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History in Smoke: Burning books

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posted on May, 9 2010 @ 04:06 PM
We're all familiar with censorship and the suppression of ideas. It happens and is ongoing across the world as corporate, political and religious entities maintain a charade of openness. It's a sophisticated process that has it's origins in our distant past.

These simple points are just an introduction to the subject of book burning (cool image) as a means of controlling information. Over the centuries untold amounts of knowledge have been lost to the winds in blackened smoke. As one culture fell beneath another, their icons, writings and belief systems were often systematically destroyed and replaced. It's the old cliché about history being written by victors. A lot of what we've lost will remain lost...

The Royal Library of Ashurbanupal

A significant case of 'book burning' was the destruction of the Library of Ashurbanipal (Library of Ninevah). In what is now Iraq, Ashurbanupal resided in the great city of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. The library contained a huge amount of written works and is famous for leaving behind the cuneiform tablets. The first written account of the Biblical Flood is described quite clearly on the 'Flood Tablet' from the Epic of Gilgamesh (translated text).

It was one of thousands of clay tablets that were discovered in the late-19th century in the burnt ruins of Nineveh.. Alongside the tablets, scholars expect to have found papyrii and scrolls from conquests and neighbours, but these didn't survive the flames or the seasons of time. In around 600 BC, Nineveh was overcome by a coalition of Babylonians (Persians) and Scythians (Iranians) and put to the torch. An estimated 12000 texts were burnt, but the act of burning baked these tablets and rendered them almost future-proof.

The Library of Alexandria

Any talk of book burning and vast tracts of knowledge being lost will always remind people of the great Library of Alexandria in here we go. In the ancient world this library was the most impressive in scale, longevity and achievement. It fell victim to accidents, arson, vandalism and the actions of early Christian zealots. That it survived so long is remarkable if we consider the series of disasters. During its heyday, the library absorbed as many texts as possible. Legends tell how all visiting ships were required to hand over their texts for copying by library staff. As a hub of Empire it had access to the writings of conquered nations and neighbours. Imagine the collections of Egyptian papyrii that would have been in there!

Galen talks about how one of the Ptolemies borrowed the works of the Greek masters from Athens, copied them and then kept the originals while forfeiting the huge deposit he had had to pay[16]. He also mentions how ships that had docked at Alexandria were searched for books which were then deposited in the Library.
The Foundation and Loss of the Royal and Serapeum Libraries of Alexandria

Arist's rendition

First we find that world famous leader Julius Caesar (100BC - 44BC) conquering the great city in 48 BC and setting fire to the library by accident. Unfortunately the larger part of the contents were destroyed. Much later it was said that over 70 000 volumes went up in smoke although any figures are controversial and debatable...

In this war, to begin with, Caesar encountered the peril of being shut off from water, since the canals were dammed up by the enemy; in the second place, when the enemy tried to cut off his fleet, he was forced to repel the danger by using fire, and this spread from the dockyards and destroyed the great library;

The turning of the Byzantine Empire to Christianity was to be the death knell for the library. In the rush to destroy all things Pagan large sections of the contents were set alight or taken out to be destroyed. Artworks, statues and thousands of volumes of texts were lost.

Imperial Library of Ctesiphon

In the 7th Century, the Middle East was united under Islam and the transition wasn't a smooth one. Many libraries were put to the torch and razed. One of them was the Imperial Library of Ctesiphon in what we now know as Baghdad.

The Imperial library at Ctesiphon was lost; the whole city was totally destroyed and never rose again. The destruction of such major libraries with the rise of Arabic language made it clear to the scholars and intellectuals that all pre-Islamic knowledge and national identities were in danger of total destruction and that they must be preserved. History of Ancient Medicine in Mesopotamia & Iran

Nalanda Library

Not many people know about this one...I didn't until today.

Nalanda was a great university for centuries (from 500BC) and according to legend was visited by Buddha several times. The complex housed 10 000 students and between 1500 and 2000 teachers. The library was reputed to contain all the knowledge of India and surrounding areas. I can think of a few ATSers who'd love to know more about those texts! They were generally written on processed palm paper. In the 11th Century a Muslim ruler sacked the university and set the library alight. According to a letter by a Chinese student of the time, the writings burned for 3 months.

I'm not a religious guy so I can't vouch for the truth in this, but Nalanda is thought to be hugely influential in the development of Buddhism...

Nalanda during its days was a flourishing residential university with over 10, 000 students and 1500 teachers. The university was marked by a lofty wall and one gate. Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim spent three years at Nalanda. He has left a detailed note about the university, its curriculum, activities and other accounts.
Bhakthyiar Khilji, has destroyed this huge valuable library of knowledge by putting fire. As per the facts it took three months for the fire to calmdown after destroying the knowledge.

