known Roman libraries, niches were the library stacks of the ancient world. Simultaneously housing books and protecting them from unauthorized access and dampness, the niche was considered to be a vital and necessary feature of libraries in the Roman period. Of the three photos above, two have been positively identified as libraries. The third, which has yet to be identified as a library, was found near one most significant manuscript discoveries of all time. If you want a hint as to which is which, just look for the one with the smiling Dutchman. Even he doesn’t know if that niche was used to store books!
Prior to visiting the Ephesus Archaeological Museum in Selcuk, we were waylaid by a local who makes his living by stalking Germans, Japanese and Americans in the parking lot next to the museum. Day after day unsuspecting tourist are lured into a transparent web by this man’s nearly flawless English and his seeming kindnesses:
“Are you Americans? I have been to America! What state are you from? Washington!?!? I love Pacific Northwest! I have been to Tacoma! Please, allow me to escort you to museum. And, after you have visited our wonderful museum, I want you to come to my family’s shop for tea. No obligations, but you must come to my store for tea. No obligations.”
On the whole, I am not the least bit bothered by this kind of thing. I have experienced it countless times before and in many different places. I actually have a grudging respect for aggressive barkers and I always try to be polite to them in return. Firm, but polite. Sadly, there are those rare occasions when a salesman is so good at drawing you in and convincing you his shtick is genuine, that it gets under your skin and stays with you for a very long time. It angers you. But not because of the guy. Rather, it angers you because you should know better …
In coming to Turkey I was expecting to see some amazing Hittite, Greco-Roman, and Byzantine objects. And I have. But not nearly as many as I thought I might. In truth, the general state of museums in Turkey is frustratingly poor. The archaeological museum in Istanbul is the only facility that comes anywhere near the level of its rivals in London, Athens, and Paris. Yet, in spite of this fact, the facilities in Istanbul are cramped, dark, and severely outdated. Moreover, the part of the museum that was directly related to my research on ancient libraries was closed to the public for renovation. A much needed renovation to be sure, (viz. the poor lighting and the office cube partitions in the photo below), but one that I didn’t know about until after I had already paid my entrance fee.
Statue of Celsus, Library of Celsus, Ephesus - Istanbul Archaeological Museum (Thank you, Wikipedia!)
Not unlike Greece and Egypt, Turkey has seen many of its greatest archaeological treasures placed into crates, loaded onto cargo ships, and sent to the capital cities of western Europe. One of the most notable examples of this is the wholesale removal of the so-called Pergamon Altar by the German engineer and amateur archeologist, Carl Humann, and its reconstruction at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
Pergamon Altar - Pergamon Museum, Berlin, Germany (Thanks again, Wikipedia!)
Like the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum, I have mixed emotions about the Pergamon Altar and the Telephos Frieze being in Berlin. On the one hand, it is a fact that the stones and structures of ancient sites have been mined by subsequent generations so as to construct newer buildings and towns, thereby destroying any chance that the ancient structures can be preserved or restored. Similarly, a lack of funds, a dearth of interest, and the ravages of time, weather, and war (here I am thinking about the Parthenon, which was nearly destroyed during the Great Turkish War in the late 17th c. and again by acid rain in the 20th c.) have all played a part in the demise, or near demise, of many archeological sites the world over. On the other hand, many of the countries that have been unceremoniously relieved of their historical and cultural patrimony by foreign governments and colonialist powers are both figuratively and literally poorer as a result. Not only do countries like Turkey lose out on the potential revenue that would be generated by having such items, but there is a profound sense of loss that is felt by citizen and visitor alike when visiting a site like Pergamon that has been mined of its greatest treasures and had them transported half a world away …
After leaving the Ephesus Archeological Museum we walked in the opposite direction of the parking lot hoping to avoid the overly aggressive barker, but he saw us from a distance and waived for us to come towards him. In response, I called to out and said: ”We are going to walk around the town for a while, but we might see you later.” Upon hearing this he gave me two thumbs-up as if to say “I understand, my gullible friends. I will see you shortly!”
