Nov 3, 2008

The Alexandria Library

This has been a topic of choice for many writers of mystery and intrigue, most recently Steve Berry and Clive Cussler (Treasure). The Steve Berry novel Alexandria Link that I read gives a brief history of the library, sufficient to raise interest in the mind of people who are fond of history, people like me.The search for further information was not conclusive, but nevertheless provided much insight. Some people still feel that the keepers have secreted the vast hoard of books somewhere…

Most celebrated from ancient times, it was started by famous people like Ptolemy and Philadelphus. It had a number of distinguished keepers over the ages and suffered repeated losses & disasters. At one time it had over 700,000 works. Destruction of the library has been attributed to the mistaken zeal of the Christians in the time of Theodosius the great and later to the fury of Saracens under Omar in 642AD.

The times were not great – Romans burnt the books of the Jews, Christians and philosophers, The Jews burnt the books of Christians and the pagans, and the Christians vice versa. Gibbons in his ‘rise and fall…..”describes the pathetic situation at the Library of Alexandria after destruction by the Christians, – The valuable library of Alexandria was pillaged or destroyed and near twenty years after wards, the appearance of empty shelves excited the regret and indignation of every spectator whose mind was not darkened by religious prejudice. The compositions of ancient geniuses so many of which have irretrievably perished might surely have been exempted from the wreck of idolatry, for the amusement and instruction of succeeding ages and either the zeal or the avarice of the archbishop may have been satiated with the richest spoils which were the rewards of his victory.

The library was set up during the reign of the three Ptolemy’s of Alexandria. Ptolemy Soter (306-285BC) laid the foundation. The endowment was continued by Ptolemy Philadelphus who had the celebrated Callimachuis as his librarian. Callimachus collected great works such as those or Aristotle and had many others translated.

However, the library in addition to having a number of original versions made the first translations and copies. Some say originals were kept and copies given back to authors, but it is difficult to attest.

The first translations were made by Mantho the priest. He translated the first sacred books of Jerusalem into Greek to create what are known as the version of the seventy.

Ann Charlotte Botta concluded that the work of destruction of the empire was started by Theodosius in the 4th century and Saracens completed the destruction in the 7th century. Justinian closed the schools of Athens and the only remaining works were in Constantinople.

Thomas Done states – There was this immense library in Alexandria started by the Ptolemies. Standing at the waters edge, the library was situated in the Alexandrian museum at Bruchion . The apartments which were allotted to it were beautifully sculptured and crowded with the choicest statues and pictures, the building made with marble. Initially it built up a collection of 400000 volumes. Due to space constraints a second library was established and placed in the temple of Serapis. This daughter library had 300000 volumes. The objectives were three 1. for the perpetuation of knowledge (buy at the kings expense any number of books) , 2. for the increase of knowledge, 3. diffusion of knowledge.

People flocked to this library and it is said that at one time 14000 students were in attendance. During the siege of Alexandria by Caeser (some say accidentally when his ships were burnt and later again when it was sacked by Aurelian) it was burnt down. Supposedly, to make amends, the library of Euemens (from Pergamom - Izmir Turkey) was presented to Cleopatra by Anthony. This third library was the one burnt down in 329AD by Theophilus (385-412AD) the bishop of Alexandria. On the foundation was built a church.

The tragedy did not stop – even after the destruction, a brave lady Hypatia, daughter of Theon used to conduct lectures on whatever she knew. Alexandria continued to flock to her. One day, Saint Cyrils (!!) monks numbering a great many, stripped her & dragged her through the streets to a church where ‘Peter the reader’ struck her dead with his club. The corpse was cut to pieces, the flesh was scraped off the bones with shells and the remnants cast into afire.

Starbo, Euclid, Archemedis and so many others studied and taught there…The Old Testament was translated here by Ebenezer & his 70 elders. However the library was reestablished in some fashion and survived till the arrival of Caliph Omar.

The subsequent sacking & burning by Omar the Khalif of Sacria is even more shocking who having proclaimed that the Koran has already all the answers and that no other book need survive. This was in 642 AD. The books were used as fuel instead of wood for a period of 6 months (Ancient history-Chares Rollin)

Historically there has been much debate as to who destroyed the libraries, the Christians (Orosious visit 20 years after the first destruction confirms the destruction by Theophilus – he was the first to record the empty shelves) or Muslims. The matter was investigated in the Gibbon book and subsequently by so many and the above narrative could be considered true though in public domain one many find other stories favoring one or the other faction mentioned above.

Some historians state that many of the books were moved to Constantinople after the library destruction by Theophilus. There they rested for another 1000 years till this Seraglio library was also burnt down in 1204 during the 4th crusade! Some books were saved and remained in the Ottoman library in Istanbul, but are not mentioned anymore.
Or did the books disappear or move on to another place?

That was as some say, the end of free thought, for a very very long period since then…

The new library of Alexandria is also an awesome monument, inspired by the old library. Today it is a visitors stop as well.

Manual of Classical Literature - By Johann Joachim Eschenburg, Nathan Welby Fiske (pg 339)
Curiosities of Literature By Isaac Disraeli Pg 17
Hand-book of Universal Literature By Anne Charlotte Botta
Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge - By Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (Great Britain)
Bible myths – Thomas Done
19th century – Knowles Page 568
Story of books – Burford Rawlings

Inscription - By Tiberius Claudius Balbilus of Rome (d. 56 AD) which confirms that the Library of Alexandria must have existed in some form in the first century AD.

Update - Mar 2009

I completed reading another source recently - 'The vanished Library' by Luciano Canfora. According to him, the library was not a library at all. The books were lined on the walls of the palace museum and was not really open to the public until much later. The library was never set fire to during the Ceasar visit, but it was another godown where 40,000 books kept for shipment to Rome that caught fire. He also says that after the early days the library just fell into disuse and the books that remained were burnt by Emir Amoru, Caliph Omar's deputy in Alexandria. Curiously the only books that the library could never possess were the great Aristotle teachings and the books from India, Persia etc. Canfora also clarifies that the biggest rivalry was between the library at Pergamon and Alexandria and that the books from Pergamom were never given to Alexandria...

The mystery continues....

Pics - Brittanica Dedrofy & others ackd with thanks


Arby K said...

Was the third library burnt in 329? (Wiki says 391). Theophilus should have been awfully old when he died, otherwise.
Wish it was 329, though. Always on the hunt for conspiracies during Constantine's regime.

Maddy said...

Sorry boss that was a typo - should be 392AD