Library of Alexandria

Library of Alexandria

Overview
The Royal Library of Alexandria, or Ancient Library of Alexandria, in Alexandria
Alexandria
Alexandria is the second-largest city of Egypt, with a population of 4.1 million, extending about along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the north central part of the country; it is also the largest city lying directly on the Mediterranean coast. It is Egypt's largest seaport, serving...

, Egypt
Egypt
Egypt , officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, Arabic: , is a country mainly in North Africa, with the Sinai Peninsula forming a land bridge in Southwest Asia. Egypt is thus a transcontinental country, and a major power in Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East and the Muslim world...

, was the largest and most significant great library of the ancient world
Great libraries of the ancient world
The great libraries of the ancient world served as archives for empires, sanctuaries for sacred writings, and depositories of literature and chronicles.-Syria, Iraq, Iran:...

. It flourished under the patronage of the Ptolemaic dynasty
Ptolemaic dynasty
The Ptolemaic dynasty, was a Macedonian Greek royal family which ruled the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt during the Hellenistic period. Their rule lasted for 275 years, from 305 BC to 30 BC...

 and functioned as a major center of scholarship from its construction in the 3rd century BC until the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BC. The library was conceived and opened either during the reign of Ptolemy I Soter
Ptolemy I Soter
Ptolemy I Soter I , also known as Ptolemy Lagides, c. 367 BC – c. 283 BC, was a Macedonian general under Alexander the Great, who became ruler of Egypt and founder of both the Ptolemaic Kingdom and the Ptolemaic Dynasty...

 (323–283 BC) or during the reign of his son Ptolemy II (283–246 BC).

Plutarch
Plutarch
Plutarch then named, on his becoming a Roman citizen, Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus , c. 46 – 120 AD, was a Greek historian, biographer, essayist, and Middle Platonist known primarily for his Parallel Lives and Moralia...

 (AD 46–120) wrote that during his visit to Alexandria in 48 BC Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar
Gaius Julius Caesar was a Roman general and statesman and a distinguished writer of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the gradual transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire....

 "accidentally" burned the library down when he set fire to his own ships to frustrate Achillas
Achillas
Achillas was one of the guardians of the Egyptian king Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator, and commander of the king's troops, when Pompey fled to Egypt in 48 BC...

' attempt to limit his ability to communicate by sea.
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Encyclopedia
The Royal Library of Alexandria, or Ancient Library of Alexandria, in Alexandria
Alexandria
Alexandria is the second-largest city of Egypt, with a population of 4.1 million, extending about along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the north central part of the country; it is also the largest city lying directly on the Mediterranean coast. It is Egypt's largest seaport, serving...

, Egypt
Egypt
Egypt , officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, Arabic: , is a country mainly in North Africa, with the Sinai Peninsula forming a land bridge in Southwest Asia. Egypt is thus a transcontinental country, and a major power in Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East and the Muslim world...

, was the largest and most significant great library of the ancient world
Great libraries of the ancient world
The great libraries of the ancient world served as archives for empires, sanctuaries for sacred writings, and depositories of literature and chronicles.-Syria, Iraq, Iran:...

. It flourished under the patronage of the Ptolemaic dynasty
Ptolemaic dynasty
The Ptolemaic dynasty, was a Macedonian Greek royal family which ruled the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt during the Hellenistic period. Their rule lasted for 275 years, from 305 BC to 30 BC...

 and functioned as a major center of scholarship from its construction in the 3rd century BC until the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BC. The library was conceived and opened either during the reign of Ptolemy I Soter
Ptolemy I Soter
Ptolemy I Soter I , also known as Ptolemy Lagides, c. 367 BC – c. 283 BC, was a Macedonian general under Alexander the Great, who became ruler of Egypt and founder of both the Ptolemaic Kingdom and the Ptolemaic Dynasty...

 (323–283 BC) or during the reign of his son Ptolemy II (283–246 BC).

