Though it’s certainly comforting to think literature began to appear as soon as language did, or was at least scribbled down as soon as writing became a thing, the fact is we can’t be too sure. What we do know is that the oldest known texts—5,000-year-old Iranian tablets—are mostly accounts of property (shows you where our concerns lie), and that the first extended works were made in Egypt a few hundred years later. Here are a few of the most well-known, odorous old texts still in existence.
Diamond Sūtra, May 11, 868
The precision with which one can date the creation of this book is purely down to the fact that it gives us its ‘publication’ date—the only such case on this list (it is, according to the British Library, where it now resides, the earliest example of a dated, printed book in the world). A Chinese version of a key text in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, this Diamond Sutra—found among other manuscripts in a cave in Dunhuang—was printed from wooden blocks onto a scroll over 5m (16.4 ft.) long.
Regula Sancti Benedicti (The Rule of St Benedict), 8th century
Another religious book, this time kept at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It is the earliest surviving manuscript of the Rule of Saint Benedict of Nursia, which he enumerated sometime around 540 as a guide to the principles of monastic life. Not much about the parchment book’s provenance is known, except that it was kept at Worcester Cathedral from the 11th to the 17th century, at which point it came into the Bodleian’s possession.
Codex Parisino-Petropolitanus, 7–8th century
One of the oldest manuscripts of the Quran in the world, the codex was housed in the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As in Egypt until the Napoleonic expedition of 1798, when a few folios were brought back to Paris. The whole text includes a little less than half of the Quran, and was produced by five scribes in Hijazi script. Most of the codex is held at the Bibliothèque National de France in Paris, while smaller parts are in the National Library of Russia in Saint-Petersburg, the Vatican Library, and in the Khalili Collection in London.
St. Cuthbert Gospel, 7–8th century
The earliest intact European book is a pocket gospel book, written in Latin and currently housed at the British Library—which bought it for £9 million (US$11 million) in 2012. Found in the tomb of Saint Cuthbert in the northeast of England (where it was notably saved from various Viking invasions by being kept in Durham Cathedral), it contains the Gospel of John, and is famous for possessing its original, crafted-leather cover.
The Pseudo-Apuleius Herbarius, 6–7th century
The Pseudo-Apuleius Herbarius was the most influential herbal in Europe until the High Middle Ages. This is its oldest manuscript still in existence, one replete with fanciful botanical illustrations, and housed at the Leiden University library in Holland. Not much is known about the author, of this manuscript itself or the text in general, though we know this particular version was produced in southern France.
Gärima Gospels, 390–570
Still stored in the Abba Garima Monastery in Ethiopia, where they were most likely written, the gospels are two Ge’ez-language illuminated books, the second of which could date as far back as the 4th century. The first is notable for being the oldest book in the world with a front cover still attached to it. Due to the fairly medieval style of its illustrations, it was long thought to have been made much later than it actually was, an error carbon dating remedied only recently, by dating it back to Christianity’s first forays in the region.
Codex Sinaiticus, 330–360
Otherwise known as the Sinai Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus is, with its sister text the Codex Vaticanus (which dates from around the same time), the most important resource used to ascertain the composition of the original Christian bible. About half of the Old Testament survives, alongside the complete New Testament and other deuterocanonical and non-canonical works (such as The Shepherd of Hermas). It was written in Greek during the end of the reign of Constantine the Great, arranged in quarto form, and discovered in 1761 in Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt. Most of the Codex now resides at the British Library in London, while the Codex Vaticanus is held (as the name suggests) in the Vatican.
The Nag Hammadi library, 3–4th century
Discovered buried in a jar, by an Egyptian farmer near the town of Nag Hammadi in 1945, the ‘library’ is in fact 12 papyrus codices written in Coptic Egyptian and usually dated to the beginning of the 4th century. The texts enclosed are mostly early-Christian religious writings, such as non-canonical Gnostic texts and, most notably, the Gospel of Thomas. They are held in the Coptic Museum in Cairo.
Dead Sea Scrolls, 2nd century BCE–1st century CE
Certainly the most famous entry on this list, the Dead Sea Scrolls are 972 manuscripts found in a series of 12 caves in Qumran in the West Bank. Featuring texts written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and set down on parchments and papyri, they are known as the oldest substantial biblical texts to have survived to this day. The first scrolls were discovered in 1946 by three Bedouin shepherds, beginning a search that would uncover the rest over the following 10 years. The Great Psalms Scroll, pictured here, is one of the best-preserved manuscripts, and seems to have been copied some time between 30 CE and 50 CE.
The Etruscan Gold Book, 6th century BCE
A dubious inclusion, perhaps, on count of its doubted authenticity and non-bookish qualities (as well as the relevant scholarship’s continual Mormon references), this item is nonetheless something of a spectacular specimen. Said to have been found some 70 years ago in a tomb along the Strouma River in Bulgaria, it is composed of six gold ‘pages’ held together with golden rings, and illustrated with various soldiers, a mermaid, and a harp. It can be seen at the National History Museum in Sofia.