About an hour later, after doubling back around the museum and approaching the parking lot from a completely different direction, we could see our rental car, a black Seat hatchback, sitting uncomfortably between two Mercedes’ tour busses. The barker was nowhere to be seen, but his presence, it must be said, could be felt. ”This is our chance.” I said in a half whisper, half yell. “GO, GO!” Positioning ourselves between the road and a third tour bus that had just entered the lot, we walked with urgency towards the car like Luke and Leia making a break for the Millennium Falcon. But when we were no more than 10 feet from the Seat a disembodied voice called out to us from the ether:
“Hello, my friends from Olympia, Washington! How did you like our beautiful museum?” The barker said with a mustachioed grin as he rematerialized from behind one of the busses.
“Well …” I made the “so-so” sign with my right hand. “It was kind of disappointing.”
“Dis-a-pointing? He said with his head cocked ever so slightly to the right.
“I’m sorry if this sounds rude, but it wasn’t very good. I work with ancient sources and ancient history for a living and I have been to a lot of museums. Given how large and well preserved Ephesus is, I was expecting the exhibit to be better somehow.”
“So, you have been to Ephes before? You have worked there?”
“No, I have not been there before, but I am doing research on the library of Ephesus for a book that I am writing.”
“Oh.” Said the man with an air of sadness and mild disinterest.
“Well … we have a lot of driving to do today and we will not be able to visit your shop, but I want to thank you for your generosity and for inviting us to tea.” I said while placing my right hand over my heart.
“Yes, of course.” He said as he reached out to shake my hand. ”I understand.” And you know what? I think he did …
After visiting the purported remains of three ancient libraries, one of which was a direct competitor of the famed Library of Alexandria, I find that I have even more questions than I did when I first started this journey.
Library of Celsus - Ephesus
In the case of Ephesus, the evidence is relatively straightforward - inscriptions at the site identify the building above as a library. In the case of Nysa, however, the architectural features of the library of Ephesus (particularly the niches, podium and triple entrance) were used to identify the structure below as a library.
Library of Nysa (facing the main entrance)
Beyond the shared architectural features, Strabo mentions that he attended school in Nysa as a young man. Moreover, a reference to Nysa by Julius Africanus in Pap Oxyrh 412 indicates that the town was one of three locations in the ancient world to possess the entire works of Homer. Taken altogether, the evidence at hand would seem to indicate that Nysa was an educational hub and home to a significant collection of literature. But did it have a library?
Library of Pergamon
Of the three sites I have visited on this trip, Pergamon is the least “library-like” of the bunch. As I stood in the ruins of this ancient center of learning reading reference after ancient reference to the literary prowess of Pergamon, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was missing something. No niches. Not much of a podium. No triple entrance. If there hadn’t been any sockets in the walls, one would be at a loss to know how to describe this room. This difficulty is further compounded by the fact that the statuary and artifacts recovered from this room are now in Berlin, such as the statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom and divine intelligence, that was found near the platform in the lower left of the photo above.
Athena Parthenos - Pergamon Museum - Berlin
Whether or not the room in question at Pergamon is a library is not entirely clear. On the one hand, the building materials at Pergamon are different than they are at Nysa and Ephesus, which may well indicate that niches were unfeasible (Was the anthracite stone used at Pergamon too difficult to manipulate into niches?). On the other hand, the ruins at Pergamon would appear to predate those of Nysa and Ephesus by up to two centuries, which suggests that niches and podiums may have been a later development in history of library architecture.
In my next post, I will attempt to share some of my research plans for the next phase of my project and offer a list of some of the questions that I intend to address in the coming months.
If you didn’t know that the room above had been identified as a library by the archaeologists who excavated Pergamon during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, you would be hard pressed to do so yourself. Unlike Ephesus and Nysa, which shared a number of architectural features, the “library” at Pergamon does not contain any niches. Rather, there are a series of 4” sockets (41” from the center of one socket to the next) that have been cut into the walls of the room (see photo above). The sockets are 79” from the ground and, based upon the extant evidence, it would appear that there were 12 sockets on at least two of the four walls (i.e., there are 12 sockets on the northwest wall and 6 on the northeast wall, which is only partially preserved).