Plutarch
Plutarch
Plutarch then named, on his becoming a Roman citizen, Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus , c. 46 – 120 AD, was a Greek historian, biographer, essayist, and Middle Platonist known primarily for his Parallel Lives and Moralia...

 (AD 46–120) wrote that during his visit to Alexandria in 48 BC Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar
Gaius Julius Caesar was a Roman general and statesman and a distinguished writer of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the gradual transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire....

 "accidentally" burned the library down when he set fire to his own ships to frustrate Achillas
Achillas
Achillas was one of the guardians of the Egyptian king Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator, and commander of the king's troops, when Pompey fled to Egypt in 48 BC...

' attempt to limit his ability to communicate by sea. After its destruction, scholars used a "daughter library" in a temple known as the Serapeum, located in another part of the city.

Intended both as a commemoration and an emulation of the original, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina
Bibliotheca Alexandrina
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina or Maktabat al-Iskandarīyah is a major library and cultural center located on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea in the Egyptian city of Alexandria...

was inaugurated in 2002 near the site of the old library.

In 2004, a Polish-Egyptian excavation team announced that they had discovered the remains of the Library of Alexandria.

History


According to the earliest source of information, the pseudepigraphic Letter of Aristeas
Letter of Aristeas
The so-called Letter of Aristeas or Letter to Philocrates is a Hellenistic work of the 2nd century BCE, one of the Pseudepigrapha. Josephus who paraphrases about two-fifths of the letter, ascribes it to Aristeas and written to Philocrates, describing the Greek translation of the Hebrew Law by...

, the library was initially organized by Demetrius of Phaleron
Demetrius Phalereus
Demetrius of Phalerum was an Athenian orator originally from Phalerum, a student of Theophrastus and one of the first Peripatetics...

, a student of Aristotle
Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

, under the reign of Ptolemy Soter (ca.367 BC—ca.283 BC).
Built in the Brucheion (Royal Quarter) in the style of Aristotle's Lyceum, adjacent to and in service of the Musaeum
Musaeum
The Musaeum or Mouseion at Alexandria , which included the famous Library of Alexandria, was an institution founded, according to Johannes Tzetzes, by Ptolemy I Soter or, perhaps more likely, by Ptolemy II Philadelphus at Hellenistic Alexandria in Egypt. The Mouseion remained supported by the...

 (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. The influence of this model 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. A hall contained shelves for the collections of scrolls (as the books were at this time on papyrus scrolls), known as bibliothekai (βιβλιοθῆκαι). Legend has it that carved into the wall above the shelves was an inscription that 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
Rhodes
Rhodes is an island in Greece, located in the eastern Aegean Sea. It is the largest of the Dodecanese islands in terms of both land area and population, with a population of 117,007, and also the island group's historical capital. Administratively the island forms a separate municipality within...

 and Athens
Athens
Athens , is the capital and largest city of Greece. Athens dominates the Attica region and is one of the world's oldest cities, as its recorded history spans around 3,400 years. Classical Athens was a powerful city-state...

 and a 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
Lighthouse of Alexandria
The Lighthouse of Alexandria, also known as the Pharos of Alexandria , was a tower built between 280 and 247 BC on the island of Pharos at Alexandria, Egypt...

 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. Its empirical standards applied in one of the first and certainly strongest homes for serious textual criticism
Textual criticism
Textual criticism is a branch of literary criticism that is concerned with the identification and removal of transcription errors in the texts of manuscripts...

. 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 Homer
Homer
In the Western classical tradition Homer , is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet. These epics lie at the beginning of the Western canon of literature, and have had an enormous influence on the history of literature.When he lived is...

ic texts. The more famous editors generally also held the title of head librarian. These included, among others,
  • Zenodotus
    Zenodotus
    Zenodotus was a Greek grammarian, literary critic, and Homeric scholar. A native of Ephesus and a pupil of Philitas of Cos, he was the first librarian of the Library of Alexandria...

