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Ancient Manuscripts and Historically Influential Books – Virtual Tour

Ancient Manuscripts and Historically Influential Books

Ancient Texts and Historically Influential Books – Virtual Tour

Ancient and Historical texts can be found in many different forms, which can include Clay Tablets, Stone, Stele, Papyrus, Vellum, Metal, Wax, Wood, and Paper.

Before the spread of writing, oral information did not always survive well; however, with the invention of writing, humanity was able to accelerate its ambition. 

Some of our most important ancient and historical artifacts are the documents that propelled humanity forward. Our tour of ancient texts and influential books can help us to understand better and appreciate our world.   

Virtual Tour of Ancient Texts

Virtual Tour of Historically Influential Books

Highlights Tour of Ancient Texts

Gilgamesh Flood Tablet – 7th century BC

The Gilgamesh Flood Tablet contains the flood story from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia that is often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature. 

The flood story was added to the Gilgamesh Epic utilized surviving Babylonian deluge stories from older Sumerian poems which inspired the flood myth.

Gilgamesh’s reign is believed to have been about 2700 BCE, shortly before the earliest known written stories. The earliest Sumerian Gilgamesh poems date from 2100–2000 BCE.

One of these poems mentions Gilgamesh’s journey to meet the flood hero, as well as a short version of the flood story. 

The flood story was included because, in it, the flood hero is granted immortality by the gods, and that fits the immortality theme of the epic.

Lament for Ur – 1800 BC

The “Lamentation over the city of Ur” dates back at least 4000 years to ancient Sumer, the world’s first urban civilization.

The Cuneiform clay tablet is a Sumerian lament composed around the time of the fall of Ur to the Elamites and the end of the city’s third dynasty in about 2000 BC.

The lament is composed of over four hundred lines and describes how the goddess, weeps for her city after pleading with the leader of the Mesopotamian gods to call back the destructive storm.

Interspersed with the goddess’s wailing are other sections, which describe the ghost town that Ur has become. The account recounts the wrath of god’s storm, and invoke the protection of the gods against future calamities.

The goddess’s name is Ningal, the wife of the moon god Nanna, who petitions the leaders of the gods, to change their minds and not to destroy Ur. 

Law Code of Hammurabi – 1754 BC

The “Law Code of Hammurabi” is a Stele that was erected by the King of Babylon in the 18th century B.C. It is a work of art, it is history, and it is literature. It is a complete law code from Antiquity that pre-dates Biblical laws.

A stele is a vertical stone monument or marker inscribed with text or with relief carving. This particular example, which is nearly 4,000 years old, looks like the shape of a huge index finger with a nail and imperfect symmetry.

The Law Code of Hammurabi stele is one of the oldest deciphered writings of significant length to be discovered. The Law Code of Hammurabi refers to a set of 282 rules or laws enacted by the Babylonian King Hammurabi, who reigned 1792-1750 B.C.

The Code of Hammurabi is a well-preserved law code of ancient Mesopotamia and has been found on many stele and clay tablets from the period.

Complaint Tablet To Ea-nasir – 1750 BC

This clay tablet from ancient Babylon was written in about  1750 BC and is the world’s oldest recorded customer complaint.

The “Complaint Tablet To Ea-Nasir” records in cuneiform a complaint to a merchant named Ea-Nasir from a customer named Nanni. 

Ea-Nasir traveled to the Persian Gulf to buy copper and then sold it in Mesopotamia. One of his customers was Nanni, who sent his servant with the money to buy the copper and complete the transaction.

The copper was sub-standard and not acceptable to Nanni. Nanni formally documented his complaint on a clay tablet in cuneiform writing and sent it to Ea-Nasir.

Inscribed on the tablet is the complaint about a copper delivery of the inferior grade. He also complained that his servant, who handled the transaction, had been treated rudely. 

Egyptian–Hittite Peace Treaty – 1259 BC

This Egyptian–Hittite Peace Treaty is the oldest known surviving peace treaty and the only ancient Near Eastern treaty for which both sides’ versions have survived.

The peace treaty is the earliest example of any written international agreement of any kind. It followed the Battle of Kadesh fought some sixteen years earlier. The text concludes with a binding oath.

The treaty proclaims that both sides would in future forever remain at peace, binding the children and grandchildren of the parties.

This clay tablet version was initially copied from silver tablets given to each side, which have since been lost.

The Egyptian version of the peace treaty was engraved in hieroglyphics on the walls of two temples belonging to Pharaoh Ramesses II in Thebes.

