The Library of Alexandria was a marvel of the ancient world, a place for arts, literature, philosophy and science. Books and scrolls filled with knowledge of many ancient civilizations found their way from all across the land into the walls of this magnificent center of learning in the heart of all powerful Egypt. Built to impress and to educated, the Library of Alexandria was a true wonder for many hundreds of years, until it was ultimately destroyed by conquerors and zealots.
The history of the Library of Alexandria takes its roots with the Alexander the Great himself, as the famous conqueror was also a man of science. Through his grand campaigns, he sought out and acquired a great deal of knowledge about the lands and regions his armies trampled upon. When Alexander died, one of his generals, Ptolemy I Soter, inherited the Kingdom of Egypt and the lust for hoarding any useful or purposeless information. When a man named Demetrius of Phaleron, a known student of Aristotle, arrived at his court and took a job as his advisor, Ptolemy I entrusted him with a task of building and stuffing a library of the most epic proportions, a library to host the biggest collection of works known to man.
The great library needed a great deal of books, and the whole Ptolemaic dynasty worked hard to provide them. Books and scrolls were bought from all over the known world, especially from Athen and Phodes, where grand markets were filled with Greek tomes. Another, much more shrewd method of collection stock for the great library was by stripping any ship that entered the harbour of Alexandria of its books. They would be taken to the library to be duplicated and then the copies would be sent back to the ships, the originals stayed in the library. To make it fair, some of the owners were compensated, but only some. There is a famous tale of Ptolemy III borrowing the original scripts of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides from the Athenians for the fee of fifteen talents of silver. Of course, the Athenians only got copies in return, the originals went to the Library of Alexandria.
What made the library exceptional was that it contained literature from many different languages, people and regions. Greek and Egyptian, Hebrew and Buddhist, history, poetry, comedy, tragedy, science, mathematics, medicine, literature, plays, anything and everything was welcomed and stored in the great halls of the Library of Alexandria. By some accounts more than 400,000 books and scrolls were collected, by others, as few as 40,000, which is still incredibly impressive for the ancient times. Scholars from all over the world would come to the great library and browse the seemingly unlimited amount of knowledge and wisdom. If Internet had a physical representation, it would look something like the Library of Alexandria.
Great things must rise and great things must fall, so did the Library of Alexandria. It is still a heated topic, what actually happened to the once great library and who is responsible for its destruction. The records are blurry and many are conflicting. It all started with Julius Caesar himself, fighting in a civil war between Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII in 48 BC. Trapped inside of the Alexandria harbor, he set fire to his and his enemy ships, burning them and a great part of the town. It is assumed that the Library of Alexandria was destroyed or at least badly damage in the fires, but some records state that the fire barely made it out of the harbour. Whatever happened, many believe that a part of the library, the Serapeum temple, survived and hosted the remaining of the collection.
Another event that is related to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria occurred in 391 AD, when Emperor Theodosius declared all forms of paganism illegal and proclaimed that it needs to be destroyed. Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria took it upon himself to carry out the order and burned down any temple that did not worship Christ, including the Serapeum. It is unknown if the vast collection of books and scrolls from the Library of Alexandria were inside and if they were destroyed by the blaze.
Then came the year 642 AD and the Muslim army of ‘Amr ibn al-’As took Alexandria. Although no record from that year or years thereafter mentioned the Library of Alexandria, around 13th century tales of how ‘Amr ibn al-’As destroyed the great library appeared. Nobody knows where they came from and why, but those were the days of crusades, and some negative propaganda was fabricated here and there. As the years went by, more and more records appeared of how many great collections of books were taken from Alexandria, or sold and trade all around Egypt, but it is impossible to tell if those tomes came from the Library of Alexandria.
These days a theory prevails that the library was not destroyed by a single event or on a single day. It is believed that, as Egypt’s fortunes crumbled, books from the Library of Alexandria slowly made their way into other centers of science and settled down in other great halls of knowledge. We can only hope that it was so, but if you find yourself in Egypt, making your way across the city of Alexandria, do not forget to visit the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. It may not be as grand as the Library of Alexandria, but it is an amazing place and a true wonder of its own.