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Library of Alexandria

The Royal Library of Alexandria was once the largest in the Mediterranean world. It is usually assumed to have been founded at the beginning of the 3rd century BC during the reign of Ptolemy II of Egypt after his father had set up the Temple of the Muses or Museum. The initial organization is attributed to Demetrius Phalereus. Since most writings from the ancient world have been lost, most stories about the Library are gathered from bits and pieces of information in various histories and legends - because of this they are rarely reliable. The library is estimated to have stored at its peak 400,000 to 700,000 scrolls.

One story holds that the Library was seeded, so to speak, with Aristotle's own private collection, through one of his students, Demetrius. Another 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. While encroaching on the rights of the traveler or merchant, it also helped to create a reservoir of books in the relatively new city.

The Library's contents were likely distributed over several buildings, with the main library either located directly attached to or close to the oldest building, the Museum, and a daughter library in the younger Serapeum, also a temple dedicated to the God Serapis[?]. Edward Parsons provides the following description of the main library based on the existing historical records:

A covered marble colonnade connected the Museum with an adjacent stately building, also in white marble and stone, architecturally harmonious, indeed forming an integral part of the vast pile, dedicated to learning by the wisdom of the first Ptolemy in following the advice and genius of Demetrios of Phaleron. This was the famous Library of Alexandria, the "Mother" library of the Museum, the Alexandriana, truly the foremost wonder of the ancient world. Here in ten great Halls, whose ample walls were lined with spacious armaria, numbered and titled, were housed the myriad manuscripts containing the wisdom, knowledge, and information, accumulated by the genius of the Hellenic peoples. Each of the ten Halls was assigned to a separate department of learning embracing the assumed ten divisions of Hellenic knowledge as may have been found in the Catalogue of Callimachus of Greek Literature in the Alexandrian Library, the farfamed Pinakes. The Halls were used by the scholars for general research, although there were smaller separate rooms for individuals or groups engaged in special studies.

Destruction of the Great Library

One of the reasons so little is known about the Library is that it was probably burned to the ground centuries after its creation. All that is left of many of the volumes are tantalizing titles that hint at all the history lost from the building's destruction.

One of the stories about what caused the loss of the Library concerns Julius Caesar. Edward Parsons has analyzed this theory in his book The Alexandrian Library. His summary is:

A final summary is interesting: of the 16 writers, 10, Caesar himself, the author of the Alexandrian War, Cicero, Strabo, Livy (as far as we know), Lucan, Florus, Suctonius, Appian, and even Athenaeus apparently knew nothing of the burning of the Museum, of the Library, or of Books during Caesar's visit to Egypt; and 6 tell of the incident as follows:

1. Seneca (49 A.D.), the first writer to mention it (and that nearly 100 years after the alleged event), definitely says that 40,000 books were burned.

2. Plutarch (c. 117 A.D.) says that the fire destroyed the great Library.

3. Aulus Gellius (123-169 A.D.) says that during the "sack" of Alexandria 700,000 volumes were all burned.

4. Dion Cassius (155-235 A.D.) says that storehouses containing grain and books were burned, and that these books were of great number and excellence.

5. Ammianus (390 A.D.) says that in the "sack" of the city 70,000 volumes were burned.

6. Orosius (c. 415 A.D.), the last writer, singularly confirms Seneca as to number and the thing destroyed: 40,000 books.

The majority of ancient historians, even those who have tried to discredit Caesar with everything they could find, give no account of the alleged massive disaster. This is hardly surprising when we note that the library was not mentioned by any historians while it still existed either. We have only one contemporary reference to it and that is in the Jewish apographical work, the Letter of Aristeas. It is also inconcievable that Seneca, Plutarch, Aulus Gellius and Ammianus would be writing about the destruction of the library if it still existed! We cannot be sure it was destroyed by Caesar but we can be sure it no longer existed by about 100AD.

It is also notable that Plutarch, who claimed the Great Library was destroyed (150 years after the alleged incident), in Life of Antony also describes the later transfer of the second largest library to Alexandria by Mark Antony as a gift to Cleopatra ("that he had given her the library of Pergamus, containing two hundred thousand distinct volumes"). We should note, however, that Plutarch himself states this story was propaganda by Antony's enemies and that the excavated library at Pergamum has room for only about 30,000 scrolls anyway.

The destruction of the library is attributed by some historians to a period of civil war in the late 3rd century AD -- but we know that the Museum, which was adjacent to the library, survived until the 4th century. Other theories involve the hand of Theophilus[?], a Christian bishop, or the Caliph Omar, an early Muslim. "The Venerable Bede" argues that both of these accounts have many issues regarding their reliability. The account which indicts Theophilus, he claims, is simply incorrect on the time scale and location. The first writer to mention Christians destroying the Library was Edward Gibbon in the 18th century - no ancient sources say so at all. For Omar, he concludes that the theory seems to have begun in the Middle Ages as a Christian attack on the Muslims, and includes many indications of fabrication, such as the claim that the contents of the Library took six months to burn in Alexandria's public baths.

It is generally known that Theophilus did in fact destroy some pagan temples that existed in Alexandria in 391 AD, most famously the Serapeum, but it is uncertain whether the Serapeum still contained books at the time or whether those had been lost earlier. Ammianus, a pagan historian, says it did not. Socrates Scholasticus gives the following account of the destruction of the temples:

"Demolition of the Idolatrous Temples at Alexandria, and the Consequent Conflict between the Pagans and Christians."

"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 rights 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. These were therefore razed to the ground, and the images of their gods molten into pots and other convenient utensils for the use of the Alexandrian church; for the emperor had instructed Theophilus to distribute them for the relief of the poor. All the images were accordingly broken to pieces, except one statue of the god before mentioned, which Theophilus preserved and set up in a public place; `Lest,' said he, `at a future time the heathens should deny that they had ever worshiped such gods.'"

The following scroll from the early 5th century illustrates the destruction of the Serapeum by Theophilus (source: Christopher Haas: Alexandria in late antiquity, Baltimore 1997):

To commemorate the ancient library, the government of Egypt has built a major library and museum complex at Alexandria, called the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Its website is available at http://www.bibalex.gov.eg (http://www.bibalex.gov.eg).


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