2300 years ago, Alexander the Great, Aristotle’s pupil, brought his dream of culture and conquest, of uniting the world and launching a new era to the timeless land of Egypt. Alexander selected the site for a new capital: Alexandria.
His successors in Egypt, the Ptolemies, built Alexandria, and made it the intellectual capital of the world. Its lighthouse, the Pharos, was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. But a greater legacy was the Ancient Library of Alexandria.
Launched in 288 BC by Ptolemy I (Soter) under the guidance of Demetrius of Phaleron, the temple to the muses, or Mouseion (in greek), or museum (in latin) was part academy, part research center, and part library. The great thinkers of the age, scientists, mathematicians, poets from all civilizations came to study and exchange ideas.
As many as 700,000 scrolls, the equivalent of more than 100,000 modern printed books, filled the shelves. The library was open to scholars from all cultures. Girls and boys studied regularly at the Ancient Library. It was while living and working here that
Aristarchus realised and declared that the earth revolves around the sun, a full 1800 years before Copernicus;
Eratosthenes proved that the earth was spherical and calculated its circumference with amazing accuracy, 1700 years before Columbus sailed on his epic voyage
Hipparchus established the first atlas of the stars and calculated the length of the solar year accurately to within 6.5 minutes
Callimachus the poet described the texts in the library organized by subject and author, becoming the father of library science,
Euclid wrote his elements of geometry, the basic text studied in schools all over the world even now
Herophylus identified the brain as the controlling organ of the body and launched a new era of medicine
Manetho chronicled the pharaohs and organized our history into the dynasties we use to this day.
Zenodotus and the grammarians established the basics of literary scholarship with their meticulous definition of the Homerian text for the Iliad and the Odyssey
And the list of great names and great achievements goes on and on…
Diophantes, Appolonius of Perga, Heron and visiting scholars such as Archimedes…
They and many others were all members of that amazing community of scholars, which mapped the heavens, organized the calendar, established the foundations of science and pushed the boundaries of our knowledge.
They opened up the cultures of the world, established a true dialogue of civilizations. Indeed, it was at the ancient Library of Alexandria that 72 specialists first translated The Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek (the famous Septuagint).
Together these scholars promoted rationality, tolerance and understanding and organized universal knowledge. For over six centuries the ancient Library of Alexandria epitomized the zenith of learning, as later scholars, such Claudius Ptolemy and Dioscoredes built on that explosion of knowledge and added their contributions.
The Library of Alexandria was located in at least three buildings: (i) the original Muesum in the royal district of the city, (ii) the additional building mostly for book storage, located on the harbor, and (iii) the “daughter Library” located in the Serapeum, the temple to Serapis, cult god of Alexandria. The Serapeum was located in the southwest part of the city, the popular quarter
To this day it symbolizes the noblest aspirations of the human mind, global ecumenism, and the greatest achievements of the intellect.
The Library disappeared slowly, suffering a slow decline from the time of Caesar and Cleopatra. Indeed, the first disaster was in 48 B.C., when the part of the library located at the harbor was accidentally set afire during the Alexandrian war of Julius Caesar.
However, Marc Anthony gave Cleopatra the 200,000 scrolls of Pergamon, to make up for the losses. Yet, subsequent upheavals within the Roman Empire resulted in the gradual neglect and ultimate destruction of the library.
Roman armies came to Alexandria to “restore order several times between 200 and 300 AD, and it was on one of those occasions, (probably the campaign of Aurelius in 272 AD) that the entire royal quarter and the original Museum were destroyed.
Christianity was brought to Africa through Alexandria by St. Marc in the first century AD, and it was followed by merciless and brutal persecution of the Christians by the Romans in the first three centuries.
Persecution ceased with the conversion of Constantine the Great, but schisms erupted in the church. Tensions were running high. In 391 AD Emperor Theodosius issued a decree banning all religions other than Christianity and Christian Groups under Bishop Theophilus burnt the Serapeum in 391 AD. This was the end of the ancient library as a public institution.
What remained were the scholars in an uneasy co-existence with an increasingly militant Christian mob.Tragedy struck in 415 AD when Hypatia, one of the most respected scholars of her time, the first woman to study and master mathematics and astronomy, a neo-Platonist philosopher and charismatic orator, was declared a witch and brutally murdered by the mob. She became the first martyr to science.
Thus by 400 A.D. the Library had vanished, and the era of Alexandrian scholarship came to an end.
But the memory of the ancient Library of Alexandria lived on and continued to inspire scholars and humanists everywhere.
In 2002 the Egyptian government inaugurated a new library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, near the site of the ancient institution.
Source: Ishmael Serageldin
Ismail Serageldin is the Founding Director of The Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA), the new Library of Alexandria, inaugurated in 2002.