     (early 3rd century BC)
  • Callimachus
    Callimachus
    Callimachus was a native of the Greek colony of Cyrene, Libya. He was a noted poet, critic and scholar at the Library of Alexandria and enjoyed the patronage of the Egyptian–Greek Pharaohs Ptolemy II Philadelphus and Ptolemy III Euergetes...

    , (early 3rd century BC), the first bibliographer and developer of the Pinakes
    Pinakes
    Pinax may refer to:*Pinax, a votive tablet that served as a votive object deposited in a sanctuary or burial chamber*Pinakes, a 3rd-century-BCE work by Callimachus, the first library catalog system*Pinax...

    , popularly considered to be the first library catalog.
  • Apollonius of Rhodes
    Apollonius of Rhodes
    Apollonius Rhodius, also known as Apollonius of Rhodes , early 3rd century BCE – after 246 BCE, was a poet, and a librarian at the Library of Alexandria...

     (mid-3rd century BC)
  • Eratosthenes
    Eratosthenes
    Eratosthenes of Cyrene was a Greek mathematician, poet, athlete, geographer, astronomer, and music theorist.He was the first person to use the word "geography" and invented the discipline of geography as we understand it...

     (late 3rd century BC)
  • Aristophanes of Byzantium
    Aristophanes of Byzantium
    Aristophanes of Byzantium was a Greek scholar, critic and grammarian, particularly renowned for his work in Homeric scholarship, but also for work on other classical authors such as Pindar and Hesiod. Born in Byzantium about 257 BC, he soon moved to Alexandria and studied under Zenodotus,...

     (early 2nd century BC)
  • Aristarchus of Samothrace
    Aristarchus of Samothrace
    Aristarchus of Samothrace was a grammarian noted as the most influential of all scholars of Homeric poetry. He was the librarian of the library of Alexandria and seems to have succeeded his teacher Aristophanes of Byzantium in that role.He established the most historically important critical...

     (late 2nd century BC).


It is now impossible to determine the collection's size in any era with any certainty. Papyrus
Papyrus
Papyrus is a thick paper-like material produced from the pith of the papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus, a wetland sedge that was once abundant in the Nile Delta of Egypt....

 scrolls comprised the collection, and although parchment
Parchment
Parchment is a thin material made from calfskin, sheepskin or goatskin, often split. Its most common use was as a material for writing on, for documents, notes, or the pages of a book, codex or manuscript. It is distinct from leather in that parchment is limed but not tanned; therefore, it is very...

 codices
Codex
A codex is a book in the format used for modern books, with multiple quires or gatherings typically bound together and given a cover.Developed by the Romans from wooden writing tablets, its gradual replacement...

 were used 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
Mark Antony
Marcus Antonius , known in English as Mark Antony, was a Roman politician and general. As a military commander and administrator, he was an important supporter and loyal friend of his mother's cousin Julius Caesar...

 supposedly gave Cleopatra over 200,000 scrolls (taken from the great Library of Pergamum
Library of Pergamum
The Library of Pergamum in Pergamum, Turkey, was one of the most important libraries in the ancient world.- The City of Pergamum :Founded in the Hellenistic Age, Pergamum or Pergamom was an important ancient Greek city, located in Anatolia. It is now the site of the modern Turkish town, Bergama...

) 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. 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 scroll
Scroll
A scroll is a roll of parchment, papyrus, or paper, which has been drawn or written upon.Scroll may also refer to:*Scroll , the decoratively curved end of the pegbox of string instruments such as violins...

s, as well as any form of written media in any language in their possession which, according to Galen
Galen
Aelius Galenus or Claudius Galenus , better known as Galen of Pergamon , was a prominent Roman physician, surgeon and philosopher...

, 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
Aeschylus
Aeschylus was the first of the three ancient Greek tragedians whose work has survived, the others being Sophocles and Euripides, and is often described as the father of tragedy. His name derives from the Greek word aiskhos , meaning "shame"...

