February 17, 2012

Book 101 - The oldest books in the world

When you think of old books what's the first thing (or rather book) that comes to mind? Those old hardbacks you've stored in the basement or maybe your grandparent's old tomes? Maybe you think Shakespeare or even the Bible, but books (or more precisely, writings in general) go way back longer than that.

The earliest examples of literature date from 2600 BC, during the early Bronze Age. Examples from these early writings are often found inscribed on clay tablets, and needless to say, the language used is very different from modern Western languages. Ultimately these oldest books represent the cultural heritage of us all.

Let me introduce you to the twenty oldest writings in the world - Sumerian, Akkadian and Egyptian. Some you might have heard of, others will be as new to you as they were to me.

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 - and if not, shame on you - following the exploits of this great hero.
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.
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: An example of women in early literature are the hymns of the priestess Enheduanna, an important woman in Ur.
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.
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 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.


  1. By far one of the coolest things I've ever seen in a museum was one of the Epic of Gilgamesh tablets. The only writings that have moved me more were the ancient papyrus and rice paper - realizing how long they had survived and that a person had actually written them was mind-boggling. If you ever get the chance visit the British Library and see their collection (not as ancient, but just as awe inspiring).


    1. This is definitely cool! When I saw the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum I was equally in awe (not as though it'd be that old in the grand scheme of things). Oh and on my last trip to London I of course went to the British Library which was pretty impressive!

  2. I only read The Epic of Gilgamesh, back in college, during the compared literature course. That was one of the few courses that I really loved and made me discover new authors and books :)

    1. You know, when I decided what to study I also played with the idea to maybe pick philology ... oh to turn back time!