Lost Library of Alexandria

Fabled as the greatest repository of knowledge in the ancient world, the first university and the home of antiquity’s wisest scholars, the Library of Alexandria has passed into the realm of legend. Its destruction has been painted as one of the bleakest chapters in mankind’s intellectual history, contributing to Europe’s plunge into the Dark Ages and setting back the development of science, philosophy, medicine and literature, if not the cause of reason itself, by a millennium. The loss of the Library has even been described as ‘the day that history lost its memory’. The Library’s legend is enhanced by the layers of mystery that surround it. How big was it? What incredible riches were stored within? How was it destroyed, and by whom? And where are its remains?

Ancient and modern sources identify four possible occasions for the destruction of the Library of
  • Julius Caesar's Fire in The Alexandrian War, in 48 BC
  • The attack of Aurelian in the third century AD;
  • The decree of Theophilus in AD 391;
  • The Muslim conquest in AD 642 or thereafter.
The ancient accounts by Plutarch, Aulus Gellius, Ammianus Marcellinus, and Orosius agree that Caesar accidentally burned the library down during his visit to Alexandria in 48 BC. Although not confirmed in the accounts of contemporary historians, these accounts do suggest that the library was a thing of the past when Plutarch was writing around AD 100.

According to the earliest source of information, the pseudepigraphic Letter of Aristeas, the library was initially organized by Demetrius of Phaleron, a student of Aristotle under the reign of Ptolemy Soter. Built in the Brucheion (Royal Quarter) in the style of Aristotle's Lyceum, adjacent to and in service of the Musaeum (a Greek Temple or "House of Muses", hence the term "museum"), the library comprised a Peripatos walk, gardens, a room for shared dining, a reading room, lecture halls and meeting rooms. However, the exact layout is not known. This model's influence may still be seen today in the layout of university campuses.

The library itself is known to have had an acquisitions department (possibly built near the stacks, or for utility closer to the harbour), and a cataloguing department. The hall contained shelves for the collections of scrolls (as the books were at this time on papyrus scrolls), known as bibliothekai. Carved into the wall above the shelves, a famous inscription read: The place of the cure of the soul. The first known library of its kind to gather a serious collection of books from beyond its country's borders, the Library at Alexandria was charged with collecting all the world's knowledge. It did so through an aggressive and well-funded royal mandate involving trips to the book fairs of Rhodes and Athens and a (potentially apocryphal or exaggerated) policy of pulling the books off every ship that came into port. They kept the original texts and made copies to send back to their owners. This detail is informed by the fact that Alexandria, because of its man-made bidirectional port between the mainland and the Pharos island, welcomed trade from the East and West, and soon found itself the international hub for trade, as well as the leading producer of papyrus and, soon enough, books. The standard account of the library runs like this.

Alexander the Great founded Alexandria in 332 BCE but hung around just long enough to lay out the basic street plan and get construction underway. When he died a few years later, one of his generals, Ptolemy Soter, took control of Egypt and made Alexandria his capital, building great palaces and temples, including a temple to the Muses (or Museum). His son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus (ruled 282–246 BCE), started the library, which was based in or next to the Museum, using Aristotle’s personal library as its core. Ptolemy III Euergetes continued the work, determined to gather in the library all the knowledge in the world, and he instituted an aggressive policy of collection that involved acquiring scrolls, copying them and then returning the (inferior) copies while keeping the originals. He supposedly had every ship that passed through Alexandria searched for new scrolls and borrowed the entire scroll collection of Athens, willingly forfeiting his massive deposit in order to keep the originals.

Eventually the collection numbered over 500,000 scrolls – 700,000 by some accounts – making it, by a considerable margin, the greatest collection the ancient world had ever known. (The rival library at Pergamon was said to have 200,000 scrolls, which were supposedly transferred to Alexandria as a gift from Mark Anthony to Cleopatra, and the next biggest library in Rome had 20,000 at most.) Along with the collection of parchment (and later vellum) scrolls, the Ptolemies paid for a permanent faculty of 30–50 scholars to live and work at the library, and over the centuries their number included most of the greatest names of antiquity, including Euclid (father of geometry), Eratosthenes (who calculated the circumference of the Earth), Archimedes (legendary discoverer of the lever, the screw, and pi) and Galen (the most influential medical writer of the next 1,400 years). Thanks to the library, Alexandria became the centre of learning and knowledge for the entire Mediterranean world for over 600 years, and legends grew up around it.

One well-known story comes down to us from the scholar Aristeas (c180–145 BCE), the earliest source to mention the library, who tells how 72 rabbis were brought to the library to translate the Old Testament in Greek, and who, despite working in isolation from one another, arrived at 72 identical versions thanks to divine inspiration. Alongside the Royal (aka Great) Library were ‘daughter’ libraries, especially one housed at the Serapeum, a magnificent temple to Serapis founded by Ptolemy II. Later Roman emperors, including Claudius and Hadrian, also founded libraries in Alexandria. The Royal Library was probably not as big as legend contends. Historian James Hannam has calculated that storing 500,000 scrolls would require 40 kilometres (25 miles) of shelving, which in turn would mean that the Royal Library must have been a truly monumental building. None of the sources mention such a gargantuan edifice, and since the remains of the library have never been fully excavated its full extent remains a mystery.