Although the “library” at Pergamon does not appear to have had a triple entrance on the southeast side of the structure, there does appear to be the remains of a podium (c. 34” in height) and there is a raised platform in front of the northwest wall. Archaeologists recovered a large statue in close proximity to the platform (i.e., Athena Parthenos - circa 2nd c. BCE - now in the Pergamon Museum - Berlin, Germany), which, together with the sockets, podium, and the references to Pergamon’s libraries in the ancient sources, suggested to archaeologist that the room was, in fact, a library.
The sockets, so the theory goes, would have been used to affix cabinets/bookshelves to the walls. Whether these cabinets could have held the 200,000 books that Pergamon was supposed to have collected is a matter of debate. As is the identification of the room as a library …
After wading through the throngs of people and countless tour busses in Ephesus, Nysa was a welcome relief. Not only was Nysa completely tourist-free (probably due to the fact that it is almost impossible to find), but it is shaded by a thick canopy of olive trees in the foothills above Sultanhisar. Straddling the Buyuk Menderes river, this town feels as if it has always been here.
Nysa is famous for being the town where Strabo, the ancient geographer and historian, received his upbringing/education. Moreover, it is relevant to my research in that the site contains a relatively intact structure that has been identified as a library (image above). Unlike the Library of Celsus, which had 10 niches, the library at Nysa contains 8 niches on the ground floor (46” w, 27” d, 92” h to the base of the barrel vaulting) and another 8 niches on a second floor/story. The remains of a podium (37” h and 35” d) are located on the NE side of the building and it seems likely that this podium would have extended along the eastern, western, and most of the northern walls.
Not unlike the Library of Celsus, the library at Nysa has three entrances facing in a southerly direction, but one of these entrances (i.e., the one of the far right of the photo above) was sealed off with unfinished stones when the structure was no longer being used as a library (?). At the northern end of the library there is a step/platform granting access to a rectangular room that runs the entire length of the library from east to west.
In many ways, the library of Nysa follows the basic architectural plan of the Library of Celsus. Both structures contain an even number of niches, three entrances in a southerly direction, a podium, and a raised apse/platform directly opposite the entrance. Moreover, the measurements of the niches and podiums in both buildings are within one or two inches of being identical in size. Although they differ in terms of building materials, the number of niches, and overall size (i.e., Nysa is a slightly larger building with additional rooms and barrel vaulted spaces for storage (?)), the overall form and feel of the structures is overwhelmingly similar.
Well, I finally made it to the Library of Celsus at the ancient site of Ephesus yesterday afternoon. The impressive facade above, which has been partially reconstructed, sits at the bottom of a hill where two roads come together. Anyone heading to the agora or the amphitheater from the southern part of the city (i.e., the vast majority of the town’s residents) would have had to walk past the library to get there.
The Library of Celsus contains dedicatory inscriptions identifying it as a library, but no books were found in the building itself. No parchment, bookshelves, papyrus, pinakes (lists of books), or other objects that one might expect to find in a library, were recovered during the excavations. All that remains on the inside of the building are ten rectangular niches (97” high, 44” wide, and 22” deep), a central apse and a three foot high podium (40” deep) that lines the north, west and south sides of the building. Apparently, the podium would have prevented/limited access to the books, which would have been stored in wooden cabinets that were placed into the niches.
Nearly everything you need to know about the Archaeological Museum of Ephesus, which is actually in Selcuk, can summed up by this photo. Who it this meant to be, you ask? Why it’s Balbinus - some obscure dude who co-ruled the Roman Empire for about three months in the year 238 CE.
Now before you think me a pessimist, I will admit that the museum does contain two mind-blowing statues of Artemis, which are almost worth the entrance fee by themselves, but something is off with this place. For starters, there are only six smallish rooms and many are half-filled. Then there is a problem with the signage, which is inconsistent and frustratingly vague. Finally, by the time you get to the far end of the sixth room you are unceremoniously dumped into a gift shop.
At the conclusion of a trifling three-month reign Balbinus fell out with his co-emperor, Pupienus Maximus (no, I’m not kidding), and the two were arrested by the Praetorian guards. After torturing them for a couple of days, the Praetorians chopped the rowing emperors into tiny bits. A grisly business to be sure, but at least the two were spared the indignity of having to visit a gift shop.