The destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria

The destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria

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Alexandria, one of the greatest cities of the ancient world, was founded by Alexander the Great after his conquest of Egypt in 332 BC.  After the death of Alexander in Babylon in 323 BC, Egypt fell to the lot of one of his lieutenants, Ptolemy. It was under Ptolemy that the newly-founded Alexandria came to replace the ancient city of Memphis as the capital of Egypt. This marked the beginning of the rise of Alexandria. Yet, no dynasty can survive for long without the support of their subjects, and the Ptolemies were keenly aware of this. Thus, the early Ptolemaic kings sought to legitimize their rule through a variety of ways, including assuming the role of pharaoh, founding the Graeco-Roman cult of Serapis, and becoming the patrons of scholarship and learning (a good way to show off one’s wealth, by the way). It was this patronage that resulted in the creation of the great Library of Alexandria by Ptolemy. Over the centuries, the Library of Alexandria was one of the largest and most significant libraries in the ancient world. The great thinkers of the age, scientists, mathematicians, poets from all civilizations came to study and exchange ideas.  As many as 700,000 scrolls filled the shelves. However, in one of the greatest tragedies of the academic world, the Library became lost to history and scholars are still not able to agree on how it was destroyed.

Library of Alexandria

An artist’s depiction of the Library of Alexandria. Image source .

Perhaps one of the most interesting accounts of its destruction comes from the accounts of the Roman writers. According to several authors, the Library of Alexandria was accidentally destroyed by Julius Caesar during the siege of Alexandria in 48 BC. Plutarch, for instance, provides this account:

when the enemy tried to cut off his (Julius Caesar’s) fleet, he was forced to repel the danger by using fire, and this spread from the dockyards and destroyed the great library. 
(Plutarch, The Life of Julius Caesar, 49.6)

This account is dubious, however, as the Musaeum (or Mouseion) at Alexandria, which was right next to the library was unharmed, as it was mentioned by the geographer Strabo about 30 years after Caesar’s siege of Alexandria. Nevertheless, Strabo does not mention the Library of Alexandria itself, thereby supporting the claim that Caesar was responsible for burning it down. However, as the Library was attached to the Musaeum, and Strabo did mention the latter, it is possible that the library was still in existence during Strabo’s time. The omission of the library can perhaps be attributed either to the possibility that Strabo felt no need to mention the library, as he had already mentioned the Musaeum, or that the library was no longer the centre of scholarship that it once was (the idea of ‘budget cuts’ seems increasingly probable). In addition, it has been suggested that it was not the library, but the warehouses near the port, which stored manuscripts, that was destroyed by Caesar’s fire.

The second possible culprit would be the Christians of the 4 th century AD. In 391 AD, the Emperor Theodosius issued a decree that officially outlawed pagan practices. Thus, the Serapeum or Temple of Serapis in Alexandria was destroyed. However, this was not the Library of Alexandria, or for that matter, a library of any sort. Furthermore, no ancient sources mention the destruction of any library at this time at all. Hence, there is no evidence that the Christians of the 4 th century destroyed the Library of Alexandria.

The last possible perpetrator of this crime would be the Muslim Caliph, Omar. According to this story, a certain “John Grammaticus” (490–570) asks Amr, the victorious Muslim general, for the “books in the royal library." Amr writes to the Omar for instructions and Omar replies: "If those books are in agreement with the Quran, we have no need of them; and if these are opposed to the Quran, destroy them.” There are at least two problems with this story. Firstly, there is no mention of any library, only books. Secondly, this was written by a Syrian Christian writer, and may have been invented to tarnish the image of Omar.

Unfortunately, archaeology has not been able to contribute much to this mystery. For a start, papyri have rarely been found in Alexandria, possibly due to the climatic condition, which is unfavourable for the preservation of organic material. Secondly, the remains of the Library of Alexandria itself have not been discovered. This is due to the fact that Alexandria is still inhabited by people today and only salvage excavations are allowed to be carried out by archaeologists.