Book of the Dead – Papyrus of Ani and Hunefe – 1250 BC

The “Book of the Dead” is an ancient Egyptian funerary manuscript written on papyrus consisting of magic spells intended to assist a dead person’s journey through the underworld, and into the afterlife.

The original Egyptian name for the text is translated as “Book of Coming Forth into the Light.” It was placed in the coffin or burial chamber of the deceased.

The texts and images in the “Book of the Dead” evolved from the writings of many priests over about 1,000 years. They were used from the beginning of the New Kingdom around 1550 BCE to around 50 BCE.

The “Book of the Dead” was part of a tradition of funerary texts, which includes the earlier texts, which were painted onto objects, not written on papyrus.

Cyrus Cylinder – 539–538 BC

The Cyrus Cylinder is an ancient clay cylinder, from the 6th century BC, on which is written a declaration in cuneiform script in the name of Persia’s King Cyrus the Great.

It describes the king’s capture of Babylon in 539 BC and how he restored temples in major cities and returned deported people to their homes.

The text on the Cylinder praises Cyrus for his peaceful and just rule, and due to these precepts, this historical object has been claimed to be an early version of ‘charter of human right.’

The text on the Cylinder praises Cyrus by setting out his genealogy and portrays him as a King from a line of Kings.

Cyrus is described as having been chosen by the Babylonian god Marduk to restore peace and order to the Babylonians.

The Rosetta Stone – 196 BC

The Rosetta Stone is inscribed with three languages for the same decree issued at Memphis, Egypt, in 196 BC by King Ptolemy V.

The top text is in Ancient Egyptian using the hieroglyphic script, the middle passage is Ancient Egyptian Demotic script, and the bottom is in Ancient Greek.

As the decree is the same in all three versions, the Rosetta Stone provided the key to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The reason for the  Ancient Greek language is that the Rosetta Stone was carved during the Ptolemaic dynasty. 

Ptolemy was a Macedonian Greek who was one of Alexander the Great’s generals and was appointed the leader of Egypt after Alexander’s death in 323 BC.

Constitution of the Athenians by Aristotle – 100

This “Constitution of the Athenians” is a copy of the original writings of Aristotle or one of his students. It was preserved on two leaves of a papyrus codex discovered at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, in 1879.

The codex describes the political system of Classical Athens, commonly called the Areopagite Constitution, written between 328 BC and 322 BC.

The work deals with the different forms of the constitution and the city’s institutions, including the terms of access to citizenship, magistrates, and the courts.

In other ancient documents, several ancient authors state that Aristotle assigned his pupils to prepare a monograph of 158 constitutions of Greek cities, including a constitution of Athens.

Vindolanda Tablets – 1st-century

The Vindolanda Tablets were, at the time of their discovery, the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain. The tablets date to the 1st and 2nd centuries AD during the Roman occupation of Britain.

The tablets are thin, postcard-sized wooden leaf-tablets with carbon-based ink. They were discovered in 1973, at the site of Vindolanda, a Roman fort in northern England. The Vindolanda Tablets were the first known surviving examples of the use of ink letters in the Roman period.

The tablets are made from birch, alder, and oak that grew locally. They are 0.25–3 mm thick with a typical size of a modern postcard. They were scored down the middle and folded to form diptychs with ink writing on the inner faces, the ink being carbon, gum Arabic, and water.

The written documents are a rich source of information about life on the northern frontier of Roman Britain. The documents record military matters as well as personal messages to and from the garrison staff of Vindolanda.

Codex Vaticanus – 300–325

The Codex Vaticanus is one of the oldest surviving copies of the Bible and only one of the four surviving codices that containing the entire text of the Greek Old and New Testament Bible.

The Codex is named after the Vatican Library, where it has been kept since at least the 15th century. It is written on 759 leaves of vellum in uncial letters and has been dated to 325–350.

Scholars consider the Codex Vaticanus to be one of the most important witnesses to the Greek text of the New Testament. The most widely sold editions of the Greek New Testament are primarily based on the text of the Codex Vaticanus. 

The manuscript is in a quarto volume, composed initially of 830 parchment leaves, but it appears that 71 sheets have been lost.

Vienna Dioscurides – Juliana Anicia Codex – 515

The Vienna Dioscurides is a Byzantine Greek illuminated manuscript copy of “Medical Material” by Dioscorides, which was created in 515 AD. It is a rare surviving example of an illustrated ancient scientific and medical text.

The original “De Materia Medica” or “On Medical Material” was first written between 50 and 70 CE by Pedanius Dioscorides. It is a pharmacopeia of medicinal plants and was widely read and used for more than 1,500 years.

