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The Royal Library of Alexandria, or Ancient Library of Alexandria, in Alexandriamarker, Egyptmarker, was probably the largest, and certainly the most famous, of the libraries of the ancient world. It flourished under the patronage of the Ptolemaic dynasty and existed, and functioned as a major center of scholarship, at least until the time of Rome's conquest of Egypt, and probably for many centuries thereafter.

Generally thought to have been founded at the beginning of the third century BC, the library was conceived and opened either during the reign of Ptolemy I Soter or during the reign of his son Ptolemy II. Plutarch (AD 46–120) wrote that during his visit to Alexandria in 48 BC, Julius Caesar accidentally burned the library when he set fire to his own ships to frustrate Achillas' attempt to limit his ability to communicate by sea. According to Plutarch's account, this fire spread to the docks and then to the library.

However, this version of events is not confirmed in contemporary accounts of Caesar's visit. In fact, it has been reasonably established that segments of its collection were partially destroyed on several occasions before and after the first century BC. A modern myth (no older than the late eighteenth century) attributes the destruction to Coptic Christian Archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria in 391, who called for the destruction of the Serapeum; but in fact there was no connection between the library and the Serapeum, and no good historian of late antiquity takes the claim seriously. A more credible version of the story, not recorded till the thirteenth century, blames the Muslim sacking of Alexandria in 642.

Intended both as a commemoration and an emulation of the original, the Bibliotheca Alexandrinamarker was inaugurated in 2002 near the site of the old library.

The Library of Alexandria as a research institution

The Ancient Library of Alexandria.
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 (βιβλιοθῆκαι). 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 Rhodesmarker and Athensmarker 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.

Other than collecting works from the past, the library was also home to a host of international scholars, well-patronized by the Ptolemaic dynasty with travel, lodging and stipends for their whole families. As a research institution, the library filled its stacks with new works in mathematics, astronomy, physics, natural sciences and other subjects. It was at the Library of Alexandria that the scientific method was first conceived and put into practice, and its empirical standards applied in one of the first and certainly strongest homes for serious textual criticism. As the same text often existed in several different versions, comparative textual criticism was crucial for ensuring their veracity. Once ascertained, canonical copies would then be made for scholars, royalty and wealthy bibliophiles the world over, this commerce bringing income to the library. 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. These included, among others,

Collection

The Greek term bibliotheke (βιβλιοθήκη), used by many historians of the time, refers to the [royal] "Collection of Books", not to the building itself, nor to the social networks which sustained and operated the collection, which complicates the history and chronology of its destruction. The Royal Collection can be viewed as having begun in the Royal Quarter's building, commonly known as "The Great Library."

Scholars, particularly twenty-first century Arab/Muslim scholars, contest an ambiguous statement regarding Alexander's role in the creation of the library: Alexander, although picking the site and planning the general layout of the city, died before he could have a hand in the erection of the library or academy that was created in his name.

Already famous in the ancient world, the library's collection became even more storied in later years. However, it is now impossible to determine the collection's size in any era. Papyrus scrolls comprised the collection, and although parchment codices were used predominantly as a more advanced writing material after 300 BC, the Alexandrian Library is never documented as having switched to parchment, perhaps because of its strong links to the papyrus trade. (The Library of Alexandria in fact had an indirect cause in the creation of writing parchment - due to the library's critical need for papyrus, little was exported and thus an alternate source of copy material became essential.)

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 for the library. Mark Antony supposedly gave Cleopatra over 200,000 scrolls (taken from the great Library of Pergamum) for the library as a wedding gift, but this is regarded by some historians as a propagandist claim meant to show Antony's allegiance to Egypt rather than Rome. Carl Sagan, in his series Cosmos, states that the library contained nearly one million scrolls, though other experts have estimated a smaller number (he also gives a speculative description of its destruction, linking it to the death of Hypatia, again without corroboration). No index of the library survives, and it is not possible to know with certainty how large and how diverse the collection may have been. For example, it is likely that even if the Library of Alexandria had hundreds of thousands of scrolls (and thus perhaps tens of thousands of individual works), some of these would have been duplicate copies or alternate versions of the same texts.

