Hellenistic Structures > Library of Alexandria

Library of Alexandria

Alexander the Great - Dove Decoration

Background

The Royal Library at Alexandria and the surrounding academic complex was the largest and most significant library in the ancient world and paved the way for the modern design of the university as we see it today. At this library there gathered the greatest minds from the furthest corners of the Hellenistic world and beyond and may have been one of the greatest intellectual achievements of mankind ever. It was built purely in the pursuit of knowledge and that purpose alone.

The Library of Alexandria was constructed at the city of Alexandria in Egypt, a planned city on the banks of the Mediterranean Sea in the satrapy of Egypt by Alexander III the Great that was to be the capital of his new Hellenistic Empire. Alexander wanted to create a city that was a cultural and literary hub for the ancient world. His dream was to create a hub of learning, knowledge, commerce and trade that would preside over a new world golden age.

Structures - Library of Alexandria (19th Century)

Library of Alexandria - O. Von Corven (19th Century)

While Alexander the Great died under mysteries circumstances, his successor named Ptolemy I managed control over Egypt and his vision and later created the Ptolemaic Kingdom to carry out his friends goals and vision. Ptolemy oversaw the completion of the Library of Alexandria and passed power onto his sons creating a dynasty. The Library of Alexandria grew greatly as the city grew under these leaders until it was destroyed over the course of many years.

While legends make it seem like a massive amount of ancient knowledge was wiped out in a single event, it is most likely that the Library declined over time, with scholars moving to other parts of the world as the Romans began to crack down on religious tolerance. It was finally destroyed by the Muslims for good in the 6th century CE. Yet even to this day we do not know the true extent of the library and its contents nor all the famous people that may have studied there. In fact, most researchers will tell you that there is more we do not know about the Library of Alexandria than we do know.

The books may have been destroyed over time as they were papyrus scrolls and only one percent of the entire collection is rumored to be in human possession today. The destruction of the Library is more a symbolic event to represent the loss of cultural knowledge and the destruction of human intellectual progress. If only we had the massive volumes in our libraries today we would have an even better picture of our ancient past in one of the most unique eras of recorded history.

Origins

The Library of Alexandria was originally dedicated to the Muses. These were the nine Greek gods of the arts and were very significant in Greek culture. The initial plans for the library were laid along with the rest of the city of Alexandria to be constructed by Demetrius of Fuleron. After visiting the oracles at the Siwa Oasis he believed that the god Amun had visited him in a dream and said he was his son. He also told him to build the grandest city the world had ever seen at the island of Pharos off the coast of Egypt in the Mediterranean.

Library of Alexandria - Alexander the Great Founding Alexandria (Placido Costanzi 1702-1759)

Alexander the Great Founding Alexandria - Placido Costanzi (1702-1759 CE)

Thus, Alexander set off right away to do just that and he laid the plans for the construction of Alexandria in 332 BCE. Another great structure built along with the Library was the Pharos Lighthouse. Alexander actually built a land bridge built to connect a small island that lay off the coast of Alexandria and then constructed the largest man-made structure in the world on that island. Alexander would only stay in Egypt for six months and never live to see the final completion of the Library or the city and its wonder as after his military campaign as he died a sudden and mysterious death in the city of Babylon in 323 BCE.

Library of Alexandria - Alexandria (1850)

Alexandria - (1850)

Following his death the civilization of Egypt was ruled by Ptolemy I after the Wars of the Diadochi who established the Ptolemaic Kingdom. Ptolemy would continue Alexanders dream for the construction of a great intellectual city and oversee not only the construction of the library but even today one of the grandest cities in all of Egypt. Men of Academia traveled from all over the world to meet, collaborate and share their ideas in Alexandria. It existed this way for many hundreds of years under the Ptolemy dynasty and marked a truly unique period in human history.

