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Library of Alexandria
In one of the final scene of the Disney Film National Treasure, Abigail Chase discovers the scrolls of Alexandria have been safely tucked away from the erosion of time. The Library of Alexandria has always had an alluring appeal, a fact the founders were counting on. The mystery continues with the conflicting accounts of it’s destruction. Like the city’s famous Pharos, its lost to the modern world, but lives on in the ancient text, which the institution was dedicated to collecting and preserving. The library of Alexandria started with a vision of Ptolemy I and became a cultural icon that effects our literary history today.
Alexander the Great died just after conquering a massive empire. Ptolemy received the wealthy region of the empire, Egypt. With abundance of grain provided by the rich soil and Nile river, papyrus for writing material and the ability to be luxuriant architecture, Egypt was a coveted spot (Casson, 32). However Alexandria was not a popular spot for the scholars of the day. But that did not deter the rulers of Ptolemy dynasty, all of whom proved to intellectuals themselves. “Ptolemy I (305-282 B.C.) was a historian, author of an authoritative account of Alexander’s campaign of conquest…Ptolemy II (282-246) was an avid zoologist, Ptolemy III (246-222) a patron of literature, Ptolemy IV (222-205) a playwright” (Casson, 32).
The methods for drawing scholars could be compared to scholarship fund for a university. Ptolemy I first had a Museum built. “The Museum was a place of study which included lecture areas, gardens, a zoo, and shines for each of the nine muses as well as the Library itself” (Chesser, “The Burning of the Library of Alexandria). The luxurious surroundings also included free room and board, food a salary and no taxes. The library was included into the already deluxe package. “On top of all their personal benefits, this pampered group had at their disposal a priceless intellectual resource: it was for them that the Ptolemies founded the library of Alexandria” (Casson, 33). Such an investment wasn’t entirely for the peoples’ benefit, but more of a way creating Alexandria as cultural capital.
The original idea for the Library belonged to Ptolemy I, yet his entire family contributed to it. Gathering such a source of knowledge was no easy task, and as a result the family resorted to every sort of tactic. In order to start the collection the Ptolemies had book buying “agents” sent out. They were well equipped with funds and enthusiasm. “The agents followed orders so energetically that, claims on ancient authority, to fill the demand the created there arose a new industry - the forging of ‘old’ copies” The copying “industry” didn’t seem to bother the leaders too much, for they themselves had books taken from ships, copied them and sent the copies back to the original owners (Casson, 35).
“Besides preserving the literary heritage of archaic and classical Greece - most of what survives today we owe to Alexandrian scribes - the library also collected works of foreign origin. According to tradition, Ptolemy II commissioned copies of the Jewish Scriptures, and the result was the first translation of the Hebrew Bible into a modern tongue: the Greek Septuagint” ( J.&E. Romer, 56). Obvious such an enormous task required an organized system. Zenodotus was the first to hold the office “Director.” “At the head of the library was a Director appointed by the court, an intellectual luminary who often had the additional assignment of serving as tutor to the royal children” (Casson, 37).
Little is known about the first superintendent, Zenodotus of Ephesus. He is mainly “noted for editions of Greek poets and especially for producing the first critical edition of Homer” (“Zenodotus of Ephesus”). It is interesting to note they way he fulfilled his commission to oversee and organize the library. His methods far outlasted his edition of Homer. “This brings us to one of the great contributions that we owe to the scholars at the library of Alexandria - alphabetical order as a mode of organization. So far as we know, Zenodotus was the first to have to employed it, in a glossary of rare words that he complied. Since the indications are clear that from the beginning the library’s holdings were shelved alphabetically, the natural conclusion is that Zenodotus, having found the system useful for his glossary, applied it to the collection. The alphabetization went only as far as the first letter. This was the practice of all the ancient scholars for all purposes for centuries; apparently such a minimal arrangement satisfied their needs. Not until the second century A.D. does fuller alphabetization make an appearance” (Casson, 37).
