Old Books and Lost Libraries

In Oral Tradition

We start with oral tradition, the passage of knowledge and lore from one generation to another. Thanks, Elders! How cool is that? Father to son. Mother to daughter. Grandparent to child.  It’s nostalgic for us to think about. We may not realize it, but this is how culture and society are most profoundly shapedby the voices of our folk.

Read books to our kids and they grow up liking stories. Celebrate the games and they’ll pick a team. Play the right music and they might just choose an instrument. But tell a child something about themselves?and they grow in the ways of understanding. We are influenced through notes of tradition, some of which try to answer the old, difficult questions:

It wasn’t until the invention of writing that our best answers to these questions went further than the carry of a voice. It’s interesting to think about the expansion of the Bronze Age and the proliferation of writing some 5,000 years ago. Yet, we began drawing symbols and star maps on tortoise shells almost 10,000 years ago. Before that, it was ochre and ash on the walls of a cave. Now we have telephones, internet, and radioall made possible through systematic writing. So that’s our keystone on the bridge of time: Writing. And books!

Ten of the Oldest Books in the World

Ten of the Oldest Books in the World

So much has been lost to oral tradition. Yet, these books survived. To imagine oneself in the time period of these book’s inception is an incomplete thought. Architecture, tools, and other relics of the past serve to paint a picture. But what of the community, the families, the Barons, Caliphs, and Kings? The scholars, astronomers, craftsmen, and priests? Surely they had stories, songs, and games. They had oral tradition.

Ancient texts are the next best thing. Although much heart and soul went into creating the artifacts we find and excavateit is writing which conveys human thought in most clarity.  Most of us can never be bothered to study archaic inscriptions, yet the images alone are a window through time. Some one had to sit down,  with enduring  interest, and temper a mercurial thing into permanence; to put thoughts and imagination into words.

It has been said that everything which exists on the internet will be stored for eternity. Perhaps the internet will become the recollected memory of an Artificial Super Intelligence. But I wonder how much it costs to print a novel on metal? You know, just in case some one digs us out of the sediment 3 billion years from now. Then again, scientists at Harvard are learning how to store data in DNA.  700 Terabytes in a single gram. Who knows what information is stowed away in us, some hidden corpus, preserved through lineage, awaiting exposition since the dawn of our creation. Lostif we go extinct.


Black with Ink and Red with Blood the River Tigris Ran


Siege of Baghdad (1258)

We have to remember that Baghdad today is very different from the Baghdad of the Middle Ages. 760 years ago, the Middle East was the cultural and intellectual center of the world; attracting minds and colors from all corners of the Earth.

The Golden Age of Islam preserved and elaborated upon many thousands of literary works from Mesopotamian, Chinese, Indian, Greek, and Latin cultures. Our numeric system and many names of stars in the sky were touched by the minds of this era. If anything, remember the Middle Ages & Middle East as an important crux in history because its great undoing could be said to have come at the folly of a single parlay.

Genghis Khan (who died almost 30 years prior to Baghdad) united the Horse Tribes and removed all sources of sedition. He established the largest continental empire in historygave it writing, census, trade, and law. After conquering Eurasia, he was no stranger to poetic diplomacy:

“I am master of the lands of the rising sun, while you rule those of the setting sun.  Let us conclude a treaty of friendship and peace.”

This was the trade agreement he sought in 1218 with the venerable Shah of Khwarezmid, who accepted the entente. But the Shah massacred the trade caravans upon arrival, suspecting them as spies. When the Khan sent three wise men to seek restitution, the Shah beheaded them as well; a grave perversion. From henceforth the Mongols were undeterred and immune to mercy in the disposal of such an enemy.

When the Mongols razed Baghdad in 1258, they not only slaughtered its peoplewho had surrenderedthey destroyed free hospitals, pillaged harems,  ransacked The Grand Library, buried the canals and salted the earth. The manner in which Baghdad was erased left a deep scar in the heart of Islam. It never forgave.

But what if the Mongols had preserved the books? How would the enlightenment of Islam be changed today? These were cast into the Tigris River, which swirled black with ink during the week of February 13th-20th of 1258. Good works of Anatomy and Medicine, Mathematics and Astronomy, important Sciences and Philosophies all were spoiled. Perhaps even some Ideas and Histories are now gone foreverforgotten to the Libraries of the Lost.

Why Do Great Rivers choose to Run through Earth’s Largest Cities?

Gene Wolfe from Shadows of the New Sun


Convincing barbarians not to break our stuff is like throwing stones at the moon. It tests the further reaches of human nature. One would have to stretch their mind to accept an idea outside of their reality. This consumes resources. But you are not a barbarian and that is an immense advantage.

Suppose that we had the ear of a Mongol warlord. What if he could be persuaded to preserve the treasures of the library? If he had to choose between the red library (Blood) and the black library (Ink). Could he save one or the other?

Perhaps the warlord may still have put us in the riverpriorities being what they were:




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