, Sophocles
Sophocles
Sophocles is one of three ancient Greek tragedians whose plays have survived. His first plays were written later than those of Aeschylus, and earlier than or contemporary with those of Euripides...

 and Euripides
Euripides
Euripides was one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles. Some ancient scholars attributed ninety-five plays to him but according to the Suda it was ninety-two at most...

, for which the Athenians demanded the enormous amount of fifteen talents (450 kg of a precious metal) 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 during the Ptolemaic dynasty
Ptolemaic dynasty
The Ptolemaic dynasty, was a Macedonian Greek royal family which ruled the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt during the Hellenistic period. Their rule lasted for 275 years, from 305 BC to 30 BC...

.

Museum


The library of Alexandria was but one part of the Museum
Museum
A museum is an institution that cares for a collection of artifacts and other objects of scientific, artistic, cultural, or historical importance and makes them available for public viewing through exhibits that may be permanent or temporary. Most large museums are located in major cities...

 of Alexandria, which functioned as a sort of research institute. In addition to the library, the Musaeum included rooms for the study of astronomy, anatomy, and even a zoo of exotic animals. The classical thinkers who studied, wrote, and experimented at the museum include the fathers of mathematics, engineering, physiology, geography, and medicine. These included notable thinkers such as Euclid
Euclid
Euclid , fl. 300 BC, also known as Euclid of Alexandria, was a Greek mathematician, often referred to as the "Father of Geometry". He was active in Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy I...

, Archimedes
Archimedes
Archimedes of Syracuse was a Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer. Although few details of his life are known, he is regarded as one of the leading scientists in classical antiquity. Among his advances in physics are the foundations of hydrostatics, statics and an...

, Eratosthenes
Eratosthenes
Eratosthenes of Cyrene was a Greek mathematician, poet, athlete, geographer, astronomer, and music theorist.He was the first person to use the word "geography" and invented the discipline of geography as we understand it...

, Herophilus, Erasistratus
Erasistratus
Erasistratus was a Greek anatomist and royal physician under Seleucus I Nicator of Syria. Along with fellow physician Herophilus, he founded a school of anatomy in Alexandria, where they carried out anatomical research...

, Hipparchus
Hipparchus
Hipparchus, the common Latinization of the Greek Hipparkhos, can mean:* Hipparchus, the ancient Greek astronomer** Hipparchic cycle, an astronomical cycle he created** Hipparchus , a lunar crater named in his honour...

, Aedesia
Aedesia
Aedesia was a female philosopher of the Neoplatonic school who lived in Alexandria in the fifth century. She was a relation of Syrianus and the wife of Hermias, and was equally celebrated for her beauty and her virtues. After the death of her husband, she devoted herself to relieving the wants...

, Pappus
Pappus
Pappus may refer to:*Pappus , a type of flower structure*Pappus of Alexandria, Greek mathematician**Pappus's hexagon theorem, often just called 'Pappus's theorem', a theorem named for Pappus of Alexandria...

, Hypatia, Aristarchus of Samos
Aristarchus of Samos
Aristarchus, or more correctly Aristarchos , was a Greek astronomer and mathematician, born on the island of Samos, in Greece. He presented the first known heliocentric model of the solar system, placing the Sun, not the Earth, at the center of the known universe...

, and Catherine of Alexandria
Catherine of Alexandria
Saint Catherine of Alexandria, also known as Saint Catherine of the Wheel and The Great Martyr Saint Catherine is, according to tradition, a Christian saint and virgin, who was martyred in the early 4th century at the hands of the pagan emperor Maxentius...

.

Destruction


Ancient and modern sources identify four possible occasions for the partial or complete destruction
Library fires
Library fires have happened sporadically through the centuries: notable examples are the destruction of the Library of Alexandria and the accidental burning of the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar...

 of the Library of Alexandria: Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar
Gaius Julius Caesar was a Roman general and statesman and a distinguished writer of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the gradual transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire....