Construction

What we know about the library is that it was believed to have been built near the harbor in the Royal Greek Quarter of the city near the palace. The research was funded by the royal treasury which allowed it to flourish immensely. The actual Library of Alexandria was actually just one structure in a much larger academic university. Surrounding the Library were numerous lecture halls, meeting rooms, gardens, and a smaller library known as the Serapeum. This entire complex was known as the Musaeum of Alexandria and was a scholar hub of the ancient world. In it there was housed hundreds of thousands of scrolls contained stories, information and knowledge from throughout the ancient world.

As for the design and facade of the structure there are no contemporary drawings or accounts of the library so all we have to go on is artists imaginations. The ruins of the Library of Alexandria have never been found and are believed to have possibly sunk underwater during an earthquake much like Cleopatras Palace at Alexandria.

When Ptolemy died in 283 BCE his son Ptolemy II took over and continued the development of the Library of Alexandria as well as completed the Pharos Lighthouse.

Library Collection

The collection that existed at the Library of Alexandria was kept pretty much entirely on papyrus scrolls. It is impossible for modern archaeologists and historians to discern the size of the library with any certainty. The Serapeaum alone was said to hold over 300,000 books and to have grown even larger over time. Even if you take the estimates of 500,000 this is still a massive library by any modern standard. The Libraries index known as Callimachus' Pinakes was lost so we have no true catalogue of the works or how many there were.

According to King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (309–246 BC) his goal was to stock the library with over 500,000 different works

It is also known that at some point the entire Library of Pergamon was given to the Library of Alexandria under Cleopatra VII by Mark Antony. Most of the works were featured on papyrus because it was the easiest material to obtain at the time. However, there were a few codices used after 300 BCE but the use of parchment never caught on in the library due to a few factors.

The first was the eventual monopoly of papyrus by the Ptolemy dynasty. This is actually the reason for the development of parchment as the king of Pergamon was forced to adapt if he was to have his library compete with the Library of Alexandria. As the Ptolemies created more books they used more parchment and eventually stopped exporting it altogether in an effort to monopolize the creation of their library. Thus an alternative medium for recording texts had to be invented.

What is remarkable about the Library of Alexandria was it saw the bi-lingual development of the Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Greek language. During this period a lot of Egyptian history is translated into Greek and disseminated throughout the known world by maritime travelers. This enables unprecedented access to Egyptian culture and knowledge by Greek philosophers, mathematicians and other scholars that ensures it survives into the present day.

So what exactly was an ancient book? Well a single work might take up several scrolls, each of which would form a "book". The topics of the works featured in the Library of Alexandria ranged from astronomy to physics to natural sciences to cultural works to mathematics. Nearly every subject and topic was coveted no matter how ecletic. Texts often existed in multiple copies that would be edited and annotated by the scholars that researched them.

Certain books would also be reproduced in the Library and sold throughout the Hellenstic world, generating an income for the library and allowing the mass-dissemination of prominent works. These works would reach elite and royal readers along with scholars in every corner of the known world.

Acquisition

Historian Galen describes the laborious process of copying the originals and how it was a law in Egypt under the Ptolemy dynasty that any sea-faring travelers coming in or out of the city would have to surrender any works to be copied at the library. This process is made even easier by the location of the library directly on the harbor. The originals would be kept in the library and the copies given back to the traveler along with some compensation.

The Ptolemies also searched relentlessly for books throughout the ancient world, purchasing them wherever possible. Their dream was to amass all of the intellectual knowledge and information in one centralized place that would also help legitimize and reinforce their rule over the nation.

Advancements & Achievements

Medical School

Scientists were believed to have operated directly on living men at the first medical school in Alexandria. This has never been corroborated but they were known to have performed autopsies and dissections to acquire medical knowledge. Normally in Greek culture it was considered sacrilege to cut open the human body, but since they were in Egypt it was viewed as ok in the pursuit of knowledge. Also the Egyptians had been mummifying in their culture for thousands of years so there was nothing wrong about the dissection of the human body in their traditions.

