Shining History - Medieval Islamic Civilization

Pubic Libraries in the Medieval Islamic World

During the ninth century, the library of the monastery of St.Gall was the largest in Europe containing only thrity-six volumes! On the contrary, during the same period most cities in the Islamic world had public and private libararies with some libraries with more than 400,000 books!

By the 10th century, Cordoba had 70 libraries, the largest of which had 600,000 books. The number of books at the Bait Al Hikmah Library in Cairo was 2 million whereas at Library of Tripoli it was 3 million before this library was destroyed by crusaders. The library of Tulum Hospital which was founded in Cairo in 872 AD had 100,000 books. Mustansiriyya University in Baghdad contained 80,000 volumes. In the whole al-Andalus, 60,000 treatises, poems, polemics and compilations were published each year. Historians list more than thirty-six libraries in Baghdad alone around the middle of the thirteenth century.

The libraries were called 'khizanat al-kutub'(treasure house of books or 'dar al-kutub'(abode of books). Many features of todays modern libraries were originated from the libraries of the medieval Islamic world. The concept of the library catalogue originated inthe famous House of Wisdom, Baghdad and other medieval Islamic libraries. The libraries also allowed lending of books, had seperate rooms for discussions and at times also provided lodging for scholars. Some libraries were separate but there were many that were part of mosques, hospitals and universities.

Adud al-Dawla (936-983) set up a library in Shiraz, described by the medieval historian, al-Muqaddasi, as follows:
'a complex of buildings surrounded by gardens with lakes and waterways. The buildings were topped with domes, and comprised an upper and a lower story with a total, according to the chief official, of 360 rooms.... In each department, catalogues were placed on a shelf... the rooms were furnished with carpets...'
Unfortunately, modern Islamic libraries for the most part do not hold these books. Many of the great books were destroyed during various waves of destructions by Mongols, Crusades and after the fall of Spain. The books from the famous House of Wisdom were either burnt or dumped in Euphrates river during the Mongol invasion(The water turned black due to the ink color). More than one million books on science, philosophy etc. were burnt in the public square of Vivarrambla in Granada under Ferdinand and Isabella after fall of Spain in the fifteenth century. Numerous books were removed to European libraries and museums during the colonial period.


  1. Frank said...

    It's quite interesting to learn that most libraries that we see today were originated from medieval Islamic. This is something I never knew. In the United States, we take everything for granted and believe we created the establishments that we have available to us. However, most of the helpful resources and products brought to us come from the ideas of other countries and places throughout the world.

  2. Meam Wye said...

    @Frank: Each civilization has made/will make its own unique contributions. Todays libraries (and other establishments) with instant accessibility from anywhere anytime is a United States contribution. This is how we humans keep on progressing :)

  3. Tricia said...

    I have seen a documentary that dealt with this in part. It such a shame that when there were wars and conflict the people destroyed books and libraries. I can't imagine the knowledge that has lost forever. That information was there that was not discovered, perhaps, for centuries or longer again.

    It's amazing that there were 100,000 books in Cario at 872 AD.

  4. Meam Wye said...

    I agree Tricia. This is quite frustrating that so much was lost during these waves of destruction.

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