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History of the Library: the House of Books in ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian inscriptions and manuscripts include numerous references to groups of books as the House of Books.

The only example of a House of Books to survive in ancient Egyptian architecture, at Edfu, may be misleading, as it illustrates not the large-scale storage of books, but the use of the term 'House of Books' to refer to any scale of book-storage. The Ptolemaic Period temple of Horus at Edfu includes a small chamber on the south wall of the east half of its outer columned hall.

Location of the 'House of Books' in the temple:

The temple of Edfu with a small room called 'House of Books" (click on the image for a larger picture)

The inscriptions of this chamber include a catalogue of books, and identify the room itself (Schott 1990, 69) as:

pr mDAt n Hr apr m bAw Hr-ra

'the house of books of Horus, equipped with the Powers of Horus-Ra'

The term 'powers of Ra' is frequently found as a name for groups of sacred books.

The size and location of the chamber makes it unlikely that this was the primary library of the Edfu temple; instead, it may have been the storage-place for ritual books in repeated use during temple rituals. The term pr 'house' might refer to any receptacle of papyrus scrolls, and so it is not necessarily always a 'library' in the usual modern sense of a large collection of books arranged in a manner making them accessible to readers.

There are no architectural remains for any large ancient Egyptian library; presumably the most important would have been in the palace and the principal temples at Iunu (Heliopolis) and Memphis.


Surviving groups of ancient Egyptian books

In archaeology, modest groupings of papyri have been uncovered, mainly from burials - this leaves us heavily dependant on the pattern of burial customs, with little chance of preservation of manuscript groups except in those periods at which daily life objects were placed in the tomb. Soil conditions are suitable for preservation of organic materials such as papyrus paper at only a few locations: all Lower Egyptian cemeteries are on wet land, and preserve no papyri, whereas conditions at Saqqara are more favourable, and the Theban cemeteries are both dry and, equally important, remote from later concentrations of population.

The following nine groups of papyri may be noted as examples of ancient small-scale private 'libraries' (or better 'book collections'):

These do not include the surviving groups of documentary papyri, such as accounts (Abusir) and legal documents (Lahun lots I+II - see law).



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