The famous Alexandrian library is a repository of ancient knowledge.
According to legend, the library was founded in the 3rd century BC and was destroyed around the end of the Roman period, containing up to millions of indexed documents. Scholars are still debating whether this library actually existed and when it was destroyed.
The birth of the great library
Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC) is famous for building a vast empire in just over a decade, from succeeding the Macedonian throne in 336 BC, until his early death in 323 BC. Alexander’s lasting legacy stems from the dozens of cities he founded, including about 15 cities named Alexandria.
But no city was more important than Egypt’s Alexandria, founded in 330 BC. Alexandria is a land located west of the Nile Delta, near the fishing village of Rhakotis, a thriving new city that amazes visitors with its wealth.
Designed by architect Dinocrates of Alexander, Alexandria stands out for its massive architecture, a large harbor, Pharos lighthouse, museum and most famously the great library, once viewed as the intellectual capital of the world. Ancient Greeks.
As a world-famous city state, Alexandria is influenced by Greece’s language, culture and political orientation but is global in population. The Greeks coexisted with the Egyptians, Persians, Jews, Indians, and finally the Romans.
The first textual evidence for the great librarianship is from Aristeas’s Library in the 2nd century BC. However, some historians consider this text a fake source, allegedly written by a court official of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (309 – 246 BC).
The later Roman authors, Strabo and Plutarch, set the library’s origins during the reign of Ptolemy ISoter. Plutarch writes of Demetrius of Athens, who was exiled, proposed to build a museum, or temple to the gods of Muses, and its accompanying library at Ptolemy I’s palace in Alexandria. Ptolemy I wanted to codify the diary and personal history of Alexander the Great, his general.
Demetrius’ plan was a solution to this goal. At the end of his reign, Ptolemy I was said to have collected more than 50,000 texts that lay messily in palace rooms and form the main part of the archive proposed by Demetrius.
Ptolemy III Eugertes (280 – 222 BC) continued the work of building the great library, expanding the collections. According to documents, he sent people across the Mediterranean to search bookstores, looking for prints of classical works.
Even before Ptolemy III expanded the collection, a second or sub-library had been established, perhaps at the Serapis Temple, to accommodate the ever-growing collection. Personal libraries were common in the ancient world, but the public library, especially on Alexandria’s ambitious scale, was an innovation. Like a university, the Museum and Libraries in Alexandria are the archives of books and workplaces for scholars.
Alexandria’s greatest librarian was the poet Callimachus of Cyrene (310 – 240 BC). He renovated the table of contents, consisting of 120 separate volumes, recording eight types of documents kept in Alexandria. The categories, which Callimachus calls Pinakes, or lists, includes profile and folder details per source.
His work is said to include references to all known classical literary works of his time. In addition, he also sorts the documents of the library by genre, then alphabetically.
How was the library destroyed?
The great library suffered a series of accidents or was intentionally destroyed. Julius Caesar is often blamed for the first library fire. After his victory at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, Julius Caesar pursued his once defeated opponent, Pompeius Magnus, all the way to Egypt. Caesar arrived in Alexandria at the time of civil war between the young king Ptolemy XIII (62 – 47 BC) and his sister Cleopatra VII (69-30 BC).
While in Egypt, Ptolemy XIII’s forces surrounded Caesar and his troops in the Alexandria harbor. Caesar commanded his forces to set fire to the fleet of Ptolemy XIII. But the summer winds caused the fire to spread from the port to the warehouse and perhaps into the city.
Plutarch reports in Caesar’s Life in the 2nd century AD about the burning of a portion of the library’s assets, possibly the dockyard but also the great library itself. Historians question whether this fire, if it happened, was purely accidental, or Caesar’s deliberate act of removing the library.
As the intellectual capital of Egypt, Alexandria prides itself on a rich and intelligent population. Until 391 C.E., an Alexandrian riot that centered on the Serapis Temple, Serapeum, might have resulted in the burning of both the sub-library and the great library.
The construction of a new library in Alexandria in 2002 is a “spiritual inheritance” of the ancient knowledge base. Although no longer present, the great library of ancient Alexandria remains an intellectual wonder of the world and a source of inspiration for future generations.
The Library of Alexandria is said to be a reference site of an unprecedented scale. It is estimated that the great library has collections ranging from 40,000 scrolls to 1,000,000 texts. Scrolls, rather than books, are the typical format for text. Multiple papyrus scrolls can include a book or volume, which could account for this statistical difference.