Comments

pkoutoupis's picture

Great article! While you allude to the Arab conquest of Egypt, it has been suggested that alot of the manuscripts did survive and were transported to Damascus and as we all know Damascus rose to become quite the center for knowledge after Alexandria.

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Petros Koutoupis

www.petroskoutoupis.com

 
Justbod's picture

Great article! Ever since I learnt of the library at Alexandria I have wondered how the world might have been different if the knowledge within its walls had survived. One of history's great 'what ifs....'

Sculptures, carvings & artwork inspired by a love of history & nature: www.justbod.co.uk

 

 

 

There's also another possibility, though not one that targeted the Library specifically: The Alexandrians sided with the Syrian queen Zenobia during her 3rd century A.D. revolt, and while the Library was not specifically mentioned in accounts of fighting between Alexandians and Roman soldiers who came to bring the city back into the fold, a great deal of the Library's quarter of the city was burned. Some of the research I've done on my own suggests that while the Library still survived in the 5th century (when Hypatia was there), it was vastly reduced from previous generations.

I would like to get straight that it was reconquest....not conquest

The Omar theory seems close. Why, because of ... a similar library Nalanda that was world reknowned in ancient India - destroyed by Muslim invaders with fire. And Taxshashila.

I was so often wondering what we could have learned from all those supposedly destroye scrolls. It is not very interesting to me who – maybe – destroyed the library.

Very interesting is the idea that it was not destroyed at all, but maybe survived till the 5th century. Mm, so – if true  where are they now.

Sunny Young

It is said in the article that the muslim Kalif Omar could be the one who burned and destroyed the library in the years of somewhere between AD 490-570. I would remind you all good people on this site, that nothing could be more wrong! Let us recall that Muhammed dictaded "the words of Gabriel" which became the KORAN, first somewhere AD 630-650. The Islam was founded after these years. But the myth of a muslim general burning down a library or akademi might refer to the burnig down of such as Zoroastric /Sassidik library in Persia, sorry I dont remember the name in this second. There is a lot written on the myth of Pythia and her father, librarians in Alexandria, who were killed by a Christian mobb, who wanted to destroy all pagan knowledge! Does it sound somehow familjar, according to the Islamic mobb called IS or Daesh, who in the name of Allah and Islam in this very moment are destroying a greate culturall heritage somewhere in Syria.

16 min · Gilla
 

Vlade N.

It is said in the article that the muslim Kalif Omar could be the one who burned and destroyed the library in the years of somewhere between AD 490-570. I would remind you all good people on this site, that nothing could be more wrong! Let us recall that Muhammed dictaded "the words of Gabriel" which became the KORAN, first somewhere AD 630-650. The Islam was founded after these years. But the myth of a muslim general burning down a library or akademi might refer to the burnig down of such as Zoroastric /Sassidik library in Persia, sorry I dont remember the name in this second. There is a lot written on the myth of Pythia and her father, librarians in Alexandria, who were killed by a Christian mobb, who wanted to destroy all pagan knowledge! Does it sound somehow familjar, according to the Islamic mobb called IS or Daesh, who in the name of Allah and Islam in this very moment are destroying a greate culturall heritage somewhere in Syria.

16 min · Gilla
 

Vlade N.

Peter Harrap's picture

Libraries are flammable. Egypt is hot, but people still smoke. They did then. Just one glowing rope end left accidentally on a shelf, or a candle? You do accept they also had candles? Good.