The unique blending of the Greek and Egyptian culture led to one of the most free periods in scientific achievement and led to a great advancement of medical knowledge as well.

Astronomy

It was at Alexandria that the Greek astronomer Eratosthenes first is believed to have proved the Spherical Earth Theory and accurately calculated the circumference of Earth to within 200 miles.

Famous Scholars

The Bible

The earliest Bibles that we have all currently can trace their origins back to the Library of Alexandria. The Greek translation of the Old Testament occurred at the Library under the reign of Ptolemy II. Here he requested that seventy Jewish scribes begin translation of the many ancient Hebrew works. There had been a significant Jewish population in Alexandria along with native Egyptians, migrating Greeks and others. The Jews that were living in Alexandria became quickly adapted to their new city and had forgotten how to read ancient Hebrew and therefore need a Greek version.

In fact, this is where many of the corruptions of the original stories occurred. It appears that these 70 Jewish scribes embellished the facts of certain stories in order to make them sound much more appealing to the readers for following generations. However, it is not known that they would believe people would accept this for literal fact as they probably did not anticipate the complete destruction of the library and its massive body of knowledge.

The original Bible was known as the Septuagint Bible because of the seventy scribes that had translated it.

Successive Dynasties

In 246 BCE rule over Alexandria and Egypt was passed to Ptolemy III. He conquered parts of Mesopotamia and Asia and returned back to the library with all sorts of treasures and works from the defunct Persian Empire. Under the reign of Ptolemy III the traditions of knowledge, learning and intellectual advancement flourished throughout Alexandria.

About 235 BCE the chief librarian position was filled by Eratosthenes who also acted as tutor to the royal family.

It should be known around this time is when the Mayan calendar first appears and the Romans witness the first gladiatorial fights in the Colosseum. This is also the same period that sees the construction of the Colossus of Rhodes which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World along with the Pharos Lighthouse.

Roman Empire

While the library was building and acquiring mass amounts of knowledge the Romans sat across the Mediterranean slowly gaining regional hegemony. Under the rule of Ptolemy IV the reign of Greeks in Egypt experienced a period of decline as well as the Library of Alexandria.

During this period there was also emerging other libraries such as the great Library of Pergamon that offered scholars another option. This would look desirable as Egypt was about to experience a period of warfare. Following the reign of Ptolemy IV the kingdom of Egypt came under the rule of 19 year old Queen Cleopatra VII. She is probably the most famous of all the Ptolemies and was an intelligent and respectable ruler in her own right.

Cleopatra was a capable military commander and also was able to speak Egyptian which made her very respected in the ancient culture. She even faced Julius Caesar without fear when he came to conquer Egypt. Under Cleopatra the library flourished and it is even believed she was able to converse with Caesar and later Mark Antony in their native language of Latin which would have impressed them greatly.

When Cleopatra was forced to fight for control over Egypt with her brother, it would be Caesar that would back Cleopatra. During this period there occurred an Alexandrian civil war that probably saw the beginnings of the destruction of the great library. Caesar brought the Roman Navy to contend with the very capable Greek force and a major battle ensued. Not much is known about the battle and what happened but apparently Caesar was surrounded and decided in a last ditch effort to light fire to all the enemies boats.

This massive conflagration ended up destroying not only all of the Alexandrian ships at sea but at the docks as well. Given the extremely close location of the library to the harbor and its extremely flammable contents its not a stretch to imagine that it all got burnt after this incident. In fact it is believed that this fire actually damaged an entire section of the city near the harbor as well.

Plutarch who knew Alexandria well and visited it often said that the fire extended from the docks all the way to the Great Library. He is a relevant primary source and an account to be trusted. Plutarch corroborates the account that Caesar accidentally destroyed the Great Library. However, while Plutarch may have us believe the entire library was destroyed in this incident there is evidence that only a portion of the texts may have been lost. Following the fire the bulk of the scholarly work was moved to the Serapeum which appeared to suffer no damage as it was located more inland. The Serapeum is known to have contained hundreds of thousands of scrolls in and of itself.