's fire in the Alexandrian War, in 48 BC; the attack of Aurelian
Aurelian
Aurelian , was Roman Emperor from 270 to 275. During his reign, he defeated the Alamanni after a devastating war. He also defeated the Goths, Vandals, Juthungi, Sarmatians, and Carpi. Aurelian restored the Empire's eastern provinces after his conquest of the Palmyrene Empire in 273. The following...

 in 270 - 275 AD; the decree of Coptic Pope Theophilus
Theophilus of Alexandria
Theophilus of Alexandria was Patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt, from 385 to 412. He is regarded as a saint by the Coptic Orthodox Church....

 in AD 391; and the Muslim conquest
Muslim conquest of Egypt
At the commencement of the Muslims conquest of Egypt, Egypt was part of the Byzantine Empire with its capital in Constantinople. However, it had been occupied just a decade before by the Persian Empire under Khosrau II...

 in 642 AD or thereafter.

Caesar's conquest in 48 BC


The ancient accounts by Plutarch
Plutarch
Plutarch then named, on his becoming a Roman citizen, Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus , c. 46 – 120 AD, was a Greek historian, biographer, essayist, and Middle Platonist known primarily for his Parallel Lives and Moralia...

, Aulus Gellius
Aulus Gellius
Aulus Gellius , was a Latin author and grammarian, who was probably born and certainly brought up in Rome. He was educated in Athens, after which he returned to Rome, where he held a judicial office...

, Ammianus Marcellinus
Ammianus Marcellinus
Ammianus Marcellinus was a fourth-century Roman historian. He wrote the penultimate major historical account surviving from Antiquity...

, and Orosius agree that Caesar accidentally burned the library down during his visit to Alexandria in 48 BC.

Plutarch
Plutarch
Plutarch then named, on his becoming a Roman citizen, Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus , c. 46 – 120 AD, was a Greek historian, biographer, essayist, and Middle Platonist known primarily for his Parallel Lives and Moralia...

's Parallel Lives
Parallel Lives
Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, commonly called Parallel Lives or Plutarch's Lives, is a series of biographies of famous men, arranged in tandem to illuminate their common moral virtues or failings, written in the late 1st century...

, written at the end of the 1st or beginning of the 2nd century AD, 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
Firestorm
A firestorm is a conflagration which attains such intensity that it creates and sustains its own wind system. It is most commonly a natural phenomenon, created during some of the largest bushfires, forest fires, and wildfires...

 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 2nd century AD, the Roman historian Aulus Gellius
Aulus Gellius
Aulus Gellius , was a Latin author and grammarian, who was probably born and certainly brought up in Rome. He was educated in Athens, after which he returned to Rome, where he held a judicial office...

 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 4th century, both the pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus
Ammianus Marcellinus
Ammianus Marcellinus was a fourth-century Roman historian. He wrote the penultimate major historical account surviving from Antiquity...

 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
Seneca the Younger
Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and in one work humorist, of the Silver Age of Latin literature. He was tutor and later advisor to emperor Nero...

 (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
Pergamon
Pergamon , or Pergamum, was an ancient Greek city in modern-day Turkey, in Mysia, today located from the Aegean Sea on a promontory on the north side of the river Caicus , that became the capital of the Kingdom of Pergamon during the Hellenistic period, under the Attalid dynasty, 281–133 BC...

) and presented the collection as a gift to Cleopatra as a replacement for the books lost to Caesar's fire. Abaddi speaks to this story as anti-Antony propaganda, from Rome, to show his loyalty to Egypt.

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 1st and the 6th 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
Ptolemy II Philadelphus
Ptolemy II Philadelphus was the king of Ptolemaic Egypt from 283 BCE to 246 BCE. He was the son of the founder of the Ptolemaic kingdom Ptolemy I Soter and Berenice, and was educated by Philitas of Cos...

