Safeguard our treasures!









Jul 27, 2007



Libraries have been always regarded as one of the institutions that play a very significant role in advancing literacy and education in every society. Literary, library has been defined as a building, room or organization which has a collection, especially of books, for people to read or borrow usually without payment. In his well-written essay of Education for Special Groups (1994), Professor Akinpelu referred to books as "The shrines where the saint is believed to be, and having built an ark to save learning from the deluge". British poet and essayist Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) believed that, "No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of Human Hopes than a public library".

In ancient Iran, many libraries were established by the Zoroastrian elites and the Persian Kings. They were possibly one of the first Bibliophilists (more informally Bookworms) of the world. According to reliable documents the oldest library of Iran was possibly the Royal Library of Kohan Dej or Jay in Isfahan, which was founded during Achaemenids (550 BC?330 BC). In the north-eastern Iran there was a Royal Library in Nisa, one of the capital cities of Persian Empire during the Parthian Dynasty (248 BC-224 AD). Nisa is now one of the historical places in present day Republic of Turkmenistan. In the south-western Iran, the most important medical library was the Library of Jundishapur (aka Gundishapur), which was established during Sassanid Era (224 AD-651 AD). All those Royal Libraries were in fact some sorts of the present-day Reference Libraries. A reference library refers to a place for looking at a collection of books that must be read only where they are kept and not taken away.

In this article, the most important aspects of the First Iranian Reference Libraries established during Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sassanid Dynasties are studied and discussed.


Achaemenids supported and encouraged broadly the development of culture and science in ancient Iran and other parts of the world. The Book of Arda Viraf (a Zoroastrian religious text composed in the 3rd or 4th century BC describing the dream-journey of a devout Zoroastrian through the next world.), suggests that the Gathas (17 hymns believed to have been composed by Zoroaster) and some other texts that were incorporated into the Avesta (the primary collection of sacred texts of Zoroastrianism) had previously existed in the palace library of the Achaemenid kings.

Achaemenids made Babylon one of their major capitals and extensively used the texts at the temple libraries. The library and museum at the Persepolis were built to rival the Babylonian archives famous in the ancient world. It is reported by scholars Homayoonfarrokh and Price that Darius the Great (521 BC ? 486 BC) in one occasion ordered his representative to return to Egypt in order to restore a department dealing with medicine. (Homayoonfarrokh and Price refer to this representative as Ozaharrisniti and Udjahorresne respectively). "At the time his majesty was in Elam, he ordered me (the representative) to return to Egypt. I gave them every useful thing and all their instruments indicated by the writings, as they had been before. His majesty did this because he knew the virtue of this art to make every sick man recover", quoted the representative.

Achaemenids also established large scale libraries in various cities in ancient Iran. The libraries founded in Susa, Persepolis, Pasargadae, Ecbatana (modern Hamadan), and Isfahan are only a few examples of those establishments that have been all regrettably destroyed by Greek Alexander and Arab invaders later on.

Royal Library of Kohan Dej or Jay in Isfahan (in Persian: Ketabkaneh-e-Jay-e Isfahan), aka Sarouyeh, was one of the famous large libraries in ancient Iran. The library was located near where the city of Isfahan is today. It has been documented by some researchers that the Library of Kohan Dej was firstly founded by Tahmuras who was the third legendary King of World after Kayumars and Hushang, and before Jamshid. The reference book of the History of Isfahan and Ray (in Persian: Taarikh-e-Isfahan va Ray) edited by Hassan Jaber Ansari and printed by Abbas Eghbal Ashtiani, gives details of that historical library of Isfahan and the list of books and documents it contained. Abbas Milani refered to the fortified collection of writings and documents kept in the historical library of Isfahan and wrote that, "Though only a few pages of its vast holdings have survived, we know of its grandeur through the testimony of its contemporaries, who compared it, in terms of the awe it inspired, to the Egyptian pyramids".


The Parthian Empire is a fascinating period of Persian history closely connected to Greece and Rome. Ruling from 248 BC to 224 AD in ancient Iran, the Parthians defeated Alexander's successors, the Seleucids, conquered most of the Middle East and southwest Asia, controlled the Silk Road and built Parthia into an Eastern superpower. The Parthian Empire revived the greatness of the Achaemenids and counterbalanced Rome's hegemony in the West. Parthian Kingdom established one of its capital in Nisa, now in the suburbs of Eshgh Abaad (aka Ashgabad), the capital of Republic of Turkmenistan.

The Chinese explorer Zhang Qian, who visited Nisa in 126 BC, made the first known Chinese report on Parthian Kingdom. According to the book of Records of the Grand Historian, Zhang Qian clearly identified Parthia as an advanced urban civilization and wrote that, "The people are settled on the land, cultivating the fields and growing rice and wheat. The coins of the country are made of silver and bear the face of the king. The people keep records by writing on horizontal strips of leather". Homayonfarrokh wrote that, "In Parthia, people kept records of political and economic events in the books written on the rawhide, the skin of cattle".

