The Ancient Library of Alexandria

(Image Source: Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

In the year 283 BCE, a group of Greeks living in Egypt set out on the most audacious and ambitious goal in human history. Ever since Aristotle first began tutoring Alexander the Great, in his youth, they set the stage for the scholastic prowess of Athens to give rise and way to Alexandria, along with the Library that it would come to contain. The plan of the Ptolemaic pioneers was to gather all of the knowledge in the world, together under a single roof. The idea had come decades earlier from Alexander the Great, but he died long before construction began. It was his most trusted general, and rightful successor, who actually ordered the Ancient Museum and Library of Alexandria to be built. It was developed by Demetrius of Phaleron, under the reign of the new pharaoh-king Ptolemy I. The Library was erected in the royal district of Brucheion, in the style of Aristotle’s Lyceum, on the campus of the Ancient Museum — a Classic Greek Temple, called the “House of Muses”. The Library was dedicated to the nine goddesses of the arts, or the Muses, as well as the god Serapis. This was done in honor of the now legendary conqueror Alexander the Great, by the Ancient Greek-Egyptian monarch Ptolemy I Soter.

The style of construction that was used to build the Museum and Library included Ancient Egyptian architectural influences, as well as grand Hellenistic columns, and other Ancient Greek features. Inside the decadent marble walls, there were lecture halls, classrooms, and lots of shelves for scrolls. There were ten large laboratories, off of the main hall, as well as numerous other rooms. It had a large dining hall, a reading room, and even a dissection room. The Ancient Library of Alexandria also had gardens and a zoo, with live specimens of flora and fauna, from as far away as Europe and India. There was even an astronomical observatory, among other magnificent things to behold. The Library contained lots of ornate fountains and colonnades, among other rather extravagant decorations. The dynasty spared no expense to create a citadel of consciousness, in order to foster a robust curiosity towards the cosmos, meaning the “order” of the world. As a result, the capital city in general, and the Library in particular, became a rather cosmopolitan center of culture, consisting of local Egyptians, Macedonian soldiers, Greek immigrants, and a large Jewish population, among others. Upon entering the Library, they became true “citizens of the cosmos”. For this is where cosmopolitan ideals were first being realized. Although they still practiced slavery, people finally began to embrace diversity.

As soon as the Library was ready, Ptolemy I began to fill the shelves with scrolls from all over the world, although they were primarily from Greek and Egyptian authors. He also invited dignitaries from around the world to come to learn and teach at the Library, as resident scholars. They were given the very first government grants, to serve as royally funded researchers on the pharaoh’s payroll. The goal was for them to obtain a copy of every text in the world, and also to create countless new works of their own, in the process. Then, during the reign of Ptolemy II, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was built as one of the ancient wonders of the world. It was then used as a beacon to lure ships into the harbor, in part to draw in visitors to the Museum and Library. Following that, under the reign of “The Benefactor”, Ptolemy III, the city exploited the local geography even further. It was ideally suited to be the nexus of knowledge in the ancient world. Alexandria became a natural hub for ships traveling through the Mediterranean Sea. So, he instituted a policy requiring that every ship docked within city limits had to turn over all of their scrolls for copying. The Library scribes would then diligently duplicate the work longhand, and keep the originals for themselves, sending the copies back to the ships.

There were professional manuscript hunters who were sent out to scour the world for the written word, wherever it could be found. They combed every culture they encountered, looking for any codex they could find. Those scrolls were the finest treasures in the entire Enlightenment Empire of Ptolemy I, II, and III, who collected books with an absolute vengeance. They acquired them in every conceivable way. Manuscripts were purchased at marts and markets, and even on the black market, if necessary. Scrolls were also confiscated, stolen, borrowed, and even given as gifts. The Library was so renowned that manuscripts were often just donated by people who wanted to contribute to the majesty of the institution, in any way possible. Even the personal book collection of Alexander the Great had been willed to the Library. Scribes also began mass-producing works, to trade for new material. At one point, the number of scrolls in the Library exceeded one million codices. So, eventually a “daughter library” had to be built in the Serapeum, underground further inland, to house 300,000 of the surplus documents. The Library was well on its way to owning a copy of every book in the world. In fact, the obsession even forced Egypt to stop exporting papyrus altogether, in order to keep all the available scrolls for themselves. This kind of thing went on all the time. Generations after it was built, Mark Antony gave Cleopatra thousands of scrolls for the Library, which he had obtained from a rival library in Pergamum, Turkey.