A possibly apocryphal or exaggerated story concerns how the library's collection grew so large. By decree of Ptolemy III of Egypt, all visitors to the city were required to surrender all books and scrolls, as well as any form of written media in any language in their possession which, according to Galen, were listed under the heading "books of the ships". Official scribes then swiftly copied these writings, some copies proving so precise that the originals were put into the library, and the copies delivered to the unsuspecting owners. This process also helped to create a reservoir of books in the relatively new city.

According to Galen, Ptolemy III requested permission from the Athenians to borrow the original scripts of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, for which the Athenians demanded the enormous amount of fifteen talents as guarantee. Ptolemy happily paid the fee but kept the original scripts for the library. This story may also be constructed erroneously to show the power of Alexandria over Athens.

Destruction of the Library

Ancient and modern sources identify four possible occasions for the partial or complete destruction of the Library of Alexandria:

  1. Julius Caesar's Fire in The Alexandrian War, in 48 BC
  2. The attack of Aurelian in the third century AD;
  3. The decree of Theophilus in AD 391;
  4. 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.

Caesar's conquest in 48 BC

Plutarch's Parallel Lives, written at the end of the first or beginning of the second century, describes a battle in which Caesar was forced to burn his own ships:

William Cherf argued that this scenario had all the ingredients of a firestorm and 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 XIII. In the second century AD, the Roman historian Aulus Gellius wrote in his book Attic Nights that the Royal Alexandrian Library was burned by mistake when some of Caesar’s soldiers started a fire. Furthermore, in the fourth century, both the pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus and the Christian historian Orosius wrote that the Bibliotheca Alexandrina had been destroyed by Caesar's fire. The anonymous author of the Alexandrian Wars writes that the fires Caesar's soldiers had set to burn the Egyptian navy in the port of Alexandria went as far as burning a store full of papyri located near the port. However, the geographical study of the location of the historical Bibliotheca Alexandrina in the neighborhood of Bruchion suggests that this store cannot have been the Great Library. It is most probable here that these historians confused the two Greek words bibliothekas, which means “set of books”, with bibliotheka, which means library. As a result, they thought that what had been recorded earlier concerning the burning of some books stored near the port constituted the burning of the famous Alexandrian Library. In any case, whether the burned books were only some books found in storage or books found inside the library itself, the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD 65) refers to 40,000 books having been burnt at Alexandria. During Marcus Antonius' rule of the eastern part of the Empire (40-30 BC), he plundered the second largest library in the world (that at Pergamon) and presented the collection as a gift to Cleopatra as a replacement for the books lost to Caesar's fire.

Theodore Vrettos describes the damage caused by the fire: "The Roman galleys carrying the Thirty-Seventh Legion from Asia Minor had now reached the Egyptian coast, but because of contrary winds, they were unable to proceed toward Alexandria. At anchor in the harbor off Lochias, the Egyptian fleet posed an additional problem for the Roman ships. However, in a surprise attack, Caesar's soldiers set fire to the Egyptian ships, and the flames, spreading rapidly in the driving wind, consumed most of the dockyard, many structures near the palace, and also several thousand books that were housed in one of the buildings. From this incident, historians mistakenly assumed that the Great Library of Alexandria had been destroyed, but the Library was nowhere near the docks...The most immediate damage occurred in the area around the docks, in shipyards, arsenals, and warehouses in which grain and books were stored. Some 40,000 book scrolls were destroyed in the fire. Not at all connected with the Great Library, they were account books and ledgers containing records of Alexandria's export goods bound for Rome and other cities throughout the world."

However, the Royal Alexandrian Library was not the only library located in the city. There were at least two other libraries in Alexandria: the library of the Serapeum Temple and the library of the Cesarion Temple. The continuity of literary and scientific life in Alexandria after the destruction of the Royal Library, as well as the flourishing of the city as the world’s center for sciences and literature between the first and the sixth centuries AD, depended to a large extent on the presence of these two libraries and the books and references they contained. Thus, while it is historically recorded that the Royal Library was a private one for the royal family as well as for scientists and researchers, the libraries of the Serapeum and Cesarion temples were public libraries accessible to the people.