According to the Denkard, a semi-religious work written in the 9th century, the Parthian king Volgaash, aka Vologases IV (147 BC-191 BC), collected the sacred texts of Avesta and kept the texts in his palace library.


The Library of Jundishapur was one of the most important parts of the Jundishapur University. The exact date of the establishment of Jundishapur University is unknown. Some evidences indicate that the University was founded in 566 AD during Sassanids and it was under the rule of Khosrow Anushiravan (531-579) when the institution reached its peak. It is documented that Khusrow Anushiravan was remarkably eager for the science and medicine and he therefore invited a very large group of scholars and physicians to his capital. It was by his decree that the Borzouyeh, possibly the First Famous Iranian Physician, was given a mission to go to India to gather the best minds and sources of knowledge of the day. (Borzouyeh is also famous for having translated the ancient text of Panchatantra from Sanskrit into Persian, naming it Kelileh-o-Demneh). Upon these efforts, Jundishapur University and its Library became an important center of medicine, science and philosophy of the ancient world. According to the book of the History of Knowledge and Wisdom (in Persian: Tarikh-e-Daanesh va Hekamat), it was in Jundishapur where every known book on medicine was gathered, translated, and compiled, making Jundishapur a key center of transmission of ancient medical knowledge to the new world.

Khosrow Anoshirvan is mentioned by many historians and biographers to have been a major promoter of science, philosophy, and medicine. In the Book of the Deeds of Ardashir son of Babag (in Persian: Karnamag-e Ardeshir-e Papagan), Khosrow Anushiravan has been quoted as, "We have made inquiries about the rules of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire and the Indian states. We have never rejected anybody because of their different religion or origin. We have not jealously kept away from them what we affirm. And at the same time we have not disdained to learn what they stand for. We should not forget the fact that to acquire knowledge of the truth and sciences are the most important aspects of life by which a king can adorn himself. And the most disgraceful thing for kings is to disdain learning and be ashamed of exploring the sciences. He who does not learn is not wise".

Khosrow Anoshirvan also established a Royal Library, aka Imperial Library, in his palace. The later Muslim historians refer to the Sassanian Imperial library as the House of Knowledge (in Persian: Daaneshgaah, in Arabic: Bayt-al-Hekmat). According to Price, the library functioned as a site where accounts of Iranian history and literature were transcribed and preserved. At the same time it was a place where qualified hired translators, bookbinders and others worked to preserve, purchase, copy, illustrate, write and translate books.


According to trustworthy documents, in 651 AD when the Arab commander, Saad Abi Vaghas, faced the huge Imperial Library of Ctesiphon, he wrote to Caliph Omar and asked what should be done about the books? Omar wrote back, "If the books contradict the Koran, they are blasphemous and on the other hand if they are in agreement with the text of Koran, then they are not needed, as for us only Koran is sufficient". Thus, the huge library of Ctesiphon was destroyed. Other libraries in Ray, Isfahan, Ecbatana, Pasargadae, Persepolis, Jundishapur, Nisa, and Khorassan received the same treatment and thousands of valuable books and documents which were the product of the generations of Iranian scientists and scholars were sadly lost in fire or thrown into the Euphrates River!


AKINPELU, J.A. (1994): "Education for Special Groups" In: O. Akinkugbe, ed. Nigeria and Education: The Challenges Ahead, Ibadan: Spectrum Books Ltd.
BARTLETT, J. (1992): Notes on Samuel Johnson in "Familiar Quotations", ed., Little Brown and Company, Boston, USA.
GIGNOUX, P. (1996): Denkard, Encyclopedia Iranica 7, Mazda Publications.
HOMAYOONFARROKH, R. (1967): The Short History of Libraries in Iran (in Persian: Taarikhcheh-e Ketaabkhaaneh dar Iran), ed., Tehran, Iran.
HOPKINS, E. (2007): Online Article on "History of Parthia".
JABER ANSARI, H. (1950): History of Isfahan and Ray (in Persian: Taarikh-e-Isfahan va Ray), ed., Yadegaar Publications, Tehran, Iran.
JAHANIAN, D. (2007): Online Article on "The History of Zoroastrians after Arab Invasion".
PRICE, M. (2001): Online Article on "History of ancient Medicine in Mesopotamia and Iran".
MILANI, A. (2004): Lost Wisdom: Rethinking Persian Modernity in Iran, ed., Mage Publishers, ISBN 0-934211-89-2.
QIAN, S. (1993): Records of the Grand Historian, Translated by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, ISBN 0-231-08167-7.
SAADAT NOURY, M. (2005): Online Article on: "University of Jundishapur, the First Iranian Academic Site".
SAADAT NOURY, M. (2005): Online Article on: "The First Iranian who published the First Iranian Journal of Culture".
SAADAT NOURY, M. (2007): Various Articles on Persian History.
WIKIPEDIA ENCYCLOPEDIA (2007): Online Article on "Higher Education in Iran".
ZOROASTRIAN WEBSITE (2007): Online Articles on "The Book of Arda Viraf" and "Book of the Deeds of Ardashir son of Babag".

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