The Tibetan pilgrim Dharmasvamin was here in 1234 and has left an a gripping account of the monastery's destruction by the Muslims.

Mayan Codices

The violence and torture of the Spanish Inquisition wasn't just a horror for 13th Century Europeans. Over in South America suppression and destruction of ideas found expression against the Mayans. A Bishop Diego de Landa launched his own Inquisition and set about burning thousands of carved images and killing the population. The worst outcome was the act of burning Mayan Codices...

His zealous hatred of what he perceived to be the Mayas’ pagan idolatry resulted in his most notorious actions – ordering the burning of a disputed number of Maya codices (Landa admits to 27, other sources claim “99 times as many”) and approximately 5,000 Maya cult images were burned. These actions passed into the Black Legend of Spanish cruelty and fanaticism in the Americas. Only three Pre-Columbian codices, containing rare examples of Maya writing, are known to have survived
Diego De Landa (image source also)

These few examples collectively amount to tens of thousands of lost works. They aren't alone. The Mongols and Visigoths sacked Rome. As Islam took over the Middle East in the 7th century, some Muslim scholars transcribed as many texts as they could into Arabic to preserve the knowledge and protect them from being destroyed by religious fanatics. Ironically, the Crusaders arrived in the following centuries and burned many libraries for being non-Christian and likely blasphemous. The works that had been saved from Moslem fanatics were destroyed by Christian fanatics.

Here in the 21st Century, we're literally light years away from those dark times when one ideology or paradigm would burn away the history of the conquered. Books aren't burned as often and certainly in fewer numbers. The knowledge of our past is inevitably diminished by these episodes in history. We've lost so much.

We are hundreds of years away from the wholesale destruction of histories. At the same time, we are only a couple of generations away from the book burnings of the 1940s. Suppression and censorship continue...

EDIT to fathom why italics are here? Also a BIG thanks to Kiwifoot for helping out on the thread

[edit on 9-5-2010 by Kandinsky]

posted on May, 9 2010 @ 04:14 PM
Well mate, a great idea for a thread.

Even though I've heard of a few of these book burnings, I've never thought of the lost masterpieces, the knowledge and treasures never to be read again.

It actually makes me a little sad.

What was the name of the one surviving Mayan Text? Was it the Dresden Codex? That tells you all you need to know there, it's an ancient Mayan Text, named after the Museum who purchased it, how messed up is that?

Anyway great thread mate, very informative!


[edit on 9-5-2010 by kiwifoot]

posted on May, 9 2010 @ 04:17 PM
reply to post by Kandinsky

Also China, 221 BC.
In Toynbee's spelling, the culprit was the Emperor Shih-Huang-Ti. I don't know what the spelling would be in the current system.

posted on May, 9 2010 @ 04:22 PM
I think it's terrible to burn any form of knowledge, especially historical tomes. This also reminds me of this quote: "Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings." - Heinrich Heine

posted on May, 9 2010 @ 04:30 PM
Interesting, the Wikipedia article and the essay article tend to disagree a fair few points.

posted on May, 9 2010 @ 04:33 PM
An awesome post, and, like Kiwifoot, I too get sad whenever I think about what has been lost over the years.

I think one of the surviving Maya texts was the Popul Vuh, essentially the Mayan bible. Definitely worth checking out.

You can find some great info on it here : Popul Vuh

Some of the mythology in it is awesome, and matches VERY closely to mythologies that are in other areas of the world. I'm always fascinated by that

[edit on 9-5-2010 by Jomina]

posted on May, 9 2010 @ 04:40 PM
reply to post by DISRAELI
You're right and the list of these incidents is longer than I imagined before I looked into it. I was aiming to cover all the major nations and just got too daunted by it all. Thanks for the reply, your posts are usually well-informed and thoughtful...I've starred a good few of them.

reply to post by Tantalus

I think it's terrible to burn any form of knowledge, especially historical tomes. This also reminds me of this quote: "Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings." - Heinrich Heine

Good quote. It seems both practices go hand in hand.

posted on May, 9 2010 @ 04:58 PM
s and f for very well done thread!
all that knowledge gone
religious fanatics suck

posted on May, 9 2010 @ 04:59 PM
reply to post by Kandinsky

The Library of Herculaneum , covered by molten lava after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius ....... a book burning of sorts.

Buried deep in the Villa dei Papiri, covered by the molten lava of Vesuvius, lies one of the finest libraries of the ancient world. But excavation may destroy more than it saves They look like lumps of coal, and when the Swiss military engineer and his team who first explored the buried town of Herculaneum in the 18th century encountered them, that was how they were treated: as ancient rubbish, to be dumped in the sea.

But before being hit by a cascade of molten volcanic rock at more than 400C (the so-called pyroclastic flow that inundated the town), these now-blackened and nondescript objects were part of the library of the grandest villa in the town, where the father-in-law of Julius Caesar was regaled with the epigrammatic gems of his in-house Epicurean philosopher, Philodemus.

