Long before the splendour and beauty of libraries such as the Strahov Monastery Library in Prague, the Trinity College Library in Dublin, or the Library of El Escorial in Spain, stood a Megaproject so wondrous that the modern world has yet to create anything to match its grandeur to this day.
It was over two thousand years ago Alexander the Great envisioned a library that would have a collection of all the worlds’ knowledge in one place, openly allowing scholars from all around the globe to study and learn from the vast collection that Alexander the Great intended to have on display.
Tales of this great library have inspired historians and writers ever since, despite there being very little physical evidence pointing toward the existence of this great wonder of the ancient world. With very few sources available, many of those repeating accounts already made, and others mere speculation, it can be difficult to believe this great library ever existed at all. The Library of Alexandria has since become a symbol to the arts, while also serving as a warning as to the fragility of literature. Let’s take a look at this magnificent yet mysterious piece of history.
Founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE in the then port town of Rhakotis, the city of Alexandria was to become a hub of the ancient world, and Greek architect Dinocrates of Rhodes was commissioned to take on the momentous task of designing the layout of this city. Alexander the Great intended his city to be the capital of his Empire while also acting as a naval base that would take control of the Mediterranean waters. Within only a century of its founding Alexandria would grow into the largest city of the time, becoming the commercial centre for the Mediterranean basin and replacing the former Memphis as the capital of Egypt. The city boasted one of the Seven Wonders of the World in the Lighthouse of Alexandria, but The Library of Alexandria was to be the true grand spectacle of this city, a centre for learning and education, intended as a dedication to the Muses.
The inspiration for this academic behemoth, or at least according to Old Persian and Armenian traditions, is that while visiting Nineveh, Alexander the Great became enamoured upon seeing the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal in all its splendour. Inspired by what he saw Alexander intended to collect all forms of writing from the lands he had conquered, have them translated into Greek and then store them in a library of his own to not only rival, but eclipse the library in Ashurbanipal.
It was not Alexander the Great himself who began work on this audacious creation, rather his successor and former general, Ptolemy I, who established Alexandria’s status further and began the building blocks for what would become the greatest collection of written works the world had ever seen.
The Ptolemies founded the Mouseion, which in Greek means ‘shrine to the Muses’ as a dedication to the Greek goddess of artistry and scholarship. The word ‘Mouseion’ would eventually become the more familiar sounding ‘museum’ which we use today. The Mouseion would be a research institute with laboratories, lecture halls, gardens, guest rooms and a communal dining hall for scholars who were visiting Alexandria on generously funded academic and religious expeditions in the search for knowledge. While residing at the library they were given lodgings, meals and even servants so that each scholar’s main focus was solely on research. As the decades progressed, the contents of the library grew beyond its walls and the need for space grew with it, so a daughter library was incorporated into the newly built Serapeum, which would house the surplus volumes of works now accumulating at increasing speed. The Serapeum itself was originally constructed by Ptolemy III, as a temple dedicated to the Greco-Egyptian deity Serapis, and would prove the perfect building to house the expanding collection the library had amassed. These two buildings now stuffed with literature from a varied range of subjects would become known as the Inner and Outer Libraries.
It is something of an understatement to say that the history of the library’s construction is somewhat cloudy, with various conflicting texts as to exactly when it was built. It is generally accepted that Ptolemy I began work on the library, with Ptolemy II and Ptolemy III continuing construction, although the Ptolemaic dynasty were no doubt the architects of the Library of Alexandria and can most certainly take the credit for the meteoric success the city of Alexandria became.
One thing we can be certain of is the impact that this great library had on the ancient world, with the Library of Alexandria being the first stop for many of the city’s visiting philosophers, poets, scientists, mathematicians, religious leaders and even Roman Emperors. The city became the intellectual capital of the world with rumours of over half a million works being stored within its walls. It seems within this research centre, the Ptolemies inadvertently created the first model of a university campus.
Knowledge is Power
The Ptolemaic dynasties went to extreme lengths in order to secure the precious knowledge that would fill their most prestigious of libraries. To accumulate the writings and texts needed, they undertook various methods, some of which were more orthodox than others. Books were purchased from the huge book markets in cities such as Athens and Rhodes. Egyptian priests were encouraged to accumulate writings of their historical traditions and heritages which would be made available to the various Greek scholars that inhabited the library.
Ships docking into Alexandria’s port were intercepted and furiously searched. Should books be found on board then a decision would be made whether the book should be copied, with the copy returned to the owners and the original text becoming part of the library collection. Although these methods are understandably frowned upon, they certainly achieved their aim of expanding the library’s collection of knowledge from all around the globe.
Another notable tale is that Ptolemy III even managed to acquire the official editions of the tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus, which at the time were kept safe in the Athenian state archives and were never lent out, especially for the purposes which the Ptolemy dynasty had in mind. Despite this, Ptolemy III bargained a huge sum of silver as a deposit on their safe return to the archives. The Athenians were understandably infuriated when copies of their precious writings were returned, albeit on the finest papyrus paper available at the time, with the originals remaining in the Library of Alexandria for safe keep. The large amount of silver that was forfeited was perhaps a sum the king thought worthy of paying in order to secure these most precious of texts for his ever-increasing library. Although many of these stories cannot be verified, it is generally accepted that the appetite for collecting was so much that the Ptolemies would go to almost any lengths in the pursuit of accumulating knowledge.
The Scholars Within
With such an expansive catalogue of works from around the world, it can be expected that the Library of Alexandria would attract the finest minds of the time.
Firstly, an unsung hero of the library is Callimachus, who is considered to be the librarian of Alexandria. He compiled an itinerary with over 120 volumes cataloguing every book, scroll, parchment and manuscript in a feat that is incredible to think of with the tools available and the sheer numbers of various works that populated the library walls at the time. Without this incredible effort of organisation, it is unlikely many of the scientific discoveries and revelations would have come to fruition.