Most telling, however, is the evidence from other ancient libraries that have left remains, which show that even those renowned for their wealth and breadth had collections numbering in the thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands. The finest library in the history of ancient Rome was the Library of Trajan, which probably contained around 20,000 scrolls, while the Library of Pergamon, arch-rival of the Alexandrian library, probably had around 30,000. The figure of 200,000 scrolls, which Mark Anthony is said to have taken from the Library of Pergamon and given to Cleopatra as a gift for the Alexandrian library, derives from a writer who recorded the figure as an example of falsehoods levelled at Mark Anthony by his enemies.

We also know that one of the librarians at Alexandria, Callimachus, made an extensive and detailed index of the library’s contents, called the Pinakes, including summaries and biographical notes about the authors. The Pinakes themselves consisted of about 120 scrolls – roughly 1 million words – which is far too small to cover 500,000 or more scrolls. The upshot is that the Royal Library was probably an order of magnitude smaller than popular legend supposes, which may help to explain how it could have disappeared from history without leaving more traces. The inflated figures probably result from a mixture of exaggeration by antique scribes and errors in copying of their works (which for many centuries depended on laborious transcription by hand from versions themselves many times removed from the original). Over time, and in the absence of more concrete evidence to the contrary, these inflated figures became part of the legend of the library. As well as debates about the size of the Alexandrian collection, there is an even more fundamental source of confusion in determining its fate, which is that it may be misleading to talk about the library in the singular. We know that there were at least two major libraries in Alexandria – the Royal Library associated with the Museum and the daughter library at the Serapeum. Each of these may have consisted of scattered buildings and/or collections, and so the historical picture becomes very complex.

During the centuries of Roman occupation, Alexandria endured an often turbulent history. It suffered extensive damage when it was conquered by Augustus in 30 BCE and again when Caracalla instituted a massacre of Alexandrians in revenge for a perceived insult in 215 CE. Later it was almost razed to the ground when rebels used it as a base and were savagely put down by the emperor Aurelian in 273 CE, and again, in similar circumstances, by the emperor Diocletian in 298 CE.

By the late 4th century it was a much reduced city, and many experts think it likely that if the Royal Library (the one associated with the Museum) did survive beyond the time of Caesar it was probably diminished, broken up and possibly destroyed at some point during these many troubles, but that records of the destruction have not come down to us today. Other Alexandrian libraries probably survived this period, however, and lasted until the late 4th century, a time of religious fundamentalism and extremism. Descriptions of these libraries, and their destruction, in late antique, Byzantine and medieval sources are probably the cause of confusion over the survival and eventual fate of the Royal Library.

It is almost certain that the Royal Library was long gone by this time, but the proud heritage of scholarship in Alexandria lived on in the form of the library in the Temple of Serapis – aka the Serapeum. The Serapeum was a mighty temple mainly constructed by Ptolemy III Euergetes (ruled 246–222 BCE) on a small hill, or acropolis, in the south-eastern corner of Alexandria. Ancient sources are confused as to when the temple acquired a library. Some experts argue that it was not until the middle of the 2nd century CE, during extensive refurbishment of the Serapeum after a number of fires in preceding centuries, that the Roman rulers of Alexandria founded a major collection there, meaning that it did not come ‘into play’ until well after the time of Caesar – an important detail when trying to understand what happened to the collections and when.

The historian James Hannam insists that close reading of the ancient sources does not support either of the traditional suspects fingered for the destruction of the Royal and Serapeum Libraries – Julius Caesar and Patriarch Theophilus respectively. Instead he argues that both collections may have already disappeared before these alleged destructive events took place, and that the real culprits have – in the eyes of history – got away with bibliotechnical murder. According to Hannam, Pharaoh Ptolemy VIII Physcon (ruled 145–116 BCE) may well have been responsible for the greatest crime in academic history. A bloody tyrant who usurped the throne and visited death and destruction on Alexandria, Physcon may have accidentally destroyed one of his kingdom’s greatest treasures during his attacks on the city.

There are few convincing references to the Royal Library as an existing entity after his reign, and a list of librarians recovered from an ancient garbage tip suggestively comes to an end at precisely this time. As for the loss of the Serapeum Library, Hannam accuses one of Patriarch Theophilus’ predecessors, George of Cappadocia. George was known to have presided over an earlier ransacking of the Serapeum, and on his death in 361 CE was also said to have in his possession a large collection of books and scrolls. The Emperor Julian (who coveted the collection himself) wrote that it was ‘very large and complete and contained philosophers of every school and many historians’. In summary, there are many suspects for the role of villain in this enduring mystery. Definitively pinning the crime on one of them might be easier if the crime scene itself could be examined, but the exact whereabouts of the Royal Library constitute another great enigma.

More conventional archaeological work may have succeeded where psychics failed, with the announcement in May 2004 that a joint Polish-Egyptian team excavating in the Bruchion quarter had uncovered what appeared to be a series of lecture theatres or auditoria. Thirteen lecture halls were discovered, each equipped with a central podium for the lecturer and offering seating for 5,000 students in total, apparently confirming the notion of the Royal Library as an ancient university or academy. Whether this really is the Royal Library, and if any evidence of the storage of scrolls has been discovered, remain mysteries, because since this initial and much-heralded announcement there has been no more word of the discovery or of any followup work. But, as the work of historians like James Hannam reveals, those hunting for evidence of a gigantic book repository of legendary dimensions are likely to be chasing a phantom. The Royal Library of Alexandria probably never existed in the form in which it has been immortalised in popular myth, and the final truth about it remains buried beneath modern Alexandria, awaiting discovery.

(Sources : Lost Histories “Exploring The World’s Most Famous Mysteries” by Joel Levy; and Wikipedia)

(Pic sources : Wikipedia)

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