This specific manuscript copy was created in the Byzantine Empire’s capital, Constantinople, for the byzantine imperial princess, Anicia Juliana. She was the daughter of Anicius Olybrius, who had been one of the last Western Roman Emperors.

The manuscript was presented to the princess in gratitude for her funding the construction of a church in Constantinople. The dedication miniature portrait of Anicia Juliana is the oldest surviving dedication portraits in a book.

The portrait has Anicia seated in a ceremonial pose distributing alms. Personifications of “Magnanimity” and “Prudence” flank her. At her feet, another representation, labeled “Gratitude of the Arts,” kneels.

Lindisfarne Gospels  –  715-720

The Lindisfarne Gospels is an illuminated manuscript produced about 715 – 720 in the monastery at Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumberland. It is an illustrated Latin copy of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,

The manuscript is in the unique style of Hiberno-Saxon combining Mediterranean, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic elements.

The Lindisfarne Gospels are presumed to be the work of a monk named Eadfrith, who became Bishop of Lindisfarne in 698. Some parts of the manuscript were left unfinished, indicating that Eadfrith was still working on it at his time of death.

The Lindisfarne Gospels manuscript took approximately ten years to create. Its pages are vellum, made from roughly 150 calf skins. The text is written from dark ink, which contains particles of carbon from soot. 

The pens used for the manuscript were cut from either quills or reeds, and there is also evidence of trace marks made by an early type of pencil.

The illustrators manufactured 90 colors with local minerals and vegetable extracts may have been imported some colors from the Mediterranean. Gold is used in only a few small details.

Beowulf – Nowell Codex – 975–1025

Beowulf is an Old English epic poem that survives in a single copy in the manuscript known as the Nowell Codex. It has no title in the original manuscript but has become known by the name of the story’s hero.

The poem is known only from a single manuscript, which is estimated to date from around 975–1025, in which it appears with other works.

The manuscript dates either to the reign of Æthelred the Unready or to the beginning of the reign of Cnut the Great from 1016.

The Beowulf manuscript is known as the Nowell Codex, gaining its name from the 16th-century owner and scholar Laurence Nowell.

The earliest surviving reference to the Nowell Codex was made about 1650 and the prior ownership of the codex before Nowell remains a mystery.

The Beowulf manuscript itself is identified by name for the first time in an exchange of letters in 1700.

Blue Qur’an – 9th – 10th century

This leaf is from the 600 paged Blue Qur’an, which is a one-thousand-year-old Fatimid Caliphate Qur’an manuscript in Kufic calligraphy.

Created in North Africa for the Great Mosque of Kairouan, also known as the Mosque of Uqba in Tunisia, it is written in gold and decorated in silver on vellum colored with indigo. It is among the most famous works of Islamic calligraphy.

The original manuscript of approximately 600 pages was dispersed during the Ottoman period. Today most of it is located in the National Institute of Art and Archaeology Bardo National Museum in Tunis, with detached folios in various museums worldwide.

This leaf from the Blue Qur’an shows the Sura 30: 28–32. Each sura’s verses are inked in gold on rich indigo.  The Blue Qur’an was a display of the Fatimid dynasty’s wealth, power.

Miroslav Gospel – 1186

Miroslav’s Gospel is a 362-page illuminated manuscript on parchment with lavish decorations such as illustrated initials and rich pictorial illustrations.

It is one of the oldest surviving documents written in Church Slavonic and of significant historical significance.

The book was traditionally kept at the Hilandar Monastery on Mount Athos, before it was presented to King Alexander I of Serbia, on the occasion of his visit to the monastery in 1896.

The book was initially transcribed in Kotor, a coastal town in modern-day Montenegro, between 1186 and 1190 from an earlier text.

Most pages are by an unknown scribe from Zeta, a medieval region and province of the Serbian Grand Principality, with the last few pages written by the scribe Grigorije of Raška, also known as Grigorije the Pupil.

Magna Carta – 1215

The Magna Carta or “Great Charter” is a charter of rights agreed to by King John of England at Runnymede in 1215. This document is considered an early step in the evolution of the constitution of the United Kingdom. It also influenced the formation of the United States Constitution.

Magna Carta continues to have a dominant iconic status in several countries, often being cited by politicians and lawyers in support of constitutional and political positions.

Although rarely invoked in court in the modern era, the use of the Magna Carta’s perceived guarantee of trial by jury and other civil liberties continues to be used to defend various political and public positions and actions.

The Charter was drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury to make peace between the unpopular King and a group of rebel barons.

