Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first significant text in world literature, and a perfect example of the power of written stories to shape history. By bolstering cultural cohesion across the region, the epic helped maintain the earliest territorial empire. Written in cuneiform, it disappeared without a trace because it was never transcribed into any other writing system, until it was rediscovered by accident two thousand years later. Saddam Hussein, a keen student of history, wrote a novelistic adaptation of the epic. To his great surprise, it failed to secure the survival of his regime.
Written texts became increasingly important for Jewish life during exile in Babylon, the most literate place on earth at the time. When the scribe Ezra led his followers back to Jerusalem, he held up him Torah scrolls and demanded that the returning exiles bow before them as they would to a god. It was the beginning of sacred scripture, giving rise to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We have been living in a world shaped by sacred texts ever since.
The Diamond Sutra commemorates the life of the Buddha by portraying his interactions with students and his daily habits in unusual detail. When the sutra was committed to writing long after the death of this great teacher, it became so influential that devoted monks carried it all the way to China. It was here that the Diamond Sutra encountered paper and print. With the help of these technologies, it spread to Korea, Japan and beyond, making Buddhism a world religion.