Library of Alexandria - The Murder of Julius Caesar (Karl von Piloty 1865)

The Murder of Julius Caesar - Karl von Piloty (1865)

When Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, Mark Antony took over and ended up marrying Cleopatra. As a wedding gift he transferred the entire Library of Pergamon, an estimated 200,000 works to the Library of Alexandria. This was probably to make up for Caesars torching many years earlier. Mark Antony would end up siding with Cleopatra as well and in 32 BCE the two were finally defeated at the Battle of Actium and ending up both committing suicide.

Egypt would later be claimed as a province of the Roman Empire by Augustus Caesar who was the nephew of Julius Caesar. At this time Alexandria was home to 300,000 people yet the Library itself did not flourish like it had before. This was because the Romans had a different conceptions of learning and knowledge that the Greeks did. It was during this time regardless that the great astronomer Claudius Ptolemy lived and worked in Alexandria.

Final Destruction

The final destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria is not really known by historians and archaeologists. There are conflicting primary source accounts and there has been no recovered evidence. However, looking at the trends in history it is possible that the scholars and the works themselves were relocated following the collapse of the Ptolemy dynasty to more safer and religiously and intellectually tolerant regions of the world.

In fact, the idea of a massive and sudden destruction of millions of ancient works and a snuffing out of ancient wisdom may be a fantasy in and of itself. We have the surviving theories of many researchers who lived and worked in Alexandria which suggests many of the key concepts and ideas were disseminated throughout the world long before the destruction of the library.

However, by the time of the era of Christianity the practices of Paganism were outlawed and the study of certain subjects and materials was limited. The Roman Emperor engaged genocidal campaigns and destroyed and defaced monuments during this period which would have forced many of the scholars to flee. Other events that are attributed to the destruction of the Library are an attack by Aurelian in the 270s CE and later the decree of Coptic Pope Theophilus in 391 CE which saw the destruction of the Serapeum.

Library of Alexandria - Burning of the Library of Alexandria

Burning of the Library of Alexandria (391 CE) - Hutchinsons History of the Nations (1910)

Lots of works were probably burned by the religious zealots and there are some theories that the Christians destroyed the library. Regardless by 6th century CE the Persians had conquered Egypt and brought with them the religion of Islam and the final destruction of the Library of Alexandria. It is widely believed that the Persians during this period destroyed the library during the sack of Alexandria.

Library of Alexandria - Theophilus 5th Century Scroll

Destruction of the Serapeum - Theophilus (5th Century)

Upon invasion by the Islamics, they ordered that any book that did not match their faith destroyed. Even if the book did match their faith they ordered it destroyed because it was unnecessary. According to ancient accounts the Arabic leaders ordered all of the great works of the Library of Alexandria burned. Regardless of the content, the Library did not survive this second round of religious purging and eventually the ruins most likely fell into the ocean during an earthquake since the library was constructed at the shoreline.

Overall we can interpret that the Library died a slow death, between the burning of Caesar, the warfare, the lack of funding eventually the works may have even been moved if they were at risk of getting destroyed. Whatever was left was eventually destroyed by the religious zealots and finished off for good by the Muslims.

Modern Day

Today there exists a new modern day library of Alexandria that is poised to reclaim its cultural significance once again.

Sources

Primary Sources

Julius Caesar, Civil Wars - History Archive

Sources

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

History of Humanity - History Archive Logo
History of Humanity - History Mysteries Logo
History of Humanity - Ancient Mesopotamia Logo
History of Humanity - Egypt History Logo
History of Humanity - Persian Empire Logo
History of Humanity - Greek History Logo
History of Humanity - Alexander the Great Logo
History of Humanity - Roman History Logo
History of Humanity - Punic Wars Logo
History of Humanity - Alexander the Great Logo
History of Humanity - Revolutionary War Logo
History of Humanity - Mafia History Logo

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