The Oldest Book in the World

atkins-bookshelf-booksPrinted more than a half century before the Selected Teaching of Buddhist Sages and Seon Masters (1377) or the Gutenberg Bible (1455), the Diamond Sutra is the oldest printed book in the world, printed in 868 using wood blocks (a printing technique developed some 300 years earlier in China). The Diamond Sutra is not bound like a traditional book, but rather it is a long scroll measuring about 16 feet long and 10 inches tall, containing the Chinese translation of Buddhist texts. The inscription on the scroll reads: “Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his parents on the fifteenth of the fourth moon of the ninth year of Xian Long (May 11, 868 AD).”

The Diamond Sutra is one of thousands of scrolls and manuscripts discovered in the walled city of Dunhuang, a military base and religious site on the Silk Road. At its peak, there were more than 4,600 temples and monasteries at the site. Around 1127, the Buddhist monks concealed the manuscripts to protect them against invading nomadic tribes. Over the centuries, the community was abandoned and the caves were buried under the desert sands, long forgotten. 

The secret caves and their valuable Buddhist manuscripts were discovered in 1900 by Wang Yuan-lu, an abbott who moved into the caves. One library (cave 17) contained more than 10,000 well-preserved manuscripts and silk paintings. In 1907, explorer Sir Marc Aurel Stein arrived at Dunhuang and purchased 29 cases of relics (manuscripts, paintings, embroideries) for 130 pounds. The Diamond Sutra was contained in one of these cases; it is currently exhibited at the British Library.

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