As we touched on earlier, the scholars who visited the Library of Alexandria were supported so generously by the Ptolemies that many historical academic discoveries were made in the library from a veritable who’s who of famous scholars.
Over 1800 years before Copernicus, Greek astronomer and philosopher Aristarchus placed the sun at the centre of the universe while creating the first heliocentric model of the solar system, a truly astonishing feat that was only possible due to the funding and knowledge made available by the Ptolemies.
The first use of the word ‘Geography’ happened under the roof of the library by Greek mathematician, poet, astronomer and geographer, Eratosthenes. Alongside this achievement, he was the first person to calculate the circumference of the Earth, and that it was round, as well as inventing the system of longitude and latitude.
The founder of trigonometry, Hipparchus, spent his time cataloguing the stars and managed calculate the length of a solar year to within six and a half minutes of accuracy, labelling him as the greatest astronomer of the time.
‘Elements’ was a geometry textbook that influenced mathematicians around the world. Written by Euclid in his time at the Library, the book was a lasting influence some 2300 years after it was written.
The Library was also the scene of the first scientific dissection of the human body in which Herophilus was able to identify the brain as the controlling organ of the body; he is considered the first anatomist, whose valuable researched paved the way for future generations of medical experts.
Greek mathematician and engineer, Hero of Alexandria, is noted as inventing the wind wheel, harnessing wind on land for the first time. Amongst other notable achievements, Hero is also credited as inventing steam power by the utilisation of heat and water.
One of the more familiar scholars of history also visited the library for study, the astronomer, physicist, mathematician, engineer, and inventor, yes Mr ‘Eureka’ himself, Archimedes also resided at the Library of Alexandria. During his life he was one of the leading scientists in history whose engineering genius was unmatched until the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci.
Another influence that left a lasting legacy came in the works that Galen produced while visiting the library. His books on anatomy and healing remained a prominent part of the medical world right up until the renaissance.
Erastitratus would go on to found a school for anatomy while in Alexandria. He was incredibly close to discovering the circulation of blood, and although he never finished the task, he would be the first to be able to distinguish veins from arteries.
The library even featured the first prominent female of mathematics, Hypatia, who was a teacher of astronomy and neo-Platonist philosophy.
Not all achievements were made by visiting scholars, history writes that Ptolemy II himself gathered 72 men from various Israeli tribes and had them translate the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek in a mammoth task that somehow they reportedly wrapped up in 72 days.
Together, the community of scholars within the library utilised the organised universal knowledge to promote tolerance, rationality and understanding. The Library of Alexandria remained a haven of academic learning and a nucleus of education for over six centuries, helping to map the heavens, establish the foundations for future academic studies, organise the calendar and push the boundaries of science beyond unimaginable capabilities.
The Fate of the Library
Historians have come up with multiple theories of how the library met its eventual doom, some more plausible than others.
For many years, doubts were cast on whether the library met its end as late as the seventh century, but in time it has become a general agreement that both of the library buildings had been destroyed before this, and further evidence suggests they could have been destroyed at different points in history through various conflicts and conquests.
Many speculate that the library was destroyed during the Siege of Alexandria in around 48 BCE, as Julius Ceaser set fire to his own ships in the dockyards as an act of defence, only for the flames to reach the library, destroying the precious knowledge within its walls. However, this theory has been called into question as others have claimed the library was not situated on the docks, but rather the warehouse was, and it was here manuscripts of lesser importance were kept and therefore subsequently lost in the fire. To add further doubt, literature from thirty years after the siege shows evidence that the library was still visited by many scholars of the time, with even more evidence stating the library still being in use some three hundred years beyond that. It seems the fire destroyed part of the Library of Alexandria, with the daughter library inside the Serapeum surviving, which would account for the library popping up in the history books several years after the fire.
Further destruction occurred during the Aurelian war against Zenobia somewhere around the year 270 AD; where over a quarter of Alexandria was destroyed, taking many volumes of work with it.
Despite the irreparable damage inflicted by several conflicts the library continued to thrive in the Serapeum building right up until the fourth century when the Roman’s brought an end to paganism and oversaw the rise of Christianity as the only religion recognised by the Empire. And so, history records that in 391 AD Emperor Theodosius issued a decree that would sanction the demolition of Alexandrian temples and wipe out any last vestige of paganism in what would be an extensive eradication of historically important literature. Taking advantage of the Emperors decree, Theophilus led a devastating assault on the Serapeum where he and his followers ran amok, destroying everything and anything in sight. When Theophilus had finished, he ordered a church to be built in its place of the Serapeum, sending a message of the religious dominance that the city would adopt under Christianity. Just over twenty years later the Mouseion and its libraries are no longer heard of, with the catechetical school ruling the intellectual scene and the days of debating and exploring the sciences and other subjects long gone.
To make its history even more confusing, it is written that during the Muslim conquest of Alexandria in around 642 AD, what remained of the library suffered further desecration with writings of religious subjects set alight and the world losing even more of the invaluable knowledge the library had once contained.
The Legacy Left Behind
Although there are many written accounts regarding the library’s life and death, the lack of any real primary sources leaves more myth and mystery than fact. Many accounts compete with each other and others are simply impossible to prove. Archaeologists have found remains of the Serapeum, which would leave some evidence of the building that supposedly housed some of the library’s collection, but it seems most facts on the subject have been made through agreement rather than evidence. Many accounts of the library were written years after the fact, or were inspired by other accounts, leaving an air of uncertainty as to what to believe and what to dismiss.
Yet the passion for the library continues to this day as an inspiration, as a warning, and as a curiosity as what could have been had those precious historical texts survived to through to modern day.