In the Ancient Library of Alexandria, there were scrolls written in Turkish, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Hebrew, among many other languages. Of course, the purpose was really to have everything written in Greek, to be more Hellenized. Even the Bible was first translated in the Library. So, as the collection grew larger and larger, it became possible to find information on every known subject. The problem was that it soon became very difficult to actually locate anything on a specific topic like astronomy or comedy, or by a certain person such as Plato or Diogenes. That’s why a man named Callimachus of Cyrene set to work on a brilliant solution. He developed what was known as the pinakes, which was a kind of indexed bibliography. It was a 120 volume catalog of contents, and it allowed people to navigate their way through the texts far more effectively and efficiently. The warehouse of reference and research material could then be properly managed by a competent staff. In this way, the vast repository of literature moved humanity out of the prehistoric world and into a truly historic one. The great stacks of “books from the ships” were meticulously copied, cataloged, and cross-referenced with great care. This was an unprecedented move in the development of the written tradition, and one of the most important events in the progress of intellectual development.

The serious, systematic accumulation of information was a triumphant undertaking. Throughout the years, so many great minds passed through the hallowed halls of the Library. Around the year 235 BCE, Eratosthenes became a chief librarian, and tutor to the royal family. He was the first person to determine the circumference of the Earth. He calculated the planet to be 24,650 miles around, which is not far off from the real distance of 24,900. Along with this, Euclid codified geometry in the Library, producing a textbook that is still in use today. The manuscript is filled with elegant mathematical proofs. The renowned scholar Archimedes was even known to frequent the research institute, on more than one occasion. There was also Dionysius of Thrace, who originally defined the parts of speech while working in the Library. Additionally, there was the first anatomist, who was a famous physician named Herophilos. The revolutionary doctor established an in-house medical school on the Museum campus, where he correctly determined the brain to be the seat of the soul, not the heart. This was made possible because human dissection was forbidden in Greece, but not in Egypt. So, this is when practice on human cadavers became possible, and the first autopsies were performed.

At the same time though, there was still a disconnect that prevented the scholars from using their ideas for the benefit of everyone. Much of what was being done in the Library was based solely on theory, rather than any kind of practical application. As a result of this, everyday people in Alexandria didn’t really gain anything from the work that was going on in the Library. This was the only real problem with the ancient research institute. People knew about steam engines inside the walls, but no one ever built one outside of them. Scribes and scholars were just gathering knowledge for the sake of having it, but they weren’t really doing that much with it. So, by the time of Ptolemy IV, the Ancient Library of Alexandria started becoming unfavorable. After the Golden Age of Alexandria, the city changed from Greek to Roman, to Christian, and then finally Muslim hands. Each time it did, the new rulers felt threatened by the knowledge that the Library contained. As part of this, in the year 30 BCE, the death of Cleopatra left the Library unfunded. To make matters worse, it was soon claimed by Augustus Caesar. By the 5th century, paganism was entirely outlawed in Alexandria. Scholars were then brazenly beaten to death in the streets by Christians. Among these, a prominent woman named Hypatia was brutally murdered by a mob, as a martyr to academia in the year 415. In the end, though, it was Arab rulers who finally ordered that the books be burned in the 7th century, in the name of Islam, after the Library had already been accidentally burned before by Romans and purposively burned by Christians. This multi-generational cross-cultural struggle between polytheists, atheists, and monotheists is what ushered in the Dark Ages.

Fundamentalists of the Abrahamic faiths are often at odds with natural philosophers, centered around issues like creationism versus evolution, among other things. For this, and many other reasons, the Library was at the epicenter for epistemic prominence in the ancient world, leading to detrimental conflicts between science and religion. As a consequence of this, the incalculable loss of the Library will haunt humanity forever. The amount of titles and authors that were destroyed is almost unfathomable. Just as one example, there used to be 123 plays by Sophocles, but now only 7 remain fully intact. Similarly, the writings of Aristarchus were but one in a million, that were pointlessly burned by Muslims fourteen centuries ago, and lost to the world forever. In the 3rd century BCE, Aristarchus of Samos wrote that the Earth orbits the Sun, which is just a star like all the others. The thing is that this knowledge was then lost for centuries until being realized by Copernicus in the 16th century CE. The arsonists destroyed so much more than just tremendous achievements, though. The great fire took away part of our humanity. The epic tragedy, and the irreparable gaps that the public disservice caused to our collective knowledge, is an utter disgrace to the species. Just imagine where we might be now, had all that knowledge never been taken from us…



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