The great flood that wiped out the last civilization only happened like 3.5 thousand years ago! Vedantins like Julius Caesar wiped out all the knowledge he could. They burned the knowledge that Nikola Tesla tried to bring back! The three Giza pyramids. ( Giza power plants! Math that Hermes (Thoth gave to Pythagoras sacred geometry) Knowledge that showed man's death was an eathereal ( spiritual death and imprisoned in the ELF state! Energy Low Frequency. so we could not shift into the energy state of higher of different dimensions. We lost our wings and gave You must wounder if Sumeria was so advanced than why did they write on clay? Easy. They did not want all information lost! They hid this in the older cities they built over on top !This why we have some of the truth that Vedatins like JP Morgan, Rockefeller, Rothschild, Henry Ford,Extra of the Greed law makers that have been in power after the flood 3.5 thousand years ago will keep the nowledge from fallen in our hands. Controlling us with Superstition and myth of religions! Nikola Tesla! Steeling great knowledge of the past and keeping it for themselves. They do this because Just because all is true does not mean there is not a creator. They use the Excuse that people would panic out of fear not seeing God in the human form( an old man sitting on a chair. That sound foolish We need to except this is the worse civilization out of all the rest. Man was a higher life from but we devolved instead of evolving into a wasteful, destructive, greedy, materialistic civilization! This one is now punching holes in the Ionosphere. We can use the vacuum of space for energy but we can not punch holes into it. That would end the life force of Earth, making us as Mars. tells us that mars was in a closer orbit to Earth , Wehad space stations on it but something made And to ad to that the ancient knowledge lost shows and proves that we had a pole shift recently by maps found showing Antarctica without ice different Latitude (mean long) the plate I believe may shift not just in Lat, But in Latitude and Longitude. . Mars was closer and had an atmosphere and Oceans, Life close to our own. Do research and read the lost books of EA (Enki. i study physics, ancient history, and astrology.

I want to know more about the books you've read. Please help point me in a good direction. I love Tesla, btw. Look forward to hearing from you !

John Grammaticus” (490–570) could not have told a story about Amr who conquered Egypt in 640. Anachronizm.

John Grammaticus” (490–570) could not have told a story about Amr who conquered Egypt in 640. Anachronizm.

Cleopatra

was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a family of Macedonian Greek origin that ruled Egypt three centuries long during the Hellenistic era.

Ptolemy the first (Soter) was Alexander the Great's half-brother, his classmate at Aristotle school in Mieza, Macedonia, Greece, and one of his generals during Alexander's campaign in Asia. Therfore Cleo was an Alexander the Great's distant descedant.

The Ptolemies, throughout their dynasty, spoke Greek and refused to speak Egyptian, which is the reason that Greek as well as Egyptian languages were used on official court documents such as the Rosetta Stone.

The name derives from the Greek components: ΚΛΕΟΣ -ΠΑΤΉΡ =father's glory.

The name "Egypt" derives from the Greek components: ΑΙΓΑΙΟ-ΗΠΤΙΟ=behind (the) Aegean (sea).

The name Ptolemy derives from the Greek ΠΤΟΛΕΜΑΙΟΣ<Πολεμαιος<ΠΟΛΕΜΟΣ=war, Therefore the name means: "aggresive, warlike".

One of the greatest acts of vandalism of ancient texts occured during the fourth Crusade in 1204, when Crusaders destroyed huge quanitities of books in their sack and conquest of Constantinople.
Even so, after the restoration of the native emperors the Byzantines managed to accumulate another library, which, when the city was once again threatened in 1453 by the Ottomans, Constantine XI determined not to allow the same vandalism to happen, so he had the remaining library that was left of the Roman Empire packed up and sent north with the new Paleologus bride of the Russian czar Ivan III (married off to maintain the continuation of Roman Imperial rule in Moscow) in the last few weeks of the Byzantine Empire, where it was deposited in a masonry library under the Kremlin where it apparently remains. The only trouble is that no one has been able to locate the library after Ivan the Terrible killed everyone in the Kremlin who knew where it was, and he took the secret of its whereabouts to the grave. The Russians should contnue the search for the Liberia, as it is called, which was undertaken by Stalin but who put a stop to the search prior to WW II. Also, worth mentioning is the discovery and search for palimpsests in the books of medieval times, some of which have been found to contain lost Classical texts.

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