Hadith Bayad wa Riyad – 13th-century

The Story of Bayad and Riyad is a 13th-century Arabic love story. The Hadith Bayad wa Riyad manuscript is one of three surviving illustrated manuscripts from medieval al-Andalus in modern Spain and Portugal.

This illustrated medieval Arabic manuscript of Andalusi is an extremely rare Arabic manuscript preserved in the Vatican collection.

The manuscript is believed to be the only illustrated manuscript known to have survived from more than eight centuries of Muslim and Arab presence in Spain.

The tale is about Bayad, a merchant’s son and a foreigner from Damascus, and Riyad, a well-educated slave girl in the court of a senior minister in northern Mesopotamia.

The hero, Bayad, falls in love with a handmaiden of a “Noble Lady,” who is the daughter of the minister. There are several sub-plots in the story because the minster is also interested in Riyad.

The Belles Heures of Jean of France, Duke of Berry – 1405

The “Belles Heures” or “The Beautiful Hours” is a beautifully illuminated manuscript book containing prayers to be said by the faithful at each canonical hour of the day.

The French Duke of Berry (French: Jean, Duc de Berry) commissioned this book in 1409 for his private use. Belle Heures was designed for his wishes and is famous because of its many lavish decorations.

The “Belles Heures” consists of a series of story-like cycles that reads like picture books. One hundred seventy-two illuminations in miniature are painted in the “Belles Heures,” mainly within rectangular borders.

However, the illuminators sometimes experimented by breaking across the boundaries to accommodate images that extending beyond the frame. The picture cycles are devoted to Christian figures or events that held particular significance for the Duke.

An unusual aspect of this specific book of hours is that unlike others, each of the cycles consists of a series of miniatures that are uninterrupted by text.

Highlights Tour of Historically Influential Books

Gutenberg Bible – 1450

The Gutenberg Bible was among the earliest books and the first Bible printed using mass-produced movable metal type in Europe. This book, published in the 1450s, is valued for its aesthetic and artistic qualities, as well as its historical significance. 

Forty-nine copies have survived and are among the world’s most valuable books. Less than 185 copies were printed with about three-quarters on paper and the others on vellum.

The Gutenberg Bible contains the Latin version of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament. Most were sold to monasteries, universities, and wealthy individuals. 

The Bible seems to have sold out immediately, with a price of at least three years’ wages for a clerk. Although this made them significantly cheaper than manuscript Bibles, most people of ordinary income wouldn’t have been able to afford them.

The Gutenberg Bible had a profound effect on the history of the printed book and influenced future editions of the Bible. 

Of the 49 Gutenberg Bibles known to exist today, only 21 are complete. Others have pages or whole volumes missing. Twelve copies on vellum survive, although only four of these are complete.

Code Noir – 1687

The Code Noir (French: Black Code) was a decree passed by France’s King Louis XIV in 1685, that defined the conditions of slavery in the French colonial empire.

The code detailed the “acceptable” conditions for enslavement. It legitimized slave ownership and, at the same time, allowed slaves certain rights.

The Code Noir also restricted the activities of free Negroes, forbade the exercise of any religion other than Roman Catholicism, and ordered all Jews out of France’s colonies.

“Common Sense” by Thomas Paine – 1766

“Common Sense” by Thomas Paine was written in 1775–76 as a pamphlet advocating for the independence of the Thirteen Colonies.

Paine used persuasive moral and political arguments to encourage the ordinary people in the Colonies to fight for an equal government.

It was published anonymously at the beginning of the American Revolution and became an immediate bestseller.

Paine connected independence with common Protestant beliefs to present a distinctly American political identity, structuring Common Sense as if it were a sermon.

“Common Sense” was sold and distributed widely and read aloud at taverns and meeting places. In proportion to the population of the colonies at that time, it had the largest sale and circulation of any book published in American history. 

“Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” by Phillis Wheatley – 1766

“Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” by Phillis Wheatley is a collection of 39 poems written by the first African-American ever to be published.

Published in 1773, she was an African-American servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston, in New England. Phillis Wheatley broke barriers as the first African American Women poet to be published, opening the door for future African American authors.

She is also the first in order of time of all the women poets of America. And she is among the first female American poets to issue a book of Poems.

Phillis Wheatley, with the aid of her mistress, Mrs. Wheatley, was unable to find a publisher in the American colonies, as it was common among the white colonial élite in America to perceive a racial superiority of whites over African Americans.

“The History of England” by Jane Austen – 1791

“The History of England” by Jane Austen was written when the author was fifteen years old in 1791.  The work is a humorous work that pokes fun at widely used school history books of the time.

