Library of Alexandria

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Ancient History, Classical History and Mythology

The Royal Library of Alexandria in Alexandria, Egypt, was once the largest library in the world. It is generally thought to have been founded at the beginning of the 3rd century BC, during the reign of Ptolemy II of Egypt. It was likely created after his father had built what would become the first part of the library complex, the temple of the Muses — the Musaion (from which is derived the modern English word museum).

It has been reasonably established that the library, or parts of the collection, were destroyed by fire on a number of occasions (library fires were common enough and replacement of handwritten manuscripts was very difficult, expensive and time-consuming). To this day the details of the destruction (or destructions) remain a lively source of controversy. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina was inaugurated in 2003 near the site of the old library.

Problems of historiography

Although the Library of Alexandria is referred to in numerous contemporary sources, there is not a great deal of material directly describing the library itself. By the modern era the library had come to symbolize the entirety of knowledge in the ancient world. Important to this symbolism are claims about the size of the library; the comprehensiveness of its collection, especially regarding books that no longer exist; and the circumstances of its destruction. Various authors explicitly blame certain individuals or groups for having destroyed the library, and this has given rise to complex accusations of bias. It is quite possible that the library suffered numerous complete or partial destructions in its long history.

The Library as a research institution

According to the earliest sources of information for the library, the pseudepigraphic Letter of Aristeas, the library was initially organized by Demetrius of Phaleron. Demetrius was a student of Aristotle.

Initially the library was closely linked to a "museum," or research centre, that seems to have focused primarily on editing texts. Libraries were important for textual research in the ancient world, since the same text often existed in several different versions of varying quality and veracity. The editors at the library of Alexandria are especially well known for their work on Homeric texts. The more famous editors generally also held the title of head librarian, and included, among others,

  • Zenodotus of Ephesus (late 3rd Century BC)
  • Aristophanes of Byzantium (early 2nd Century BC)
  • Aristarchus of Samothrace (early-mid 2nd Century BC), often considered the most prominent Homeric scholar of antiquity.
  • Didymus (First century BC), Grammarian.

The geographical diversity of the scholars suggests that the library was in fact a major centre for research and learning. In 2004, a Polish-Egyptian team found what they believe to be a part of the library while excavating in the Bruchion region. The archaeologists unearthed thirteen "lecture halls", each with a central podium. Zahi Hawass, the president of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, said that all together, the rooms uncovered so far could have seated 5000 students; the picture thus presented is most certainly of a fairly massive research institution, especially for that time.

The Library likely encompassed several buildings, with the main book depositories either directly attached to or located close to the oldest building, the Museum, and a daughter library in the younger Serapeum, which was also a temple dedicated to the god Serapis. It is not always clear in the sources whether a phrase refers to a particular building, or to the institution as a whole. This has served to add to the confusion about when and by whom the library was "destroyed." By the early 2nd century BC, Eumenes II of Mysia had founded a competing library and research centre in Pergamum.

The collection

A story concerns how its collection grew so large: by decree of Ptolemy III of Egypt, all visitors to the city were required to surrender all books and scrolls in their possession; these writings were then swiftly copied by official scribes. The originals were put into the Library, and the copies were delivered to the previous owners. This process also helped to create a reservoir of books in the relatively new city.

The library's collection was already famous in the ancient world, and became even more storied in later years. It is impossible, however, to determine how large the collection was in any era. The collection was made of papyrus scrolls. Later, parchment codices (predominant as a writing material after 300 AD) may have been substituted for papyrus. A single piece of writing might occupy several scrolls, and this division into self-contained "books" was a major aspect of editorial work. King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (309–246 BC) is said to have set 500,000 scrolls as an objective. Mark Antony was supposed to have given Cleopatra over 200,000 scrolls for the Library.

No index of the library survives, and it is not possible to know with certainty how large and how diverse the collection was. It is likely, for example, that even if the library had hundreds of thousands of scrolls (and thus, perhaps, tens of thousands of individual works), that many of these were duplicate copies or alternate versions of the same texts.

The destruction of the Library

Ancient and modern sources identify four possible occasions for the destruction of the Library:

  1. Caesar's conquest 48 BC
  2. the attack of Aurelian in the 3rd century AD
  3. the decree of Theophilus in 391 AD, and
  4. the Muslim conquest in 642 AD or thereafter.

Each of these has been viewed with suspicion by other scholars as an effort to place the blame on particular actors. Moreover, each of these events is historically problematic. In the first and second case, there is clear evidence that the library was not in fact destroyed at those times. The third episode has had some strong supporters, including Edward Gibbon, but still many dispute this. The fourth episode was not documented by any contemporary source, although some maintain that the final destruction of the Library took place at this time.

Plutarch's Lives, written at the end of the first or beginning of the second century AD, describes a battle in which Caesar was forced to burn his own ships, which in turn set fire to the docks and then the Library, destroying it. This would have occurred in 48 BC, during the fighting between Caesar and Ptolemy XII. However, there is no corroborating evidence that the library was in fact destroyed at this time. Only 25 years later Strabo saw the library and worked in it. Thus, any damage sustained by this battle was probably slight.

