Flood Story Tablet from Epic of Gilgamesh, by Flickr user atonal

In a previous post, we answered  a student’s question: “What is the oldest book in the library?”

Then we promised to find an answer to a related question: “What is the oldest book in the world?” This was not so easy! Many people might guess The Bible, or Homer’s Iliad.

Because archeologists are constantly unearthing new antiquities and developing new technologies for dating them, and because it is difficult to come to a consensus definition of “book”, this question has proved daunting. It seems that to be defined as a book, a piece of writing should have a binding and consist of pages or leaves. Does this leave out writings on ancient papyrus scrolls and clay tablets, the slabs of stone carvings, inscriptions inside ancient burial sarcophagi, and other strange and ancient methods of recording human thought?

Was the first book only the first one to be created on a printing press? What about earlier books printed by the Chinese using woodblock? What materials were used, and how were they handled? Was it truly possible to accurately date the book? Was it found in ancient Egypt, Sumer, China, or India? Maybe it was written in hieroglyphics, cuneiform, or other ideogram or pictogram?

According to many sources, the oldest book in the world is The Teachings of Ptah-Hotep, alternately known as The Maxims, The Instructions, or The Wisdom of Ptah-Hotep. This ancient Egyptian work, preserved both on clay tablet and papyrus, instructed people on how to live a virtuous life of civic duty and to reject selfishness and greed. Various creation dates of 2700-2200 BC, and even earlier exist.

Another exciting book discovery, untitled, has been housed in Bulgaria’s National Museum of History since 2003. Six pages of beaten 24 carat gold covered in Etruscan script make up this ancient book, estimated at about 2,500 years old. Discovered in an old tomb, it carries text and images of a horseman, a mermaid, a lyre, and warriors.

Yet another widely mentioned candidate is a Sumerian epic poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, owned by the British Museum. It is written in cuneiform on clay tablets and dated at about the seventh century BC. Read the astounding story of its discovery in The Buried Book: The Loss and Discovery of the Epic of Gilgamesh, at JSRCC libraries.

The Chinese have their I Ching, or Book of Changes; the Indians have the Hindu Vedas; and then there are the Sutras, ancient writings of both Hindu and Buddhist cultures.

You can see the problem in answering this question. Maybe you have come across some interesting candidates for this honor yourself…please post and share them here!

Leave a Reply