If you were asked to name an old book, you would probably name something by Homer. Perhaps you might think of Beowulf. Someone religiously minded might mention Vedic texts, or perhaps the earliest writings found in the Hebrew Bible. While these literary classics are, indeed, old, a learned library science professional could probably tell you that the earliest books are from the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia and the Middle East: Sumerian, Akkadian and Egyptian.
The earliest examples of literature that we have date from 2600 BC, during the early Bronze Age. This literature is interesting, and offers a look at the thought process of early civilization. (A look at examples of the earliest literature might warrant a library science grant or fellowship.) Examples from these early writings are often found inscribed on clay tablets, and, in some cases, in other mediums. And, of course, the language used is very different from modern Western languages. But, in the end, these oldest books represent the cultural heritage of us all. Here are the 20 oldest books of all time:
No one is exactly sure where the Sumerians came from, but they may have come from Iran or India. Their language was different, though, from the Semitic peoples inhabiting Mesopotamia when they arrived. Sumer occupied the area we know as southern Iraq — the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Sumer was composed of city-states, each with its own ruler. However, these city-states comprised a civilization. Many consider Sumer the first cohesive civilization.
Even though examples of writing from Egypt predate some of the writing in Sumer and other permanent settlements were established prior to the cities of the Sumerians, many scholars agree that the Sumer’s general code of law and its culture and systemic writing and mode of exchange puts Sumer in the running as the world’s oldest civilization.
- Instructions of Shuruppak: Representing what is known as Sumerian wisdom literature, the Instructions of Shuruppak was meant to teach virtue and community standards.
- Code of Urukagina: This is a book of law. The rules in the Code of Uruagina were part of an effort to combat the corruption under a previous ruler.
- Epic of Gilgamesh: You’ve probably heard of the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, following the exploits of this great hero of literature.
- Curse of Agade: Tells the story of the fall of the Akkadian empire, due to the cursing of the king, Agade.
- The Debate Between Bird and Fish: A philosophical essay, postulating a debate between a bird and a fish. A number of these literary essays exist in Sumerian literature.
- Code of Ur-Nammu: Pre-dating the Code of Hammurabi by three centuries, the Code of Ur-Nammu has the most complete set of laws of old books.
- Lament for Ur: When the great Sumerian city of Ur fell to the Elamites, the literary Lament for Ur was written to express the sorrow of the patron goddess of the city.
- Enmerkar and the Lord of Arrata: A great, legendary account of the conflict between two great kings. Many scholars have drawn parallels between some of the themes in Enmerkar and the Lord of Arrata and the Tower of Babel story.
The culture of Akkad rose side by side with that of Sumer, although located originally further south. However, the Akkadians eventually became what many historians and scholars consider the first true empire. At least, it was the largest empire seen up to that point. Unlike the Sumerians, who were not Semitic, the people of Akkad were Semitic. As the Akkadians moved north, they conquered the Sumerians, and absorbed them into what became the Akkadian empire.
After the Sumerians were conquered, Akkadian culture flourished. Arts and language grew to great heights. Eventually, the capital of the Akkadian empire became the well-known city of Babylon. The Akkadian empire eventually fell, but a rich history was left behind.
- Legend of Etana: Interestingly, the Legend of Etana tells the story of the Sumerian king Kish, and how he obtains a son with the help of Eagle — and what happens after.
- Enheduanna’s Hymns: Are you looking for an example of women in early literature? The hymns of the priestess Enheduanna, an important woman in Ur, offers you a look.
- Laws of Eshnunna: The city state of Eshnunna had its own set of laws. There are differences between the laws in this book, and the famous Code of Hammurabi, are instructive about the development of law in ancient times.
- Epic of Gilgamesh: This made it to the list twice. Why? Because the Akkadians, centuries after the first stories of Gilgamesh were told, fashioned the stories into one of the earliest examples of epic poetry.
- Kultepe Texts: These texts represent some of the first writings found in Anatolia. The Kultepe Texts include Histories of rebellions against the Akkadians.
- Enuma Elish: The Akkadian creation epic, the Enuma Elish, can help you understand the Babylonian worldview.
- Atra-Hasis: Tablets containing the Atra-Hasis contain an account of how the humans came to be, as well as an account of the Great Flood.
The foundation for what we recognize as Ancient Egyptian culture had been developing for centuries, even before recorded history. However, things really picked up during the Early Dynastic Period in Egypt, when the government of Egypt — with divine kings at the center — and other portions of Egyptian culture were established.
The Early Dynastic Period was punctuated by a move to cities, as well as a flourishing artistic scene. Some of the earliest examples of writing are from Ancient Egypt, following this period and moving into the Fifth Dynasty. It is little surprise, then, that some of the oldest books of all time are from Egypt.
- Pyramid Texts: You’ve probably heard of the Pyramid Texts. These prove that a book can even be inscribed on the walls of an edifice.
- Palermo Stone: Chronicles the rise of legendary rulers before the god Horus. The Palermo Stone is a an example of legendary history.
- Maxims of Ptahhotep: This ancient text, a literary work ascribed to the ruler Ptahhotep, sets out proper rules governing human relationships.
- Coffin Texts: The coffin texts, written on (as you might expect) coffins, provide a look at the evolving Egyptian view of the afterlife.
- Story of Sinuhe: Perhaps one of the finest examples of Egyptian literature — or any literature — the Story of Sinuhe offers a moving story of divinity and mercy and other universal themes.