The library seems to have been maintained and continued in existence until its contents were largely lost during the taking of the city by the Emperor Aurelian (270–275 AD), who was suppressing a revolt. The smaller library located at the Serapeum survived, but part of its contents may have been taken to Constantinople to adorn the new capital in the course of the 4th century.

In 391, Emperor Theodosius I ordered the destruction of all pagan temples, and Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria complied with this request. Socrates Scholasticus provides the following account of the destruction of the temples in Alexandria in the fifth book of his Historia Ecclesiastica, written around 440:

5th century scroll which illustrates the destruction of the Serapeum by Theophilus (source: Christopher Haas: Alexandria in late antiquity, Baltimore 1997)
5th century scroll which illustrates the destruction of the Serapeum by Theophilus (source: Christopher Haas: Alexandria in late antiquity, Baltimore 1997)
Library of Alexandria
At the solicitation of Theophilus bishop of Alexandria the emperor issued an order at this time for the demolition of the heathen temples in that city; commanding also that it should be put in execution under the direction of Theophilus. Seizing this opportunity, Theophilus exerted himself to the utmost to expose the pagan mysteries to contempt. And to begin with, he caused the Mithreum to be cleaned out, and exhibited to public view the tokens of its bloody mysteries. Then he destroyed the Serapeum, and the bloody rites of the Mithreum he publicly caricatured; the Serapeum also he showed full of extravagant superstitions, and he had the phalli of Priapus carried through the midst of the forum. Thus this disturbance having been terminated, the governor of Alexandria, and the commander-in-chief of the troops in Egypt, assisted Theophilus in demolishing the heathen temples.
Library of Alexandria

The Serapeum housed part of the Library, but it is not known how many books were contained in it at the time of destruction. Notably, Paulus Orosius admitted in the sixth book of his History against the pagans: " Today there exist in temples book chests which we ourselves have seen, and, when these temples were plundered, these, we are told, were emptied by our own men in our time, which, indeed, is a true statement." Some or all of the books may have been taken, but any books left in the Serapeum at the time would have been destroyed when it was razed to the ground.

As for the Museum, Mostafa El-Abbadi writes in Life and Fate of the ancient Library of Alexandria (Paris 1992):

Library of Alexandria
The Mouseion, being at the same time a 'shrine of the Muses', enjoyed a degree of sanctity as long as other pagan temples remained unmolested. Synesius of Cyrene, who studied under Hypatia at the end of the fourth century, saw the Mouseion and described the images of the philosophers in it. We have no later reference to its existence in the fifth century. As Theon, the distinguished mathematician and father of Hypatia, herself a renowned scholar, was the last recorded scholar-member (c. 380), it is likely that the Mouseion did not long survive the promulgation of Theodosius' decree in 391 to destroy all pagan temples in the City.
Library of Alexandria

The tale of the Muslim destruction of the library comes from several Alexandrian historians, writing several hundred years later. The legend has it that the caliph Umar posed to commander Amr bin al 'Ass the following dilemma: "Touching the books you mention, if what is written in them agrees with the Book of God, they are not required; if it disagrees, they are not desired. Destroy them therefore." The tale goes on to say that the books fuelled the city's bath-houses for the next six months. Since the 18th century, this story has been universally regarded as a fiction. Normally it has been put down to Chistian crusader propaganda, but recently some historians, including Bernard Lewis, have argued that although the tale is certainly false, its true origin may be more complex.

Although the actual circumstances and timing of the physical destruction of the library remains uncertain, it is however clear that by the 8th century AD, the library was no longer a significant institution and had ceased to function in any important capacity. Alexandria was not a major research centre for the Islamic world. Moreover, if the collection had survived to the early 700s, it would very likely have been incorporated into the library of the Al-Azhar mosque (and later university) in Cairo. This collection has come down to the present intact, but does not include Alexandrine texts.

The Library in fiction

  • The " seaQuest DSV" episode " Treasures of the Mind" deals with the seaQuest discovering the library sunken deep beneath the Mediterranean Sea.
  • The fabled Masonic cache of treasure in the film National Treasure contained at least some of the scrolls from the Library of Alexandria.
  • In the novel Treasure by Clive Cussler, a large amount of the information from the library was rescued from the Roman empire and moved to present day Texas.
  • In the game Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, the adventurer heroine Lara Croft finds the Library in the level titled "The Lost Library".
  • A Disney comic story The Guardians of the Lost Library ( D 29380), by Don Rosa, features Scrooge McDuck and his nephews trying to find the Library, only to discover it had been converted into the Junior Woodchucks' guidebook.
  • The Terry Pratchett novel, Small Gods includes extensive descriptions of the Library of Ephebe which is a parody of the Library of Alexandria.
  • The Matthew Reily novel Seven Ancient Wonders mentions the Library of Alexandria
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