 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 "Daughter" Library in the popular quarters of Rhakotis.

The next account we have is Strabo
Strabo
Strabo, also written Strabon was a Greek historian, geographer and philosopher.-Life:Strabo was born to an affluent family from Amaseia in Pontus , a city which he said was situated the approximate equivalent of 75 km from the Black Sea...

's Geographia
Geographica (Strabo)
The Geographica , or Geography, is a 17-volume encyclopedia of geographical knowledge written in Greek by Strabo, an educated citizen of the Roman empire of Greek descent. Work can have begun on it no earlier than 20 BC...

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. Abaddi uses this account to infer the library was destroyed to its foundations and the collection destroyed.

The certainty of this conclusion diminishes when one considers the context. The adjacent Museion was, according to the same account, fully functional—which requires the assumption that one building could be perfectly intact while another next door 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 or esoteric map considering his expertise and the vast collection of the library—might have been either part of the library that was partially destroyed or 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 2nd 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
Aurelian
Aurelian , was Roman Emperor from 270 to 275. During his reign, he defeated the Alamanni after a devastating war. He also defeated the Goths, Vandals, Juthungi, Sarmatians, and Carpi. Aurelian restored the Empire's eastern provinces after his conquest of the Palmyrene Empire in 273. The following...

, in the second half of the 3rd century (see below).

Attack of Aurelian, 3rd 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
Aurelian
Aurelian , was Roman Emperor from 270 to 275. During his reign, he defeated the Alamanni after a devastating war. He also defeated the Goths, Vandals, Juthungi, Sarmatians, and Carpi. Aurelian restored the Empire's eastern provinces after his conquest of the Palmyrene Empire in 273. The following...

 (270–275), who was suppressing a revolt by Queen Zenobia
Zenobia
Zenobia was a 3rd-century Queen of the Palmyrene Empire in Roman Syria. She led a famous revolt against the Roman Empire. The second wife of King Septimius Odaenathus, Zenobia became queen of the Palmyrene Empire following Odaenathus' death in 267...

 of Palmyra
Palmyra
Palmyra was an ancient city in Syria. In the age of antiquity, it was an important city of central Syria, located in an oasis 215 km northeast of Damascus and 180 km southwest of the Euphrates at Deir ez-Zor. It had long been a vital caravan city for travellers crossing the Syrian desert...

 (ruled Egypt AD 269–274). During the course of the fighting, the areas of the city in which the main library was located were damaged. The smaller library located at the Serapeum survived, but part of its contents may have been taken to Constantinople
Constantinople
Constantinople was the capital of the Roman, Eastern Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Constantinople was Europe's largest and wealthiest city.-Names:...

 to adorn the new capital in the course of the 4th 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:
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 of the Serapeum in 391


Paganism was made illegal by an edict of the Emperor Theodosius I
Theodosius I
Theodosius I , also known as Theodosius the Great, was Roman Emperor from 379 to 395. Theodosius was the last emperor to rule over both the eastern and the western halves of the Roman Empire. During his reign, the Goths secured control of Illyricum after the Gothic War, establishing their homeland...

 in 391. The holdings of the Great Library (both at the Mouseion
Musaeum
The Musaeum or Mouseion at Alexandria , which included the famous Library of Alexandria, was an institution founded, according to Johannes Tzetzes, by Ptolemy I Soter or, perhaps more likely, by Ptolemy II Philadelphus at Hellenistic Alexandria in Egypt. The Mouseion remained supported by the...

 and at the Serapeum) were on the precincts of pagan temples. While this had previously lent them a measure of protection, in the days of the Christian Roman Empire, whatever protection this had previously afforded them had ceased. The temples of Alexandria were closed by Patriarch
Patriarch of Alexandria
The Patriarch of Alexandria is the Archbishop of Alexandria and Cairo, Egypt. Historically, this office has included the designation of Pope , and did so earlier than that of the Bishop of Rome...