Furthermore, while the Royal Library was founded by Ptolemy II Philadelphus in the royal quarters of Bruchion near the palaces and the royal gardens, it was his son Ptolemy III who founded the Serapeum temple and its adjoined library in the popular quarters of Rhakotis. Later, the Serapeum library became known as the Daughter Library, because it contained copies of the original versions found in the Royal Library.

The next account we have is Strabo's Geographia in 28 BC, which does not mention the library specifically, but does mention--among other details--that he is unable to find a map in the city that he saw when on an earlier trip to Alexandria, pre-fire. Some scholars have used this account to infer the library was destroyed to its foundations and the collection destroyed (Abbadi). Certainty in this conclusion is shaken when one considers the context. The adjacent Museion was, according to the same account, fully functional--which requires the dubious assumption that one building could be perfectly fine while its neighbor was completely destroyed. Also, we do know that at this time the Daughter Library at the Serapeum was thriving and untouched by the fire, and as Strabo does not mention the library by name we can assert that for Strabo omission does not necessarily denote absence. Finally, as mentioned above, Strabo confirms the existence of the "Museion", of which the Great Library was the royal collection--and in his other mentions of the Sarapeum and Museion he and other historians are inconsistent in their descriptions of the entire compound or the temple buildings specifically. So we may not infer that by mentioning the father institute of the Museion, but not the library arm specifically, that it had in fact been demolished. Finally, as one of the world's leading geographers it is entirely possible that in the twenty-plus years since his last visit to the library, the map he was referencing--quite possibly a rare esoteric map considering his expertise and the vast collection of the library--that might have been either part of the library that was partially destroyed or just simply a victim of twenty years of wear, tear and disrepair in a library which no longer had the funds it once did to recopy and preserve its collection.

Therefore, the Royal Alexandrian Library may have been burned after Strabo’s visit to the city (25 BC) but before the beginning of the second century AD when Plutarch wrote. Otherwise Plutarch and later historians would not have mentioned the incident and mistakenly attributed it to Julius Caesar. It is also most probable that the library was destroyed by someone other than Caesar, although the later generations linked the fire that took place in Alexandria during Caesar’s time to the burning of the Bibliotheca. Some believe that the most likely scenario was the destruction that accompanied the wars between Zenobia of Palmyra and the Roman Emperor Aurelian, in the second half of the third century (see below).

Attack of Aurelian, third century

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), who was suppressing a revolt by Queen Zenobia of Palmyramarker. The smaller library located at the Serapeum survived, but part of its contents may have been taken to Constantinoplemarker to adorn the new capital in the course of the fourth century. However, Ammianus Marcellinus, writing around AD 378 seems to speak of the library in the Serapeum temple as a thing of the past, and he states that many of the Serapeum library's volumes were burnt when Caesar sacked Alexandria. As he says in Book 22.16.12-13:

Fifth century scroll which illustrates the destruction of the Serapeum by Theophilus.


While Ammianus Marcellinus may be simply reiterating Plutarch's tradition about Caesar's destruction of the library, it is possible that his statement reflects his own empirical knowledge that the Serapeum library collection had either been seriously depleted or was no longer in existence in his own day.

Decree of Theodosius, destruction by Theophilus in 391

In 391, Christian Emperor Theodosius I ordered the destruction of all "pagan" (non-Christian) temples, and the Christian 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:

The Mithraeum was an underground temple for worship of the god Mithras. Hundreds of such temples have been discovered throughout Europe, northern Africa, the Near East, and Great Britain.

The Serapeum once housed part of the Great Library, but it is not known how many, if any, books were contained in it at the time of destruction. Notably, the passage by Socrates Scholasticus, makes no clear reference to a library or library contents being destroyed, only to religious objects being destroyed. An earlier text by the pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus seems to indicate that, whatever books might have been housed at the Serapeum in the past, none were there in the last decade of the fourth century. The pagan author Eunapius of Sardis witnessed the demolition, and though he detested Christians, and was a scholar, his account of the Serapeum's destruction makes no mention of any library. Paulus Orosius admitted in the sixth book of his History against the pagans:

However, Orosius is not here discussing the Serapeum, nor is it clear who "our own men" are (the phrase may mean no more than "men of our time," since we know from contemporary sources that pagans also occasionally plundered temples).