The second “Director” was a little more well known, Callimachus of Cyrene. “As a scholar, Callimachus’ greatest achievement was a monumental compilation, the Pinakes “Tables” or, to give it its full title, Tables of Persons Eminent in Every Branch of Learning together with a List of Their Writings. it was detailed bibliographical survey of all Greek writings; it filled no les than 120 books, five times as many as Homer’s Iliad” Obviously such an accomplishment made him more than qualified to oversee the library. For in fact, without the Library it would have been impossible to write his “Tables.” (Casson, 39). Besides his tremendous ability to research and organize he also taught and wrote poetry. “It is said that he wrote more than 800 different pieces. Of these, six hymns (meant for reading, with no religious use), a number of epigrams, and fragments of other poems survive. His greatest work was the Aetia, a collection of legends. Other longer poems of which fragments survive are The Lock of Berenice, Hecale, and Iambi. Callimachus' poetry is notable for brevity, polish, wit, learning, and inventiveness in form” (“Callimachus”).
What’s even more intriguing than the library itself is the differing accounts of it’s destruction. Through research I found the most prominently recited is that of Julius Caesar accidentally burning down the library while burning his own ships. “First, let us read the legendary account:
It is often said that the Romans were civilised but their most famous general was responsible for the greatest act of vandalism during antiquity. Julius Caesar was attacking Alexandria in pursuit of his archrival Pompey when he found himself about to be cut off by the Egyptian fleet. Realising that this would leave him in a desperate predicament, he took decisive action and sent fire ships into the harbour. His plan was a success and the enemy fleet was quickly aflame. But the fire did not stop these and jumped onto the dockside which was laden with flammable materials ready for export. Next it spread in land and before anyone could stop it, the Great Library itself was blazing brightly as 400,000 priceless scrolls were reduced to ashes. As for Caesar himself, did not think it important enough to mention in his memoirs.
The accused was indeed in Alexandria in 47 - 48 BC after arriving in pursuit of his rival Pompey. Caesar was able to occupy the city without any trouble after destroying the Egyptian fleet and was residing in the palace with Cleopatra when more trouble started. Some henchmen of the Pharaoh attacked with a sizable force and Caesar suddenly found himself stuck in a hostile city with very few forces. That he still won out is a tribute to his luck and powers of leadership. This much is uncontested but to unravel the fate of the Royal Library we must examine the ancient sources” (Hannam, 2011). #
As stated in the quote above one must consider other sources before pointing the blame. However there are several different versions of the story of the destruction of Library. Another is quoted involving the invasion of Moslems and the sacredness of the Koran. “In 640 AD the Moslems took the city of Alexandria. Upon learning of "a great library containing all the knowledge of the world" the conquering general supposedly asked Caliph Omar for instructions. The Caliph has been quoted as saying of the
Library's holdings, "they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous." So, allegedly, all the texts were destroyed by using them as tinder for the bathhouses of the city. Even then it was said to have taken six months to burn all the documents. But these details, from the Caliph's quote to the incredulous six months it supposedly took to burn all the books, weren't written down until 300 years after the fact. These facts condemning Omar were written by Bishop Gregory Bar Hebræus, a Christian who spent a great deal of time writing about Moslem atrocities without much historical documentation” (Chesser). Its obvious to see there was some bias in the preceding account. In truth nobody knows for sure what exactly happened to it. The destruction was complete, though it may have accidental or even gradual. We do know that the accounts provided about it’s historical and literary value deem it a very great loss to human history.
Ptolemy I couldn’t have imagined people would marveling at his idea more than thousand years after it was destroyed. Nor would have believed that the Library would’ve ever disappeared. It may lost, secluded alone into the ream of history books and monuments, but it’s purpose lives on. It preserved ancient texts and the knowledge of such that texts that otherwise might have lost forever. It also preserved something else, with it’s extinction it renewed in us a curiosity and an appreciation. A renewed appreciation for the effort spent by those courageous enough to write and those willing enough to listen and preserve. Something to think about the next you walk into your local library….
Casson, Lionel. Libraries of the Ancient World. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001.
Harris, Stephen L. “The Wonders of the World” Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Washington D.C.
:National Geographic Society, 1998. 54-59.
The Burning of the Library of Alexandria. By Preston Chesser. 1 Jun, 2002. The Ohio State University.
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Jun 2011. http://web.ebscohost.com/hrc/detail?vid=6&hid=123&sid=449b2f3e-10bb-4bbe-bcc8-
“The Mysterious Fate of the Great Library of Alexandria” Bede’s Library. 17 Jun 2011.