 Theophilus of Alexandria
Theophilus of Alexandria
Theophilus of Alexandria was Patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt, from 385 to 412. He is regarded as a saint by the Coptic Orthodox Church....

 in AD 391.

Socrates of Constantinople
Socrates Scholasticus
Socrates of Constantinople, also known as Socrates Scholasticus, not to be confused with the Greek philosopher Socrates, was a Greek Christian church historian, a contemporary of Sozomen and Theodoret, who used his work; he was born at Constantinople c. 380: the date of his death is unknown...

 provides the following account of the destruction of the temples in Alexandria, in the fifth book of his Historia Ecclesiastica, written around 440:
The Serapeum 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 makes no clear reference to a library or its contents, only to religious objects. An earlier text by the historian Ammianus Marcellinus indicates that, whatever books might earlier have been housed at the Serapeum, none was there in the last decade of the 4th 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. When Orosius discusses the destruction of the Great Library at the time of Caesar in the sixth book of his History against the Pagans, he writes:
Thus Orosius laments the pillaging of libraries within temples in 'his own time' by 'his own men' and compares it to the destruction of the Great Library destroyed at the time of Julius Caesar. He is certainly referring to the destruction of the Pagan temples of Alexandria as these were destroyed during his lifetime, and seeing as his book entitled "Against the Pagans" was a defense of Christianity, "our men" must surely refer to the Christians who were ordered to destroy the Pagan temples. Whilst he admits that the accusations of plunder are “true enough”, he then suggests that the books in question were not copies of those that had been housed at the Great Library, but rather new books "to rival the ancient love of literature".

As for the Museum, Mostafa El-Abbadi writes in Life and Fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria (1990):
John Julius Norwich
John Julius Norwich
John Julius Cooper, 2nd Viscount Norwich CVO — known as John Julius Norwich — is an English historian, travel writer and television personality.-Early life:...

, in his work Byzantium: The Early Centuries, places the destruction of the library's collection during the anti-Arian
Arianism
Arianism is the theological teaching attributed to Arius , a Christian presbyter from Alexandria, Egypt, concerning the relationship of the entities of the Trinity and the precise nature of the Son of God as being a subordinate entity to God the Father...

 riots in Alexandria that transpired after the imperial decree of 391 (p. 314). No ancient sources confirm—or even suggest—such an event. Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon was an English historian and Member of Parliament...

 claimed that the Library of Alexandria was destroyed by Theophilus
Theophilus of Alexandria
Theophilus of Alexandria was Patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt, from 385 to 412. He is regarded as a saint by the Coptic Orthodox Church....

, Bishop of Alexandria, who ordered the destruction of the Serapeum in 391.

Arabic sources


In 642, Alexandria was captured by the Muslim army of Amr ibn al `Aas. There are five Arabic sources, all at least 500 years after the supposed events, which mention the fate of the library.
  • Abd'l Latif of Baghdad (1162–1231) states that the library of Alexandria was destroyed by Amr, by the order of the Caliph Omar.
  • The story is also found in Al-Qifti
    Al-Qifti
    Al-Qifti or Ibn al-Qifti was a medieval Muslim writer. He is remembered today mainly for his History of Learned Men.-Life and Works:...

     (1172–1248), History of Learned Men, from whom Bar Hebraeus copied the story.
  • The longest version of the story is in the Syriac Christian author Bar-Hebraeus
    Bar-Hebraeus
    Gregory Bar Hebraeus was a catholicos of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the 13th century...

     (1226–1286), also known as Abu'l Faraj. He translated extracts from his history, the Chronicum Syriacum into Arabic, and added extra material from Arab sources. In this Historia Compendiosa Dynastiarum he describes a certain "John Grammaticus
    John Philoponus
    John Philoponus , also known as John the Grammarian or John of Alexandria, was a Christian and Aristotelian commentator and the author of a considerable number of philosophical treatises and theological works...

