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Who Destroyed the Great Library of Alexandria?

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The destruction of the great library of Alexandria has been lamented as one of the biggest losses of the ancient world. Nearly one million documents from across Assyria, Greece, Persia, Egypt, India and many other powerful civilizations at the time graced its shelves. No traces of the library have ever been found, but historic records speak of its devastating demise. 

The Rise of Alexandria

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 .

The Great Library of Alexandria ( CC by SA 4.0 )

Theory 1: Julius Caesar

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.

Theory 2: Christians

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 and converted into a Christian Church. Many documents are thought to have been destroyed in the process. However, this was not the Library of Alexandria, or for that matter, a library of any sort, although it is believed that it held about ten percent of the library of Alexandria’s documents.

No ancient sources mention the destruction of any library during this particular time period. Hence, there is no evidence that the Christians of the 4 th century destroyed the Library of Alexandria.

Theory 3: Muslims

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.

Mystery Remains

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.

While it may be convenient to blame one man or group of people for the destruction of what many consider to be the greatest library in the ancient world, it may be over-simplifying the matter.  

The library may not have gone up in flames at all, but rather could have been gradually abandoned over time. If the Library was created for the display of Ptolemaic wealth, then its decline could also have been linked to an economic decline. As Ptolemaic Egypt gradually declined over the centuries, this may have also had an effect on the state of the Library of Alexandria. If the Library did survive into the first few centuries AD, its golden days would have been in the past, as Rome became the new centre of the world.

Top image: Ancient scroll burning ( Elena Ray / Adobe Stock)       

By Ḏḥwty

References

Empereur, J.-Y., 2008. The Destruction of the Library of Alexandria: An Archaeological Viewpoint. In: M. El-Abbadi & O. M. Fathallah, eds. What Happened to the Ancient Library of Alexandria?. Leiden; Boston: Brill, pp. 75-88.

Newitz, A., 2013. The Great Library at Alexandria was Destroyed by Budget Cuts, Not Fire. [Online]
Available at: http://io9.com/the-great-library-at-alexandria-was-destroyed-by-budget-1442659066
[Accessed 8 May 2014].

Plutarch, Life of Julius Caesar ,
[Perrin, B. (trans.), 1919. Plutarch's Lives. London: William Heinemann.]

Wikipedia, 2014. Destructionn of the Library of Alexandria. [Online]
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Destruction_of_the_Library_of_Alexandria
[Accessed 8 May 2014].

Comments

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.

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

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

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.

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