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

John Julius Norwich, in his work Byzantium: The Early Centuries, places the destruction of the library's collection during the anti-Arian riots in Alexandria that transpired after the imperial decree of 391 (p.314).

Amr ibn al 'Aas conquest in 642

Several historians told varying accounts of an Arab army led by Amr ibn al 'Aas sacking the city in 642 after the Byzantine army was defeated at the Battle of Heliopolis. Some historians, including Alfred J. Butler, argue that, when the commander Amr ibn al-Aas asked the Caliph Umar on what to do with the library he gave the famous answer: "They will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, in which case they are superfluous." It is said that the Arabs subsequently burned the books to heat bathwater for the soldiers. Burning and destruction of the Library of Alexandria was reported to be the first act of sacking after Amr ibn al 'Aas forces entered the city. It was also said that the Library's collection was still substantial enough at this late date to provide six months' worth of fuel for the baths.

The first Western account of the book destruction was in Edward Pococke's 1663 translation of History of the Dynasties, and it was dismissed as a hoax or propaganda as early as 1713 by Fr. Eusèbe Renaudot. Over the centuries, numerous succeeding scholars have agreed with Fr. Renaudot's conclusion, including Alfred J. Butler, Victor Chauvin, Paul Casanova and Eugenio Griffini. More recently, in 1990, Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis argued that the original account may not be true, but that it survived over time because it was a useful account for the great twelfth century Kurdish Muslim Sultan of Egyptmarker and Syriamarker, Saladin who found it necessary to break up the Fatimid caliphate's collection of heretical Isma'ili texts in Cairo following his restoration of Sunnism to Egypt. Lewis proposes that the story of the caliph Umar's support of a library's destruction may have made Saladin's actions seem more acceptable to his people.

Bertrand Russell made the following remarks into this controversy

See also



Notes

  1. Arabella Burton Buckley. 1876. A short history of natural science and of the progress of discovery
  2. Bibliotheca Alexandrina website.
  3. Letter of Aristeas, 9–12.
  4. Entry Μουσείον at Liddell & Scott.
  5. Manguel, Alberto. The Library at Night. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008, p. 26.
  6. Erksine, Andrew. 1995. "Culture and Power in Ptolemaic Egypt: The Museum and Library of Alexandria". Greece & Rome, 2nd ser., 42(1), 38-48.
  7. Whibley, Leonard; A Companion to Greek Studies 1916 pp. 122–123.
  8. Tarn, W.W. 1928. Ptolemy II. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 14(3/4), 246-260.
  9. James Burke related this story in Episode 2 of Connections Series 1, "Death in the Morning".
  10. Aulus Gellius. Attic Nights book 7 chapter 17. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Gellius/7*.html
  11. Caesar, de bello alexandrino (the Alexandrian Wars).
  12. Jean-Yves Empereur, Alexandria - Jewel of Egypt, p. 43.
  13. Seneca, De Tranquillitate Animi (On Tranquility of Mind).
  14. Vrettos, Theodore. "Alexandria, City of the Western Mind". New York: The Free Press, 2001, pp. 93-94.
  15. Jean-Yves Empereur, Alexandria - Jewel of Egypt, p. 41.
  16. Jean-Yves Empereur, Alexandria - Jewel of Egypt, p. 18.
  17. Jean-Yves Empereur, Alexandria - Jewel of Egypt, p. 44.
  18. Staff Report: "What happened to the great Library of Alexandria? The Straight Dope, 6 December 2005
  19. Gibbon, Decline and Fall, ch. 28.
  20. from Alfred J. Butler's Arab Conquest of Egypt.
  21. The Free Copts - Who Burned the Historic Bibliotheca Alexandrina?
  22. Arabella Burton Buckley. 1876. A short history of natural science and of the progress of discovery
  23. Lewis, Bernard. "The Vanished Library". The New York Review of Books. 37(14). 27 September 1990.


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