    " (490–570) asking Amr for the "books in the royal library". Amr writes to 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."
  • Al-Maqrizi
    Al-Maqrizi
    Taqi al-Din Ahmad ibn 'Ali ibn 'Abd al-Qadir ibn Muhammad al-Maqrizi ; Arabic: , was an Egyptian historian more commonly known as al-Maqrizi or Makrizi...

     (1364–1442) also mentions the story briefly, while speaking of the Serapeum
    Serapeum
    A serapeum is a temple or other religious institution dedicated to the syncretic Hellenistic-Egyptian god Serapis, who combined aspects of Osiris and Apis in a humanized form that was accepted by the Ptolemaic Greeks of Alexandria...

    .
  • There is also a story in Ibn Khaldun
    Ibn Khaldun
    Ibn Khaldūn or Ibn Khaldoun was an Arab Tunisian historiographer and historian who is often viewed as one of the forerunners of modern historiography, sociology and economics...

     (1332–1406) which tells that Omar made a similar order about Persian books.


The story was still in circulation among Copts in Egypt in the 1920s.

Edward Gibbon tells us that many people had credulously believed the story, but "the rational scepticism" of Fr. Eusèbe Renaudot
Eusèbe Renaudot
Eusèbe Renaudot was a French theologian and Orientalist.-Life:Born in Paris, he was brought up and educated for a career in the church; but after being educated by the Jesuits, and joining the Oratorians in 1666, he was in poor health, left his order, and never took more than minor orders...

 (1713) did not.

Alfred J. Butler himself, Victor Chauvin
Victor Chauvin
Victor Chauvin , an Arabic and Hebrew professor at the University of Liège, wrote a number of notable books on Middle Eastern literature and folklore, orientalism, biblical history, and Sharia, including L`histoire de l`Islamisme and Bibliographie des Ouvrages Arabes Ou Relatifs Aux Arabes Publies...

, Paul Casanova, Gustave Le Bon
Gustave Le Bon
Gustave Le Bon was a French social psychologist, sociologist, and amateur physicist...

 and Eugenio Griffini did not accept the story either.

Bernard Lewis
Bernard Lewis
Bernard Lewis, FBA is a British-American historian, scholar in Oriental studies, and political commentator. He is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University...

 has argued that this version, though untrue, was reinforced in mediaeval times by Saladin
Saladin
Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb , better known in the Western world as Saladin, was an Arabized Kurdish Muslim, who became the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria, and founded the Ayyubid dynasty. He led Muslim and Arab opposition to the Franks and other European Crusaders in the Levant...

, who decided to break up the Fatimid caliphate's collection of heretical
Heresy
Heresy is a controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma. It is distinct from apostasy, which is the formal denunciation of one's religion, principles or cause, and blasphemy, which is irreverence toward religion...

 Isma'ili texts in Cairo following his restoration of Sunnism to Egypt, and will have judged that the story of the caliph Umar's support of a library's destruction would make his own actions seem more acceptable. Kelly Trumble and Roy MacLeod reject the story as well.

Luciano Canfora included the account of Bar Hebraeus in his discussion of the destruction of the library without dismissing it.

See also

  • Bibliotheca Alexandrina
    Bibliotheca Alexandrina
    The Bibliotheca Alexandrina or Maktabat al-Iskandarīyah is a major library and cultural center located on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea in the Egyptian city of Alexandria...

    , the modern library in Alexandria
  • Great libraries of the ancient world
    Great libraries of the ancient world
    The great libraries of the ancient world served as archives for empires, sanctuaries for sacred writings, and depositories of literature and chronicles.-Syria, Iraq, Iran:...


:Category:Librarians of Alexandria
  • Destruction of libraries
    Destruction of Libraries
    This is a list of destroyed libraries that have been deliberately or accidentally destroyed or badly damaged. Sometimes libraries are purposely destroyed as a form of cultural cleansing...


External links