This is a guest post by writer and blogger Emily Watts. Emily is the author of multiple articles concerning mysterious and intriguing historical facts and theories. However, she also writes about problems of education, business, modern technology, personal relationships, and other topics.
History of the Great Library of Alexandria
World history is full of terrible losses. No, I’m not talking about people who fell in numerous wars and battles. This post is devoted to another sort of loss: a cultural one. Unfortunately, humanity has lost too many antiquities, and cultural heritage can be irreplaceable. One such tragedy is the burning of the library of Alexandria.
The great library of Alexandria is one of the most discussed historical buildings. The main reason why there are so many theories and debates concerning it is lack of evidence. We know very little about its history and the way it came to ruin and, as a result, you’d be surprised as to how many students leave us online requests with, “I need help writing my research paper on the ancient library of Alexandria.”
So, how does one define the truth and separate it from legend?
Let’s start with what made it so great: from what ancient sources tell us, no other library could match its majesty and importance. It contained numerous irreplaceable books. It was all destroyed by a fire which obliterated these precious writings and devoured the whole structure. Today, there are no ruins left; not a single brick. Only stories, theories, and myths remain.
Concerning its founding
From these stories, we can determine that the Alexandria library was founded in Egypt around 330 BC. However, this date is only an approximation, as no one can name the exact date of library’s foundation. We only know it was founded after Alexander the Great was assassinated in 323 BC.
A similar fog surrounds its founder. It is believed that Ptolemy Lagides was its founder. He was one of Alexander’s successors. The library was named in honor and tribute to the great emperor, warrior, and cultural leader, Alexander, who adored the arts, history, and science.
Pretty soon, the library became a keeping place for all rare writings. According to one theory, one of Aristotle’s students named Demetrius initiated the organization of this marvelous endeavor. According to another, Ptolemy’s son was the one who stood behind its creation.
Whom to Blame?
So, what happened? How was it all destroyed?
What is really known is that the library was burned down and its contents lost forever. The first person who was accused of this terrible crime was one of the most famous persons in the world history – Julius Caesar. In 48 BC he pursued Pompey who ran to Egypt. An Egyptian fleet intercepted Caesar, and he was forced to use fire to fight back. This happened near the shores of Alexandria. It is said that the Library was in the part of the city that got burned down.
Another theory implicates Theophilus, then Patriarch of Alexandria, and his great success in converting people to Christianity. This found a strong opposition amongst the city’s pagan followers, who rioted after Theophilus’ death. His successor, Cyril, wasn’t able to hold back the riots and quite soon the fires were all around the city, finally reaching the Library. Some accused Hypatia, one of the world’s first women philosophers, for the destruction, leading to her death.
A third theory accuses the Moslem Caliph, Omar. The Caliph said that the habitats of the city ought to honor the Koran. As the Library contained great numbers of manuscripts which belonged to other religions, religious intolerance induced the burning. In Omar’s alleged words, anything contained in the Library was either in accordance to the Koran, therefore obsolete, or against it, in which case it was heretical. Either way, there was no reason for its existence.
Just like everything else surrounding the Library, these are the main theories surrounding the Library’s destruction. However, there are multiple factors which contradict one another. Sadly enough for a place of learning, it is unlikely we will ever uncover the full truth behind the legend of the Great Library of Alexandria.
If I was Boo, I think my opinion would be that I do not care about wehether the burning of the Alexandrian Library was a big deal or not (some people say it was not a big deal). In any case there was apparently a big black hole in Western covilizaton for over a millenium with no cat food. Consider the Antikythera Mechanism. Super technology in Hellenistic times. but it was lost. I dont care so long as I get my cat food today. If the burning of the Alexandrian Library meant I don’t get my dinner, it’s a problem. If people somehow have finally got around it, and I get my dinner (and, of course, they get their differential equations, too), then so what? The past is just what I leave in my litter box. I’m thinking about lunch tomorrow. Meow!
Forgot: not only was there no cat food but people also killed us cats!
Thank you for putting things in perspective 😀
Darn it! This is not a fun historical fact, at all.
Lol–sorry! Most of the others are more fun 🙂
This article brings me back to a workshop I attended when I was an English as a Second Language instructor. The presenter told us about a European country which has now disintegrated. The ethnic hatred and violence were so extreme that when one ethnic group won, they burned the books of the other group. Then when that group was victorious, they burned the other group’s books. Incredible loss resulted, leaving some people unable to write even their names because they’d grown up at a time when their written language wasn’t tolerated.
Wow… I don’t know if that story’s true, but it’s a great one!
It’s true that I heard it 🙂 And I have no reason not to believe it, given the animosity and atrocities described to me by a student from that country.
Great to see that this library still generates interest! One quibble – Alexander the Great is generally considered to have died from illness, not assassination.
True. Even though conspiracy theories abound, that is the most plausible explanation.
Very timely article. I’m just reading a book called ‘The Alexandria Link ‘ by Steve Berry. Good to have this background.
Oh! Synchronicity at work! I love it when that happens 🙂
Just imagine if the library hadn’t burned, and all that knowledge was available today! What an amazing treasure that would be. Great post about a terrible loss. I wonder if we’ll ever know the truth.
Judging by how disparate information we have about even basic stuff like the date of its destruction, I doubt it!
Thanks, Emily, and Nicholas for this interesting historical post. 🙂 — Suzanne
Thank you so much, Suzanne 🙂
I loved reading this. I have a lecture on Leonardo da Vinci, which involved the history of anatomical art and knowledge, and in which I mention the destruction of this library. I was hit with a terrible wave of sadness when I first wrote about it, knowing how much knowledge was lost. It set back my field (human anatomy) by millennia.
It almost makes me cry when I see fanatics destroy works of art, as in Palmyra or Afghanistan. It feels like humanity’s greatest works are only one crazy bastard away from oblivion.