The manuscript of thirty-four pages in Jane Austen’s hand is accompanied by thirteen watercolor miniatures by her elder sister, Cassandra. The notebook is today preserved in the British Library collection. 

In “The History of England,” Austen mockingly imitates the style of textbook histories of English monarchs, while ridiculing school history books’ pretensions to objectivity. 

Jane Austen’s version of “The History of England” rebalanced the insufficiency of attention to female figures in school history books.

Some years later, Austen compiled this work and 28 other writings of her early compositions by copying them into three notebooks, which she called “Volume the First,” “Volume the Second,” and “Volume the Third.”

These notebooks still exist, one in the Bodleian Library and the other two in the British Library. These three volumes are considered Austen’s Juvenilia.

Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the Civil War – 1863

This photograph by Timothy O’Sullivan shows a view of Union Army soldiers lined up in their morning guard mount in front of the camp.

Behind the formation, soldiers are scattered among the tents and huts across the slope of the hill.

This photograph is titled Guard Mount, Head-Quarters Army of the Potomac, and was one of the pictures in Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War, Vol. II, American, 1865–1866.

Timothy H. O’Sullivan (1840 – 1882) was a photographer known for his work related to the American Civil War and the Western United States.

He joined Alexander Gardner’s studio, where he had forty-four photographs published in the first Civil War photographs collection, Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War.

Lincoln’s Handwritten Gettysburg Address – 1863

The Gettysburg Address was a speech that U.S. President Abraham Lincoln delivered during the American Civil War at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1863.

Lincoln gave the speech a few months after the Union armies defeated those of the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg. It is one of the best-known speeches in American history.

Lincoln’s address came to be seen as one of the greatest and most influential statements of American national purpose. Despite the prominent place in the history of the United States, its exact wording is disputed.

There are five known manuscripts of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s hand, which differ in several details. The written documents also differ from contemporary newspaper reprints of the speech.

The five manuscript copies of the Gettysburg Address are named for the person who received it from Lincoln. Lincoln gave copies to his private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay.

The other three copies of the address, the Everett, Bancroft, and Bliss copies, were written by Lincoln for charitable purposes well after Gettysburg Address. 

The Bliss copy had a title and was signed and dated, so it became accepted as the standard text of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Original Manuscript of Alice in Wonderland – 1864

The original manuscript copy of “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground,” from 1864 is preserved in the British Library. 

The manuscript is written in sepia-colored ink and includes 37 pen and ink illustrations and a colored title page. The original drawings were only uncovered in 1977. 

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was created by Lewis Carroll, which was the pseudonym of Charles Dodgson. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832 – 1898) is better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll.

The story first developed when Dodgson, together with his friend Reverend Duckworth, rowed in a boat accompanied by three young girls.

The three girls were the daughters of another friend Henry Liddell, and one of the girls was named Alice.

The journey on a river in Oxford was five miles long, and during the trip, Dodgson created for the girls a story that featured a bored little girl named Alice who goes looking for an adventure.

The girls loved it, and Alice begged Dodgson to write it down for her. Dodgson began writing the manuscript of the story the next day.

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Ancient Manuscript Collections

Ancient Manuscript Collections are spread throughout the world in universities, national and private libraries, and museums.

Collections range from stamp-sized pieces of manuscript fragments to extensive collections of codices.

These collections contain thousands of manuscripts that have remained untranslated, and discoveries are made every year.

  • The Vatican Apostolic Library, Vatican City – Greek, Latin, and Oriental manuscripts.
  • British Library, London, UK – Essential Biblical Manuscripts 
  • Manuscript Department – National Library of France, Paris, France – Greek manuscripts
  • Bodleian Library – The University of Oxford, Oxford, UK – Hebrew and Greek Manuscripts
  • Laurentian Medici Library, Florence, Italy – The Medici Manuscript Collection
  • University of Cambridge Library, Cambridge, UK – Greek, Latin, and Islamic manuscript collection
  • Department of Papyri – Austrian National Library, Vienna, Austria – Greek, Coptic, and Latin Manuscripts
  • Center for the Tebtunis Papyri – University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA – Collection of papyri manuscripts in Geek.
  • National Library of Russia, St. Petersburg, Russia – Oriental collection
  • The Shrine of the Book – Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel – Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered at Qumran.
  • Department of Rare Books and Special Collections – Princeton University Library, Princeton, NJ – Islamics and ancient Greek papyri
  • John Rylands Library – University of Manchester, Manchester, UK – illuminated medieval manuscripts

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“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
– Ray Bradbury


Photo Credit: 1)I, Luc Viatour / Public domain; Luc Viatour /

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