They were the papyri on which the ancient world preserved its literature, as the tunnelling archaeologists of 250 years ago belatedly understood. Some 1,800 have so far been recovered, and although both papyrus and ink were carbonised, modern thermal imaging techniques have made it possible to decipher them, with the help of a considerable amount of computing muscle.


One of the carbonized papyrus rolls .

posted on May, 9 2010 @ 05:10 PM
Excellent thread Kandinsky, S+F;

Don't forget about the Knight Templars, who were coerced (by papal bull) to transfer their archives and library to the Hospitallers, who then came under attack from the Turks in the 16th c., with their library being destroyed.

posted on May, 9 2010 @ 05:23 PM
May I submit the following bit of cultural mayhem:

If you don't understand it, if it threatens your worldview...then by all means, see if it burns!

posted on May, 9 2010 @ 05:32 PM
Or consider Texas, which didn't have to burn anything to rewrite history. All it took was having "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" in charge of your school board. At least the Egyptians had to break out the chisels when they wanted to remove a figure from their history.

posted on May, 9 2010 @ 05:36 PM
reply to post by Kandinsky

S & F

Thanks for posting this. This is my greatest pet peeves. I wish they would invent a real time machine I would go back in time and DROP kick the guys with the torches!

Tragic losses.

posted on May, 9 2010 @ 05:42 PM
It always bothers me when I hear books have been destroyed.
I love books, they are my outlet. I get a lot of joy from reading and learning new things. It really bothers me that people would destroy knowledge over selfish reasons like power, greed and money. It always makes me wonder how different the world could be if these libraries and their books had not been destroyed. Some of these books had to hold amazing knowledge of our history and someone somewhere saw it as a threat. Sad

I came upon this link for the House of Wisdom being destroyed. It was also located in modern day Irag, go figure. At the time Baghdad was the richest and most intellectual city and had quite the population. Here is the link, was interesting to me, thought you might like it

House of Wisdom

S&F! I love threads like this!

posted on May, 9 2010 @ 05:52 PM
Great thread kandinsky ! S & F

I wonder how many years of ancient history have been lost that would perfectly explain things like the submerged ruins of ancient cities, the Baghdad Battery and so on.

Very mind provoking and very disturbing this book burning still takes place.

posted on May, 9 2010 @ 06:06 PM
reply to post by Sinter Klaas

I agree! I love sitting here and wondering "what if" on subjects like this. I am very interested in Ancient Egypt and the library of Alexandria. To me there is just something wrong about destroying books.

One thing I don't like in this day and age are the e-readers. I do NOT like them or support them in any way. I prefer actual tangible books. The book readers are so impersonal. It may just be me, but I can't stand these things. I love the history a book has. I like getting a 200 year old book with previous owner's personal notes to their loved ones or their own notes. I have some really old French text books that have some really neat notes and writings in them. Some of my Shakespeare collections also have interesting inscriptions.

Yah for books!

posted on May, 9 2010 @ 06:14 PM
reply to post by mblahnikluver

One thing I don't like in this day and age are the e-readers. I do NOT like them or support them in any way. I prefer actual tangible books. The book readers are so impersonal. It may just be me, but I can't stand these things.

I agree on everything you have said.

E- Books don't even have to burn to make them disappear.

posted on May, 9 2010 @ 06:26 PM

Originally posted by Sinter Klaas
reply to post by mblahnikluver

One thing I don't like in this day and age are the e-readers. I do NOT like them or support them in any way. I prefer actual tangible books. The book readers are so impersonal. It may just be me, but I can't stand these things.

I agree on everything you have said.

E- Books don't even have to burn to make them disappear.

Yup! Also it appears they can just take books away from you when they feel like it. A while back I read on ATS that Amazon had taken a couple books off of their kindle list and off of people's kindle accounts that already paid for the e-books. That would be like Barnes and Noble coming into my house and taking the book back I bought months ago.

posted on May, 9 2010 @ 06:30 PM
reply to post by mblahnikluver

That's just criminal. There are libraries for. ( charging a fee )

The world isn't only losing it's history. It's also losing it's mind and nobody stops it.


posted on May, 10 2010 @ 08:19 AM
Cool thread.

It's not over yet though, and I expect it will carry on.

We still hear the chants of "Less book learnin', more book burnin'" or "We've got to do something about those experts" from people.

My country is supposed to be a free country, but we still do our own version of book burning, which is the more low key banning.

One of my friends mothers has a whole bookshelf full of books with no covers, because the rule when a book is banned, is the bookstore has to send all the covers to the government, and the bookstore are supposed to destroy the actual book, but they never do, they just keep them without covers.

[edit on 10/5/2010 by harpsounds]

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