Ancient Alexandria Library

"Alexandria Library- it was right here that virtually all the knowledge of the ancient world was compiled!"


Driving along the Corniche, the famous Mediterranean waterfront of Alexandria, 2000 years ago, the Alexandria Library existed and is where some of the greatest achievements in Mathematics, Geography, Astronomy and Medicine took place!

As most of the ancient Alexandria attractions, the Alexandrian library does not exist anymore but as you're driving down the waterfront in your Alexandria taxi or tour bus, try to use some imagination to envision this amazing establishment!

It's quite amazing to think that it was right here that virtually all the knowledge of the ancinet world was compiled: the original royal library in Alexandria was most likely the largest and most significant library of the ancient world!


History of Alexandria library

Alexandrian library was established in the 3rd century BC, under Ptolemy Soter, as part of the Museion (house of the muses), as institution that was modelled after Aristotle's Lyceum.

In a way, Mouseion was like today's University: as a major center of scholarship, it hosted over 100 international scholars whose only duty was to research, write, lecture, translate and copy documents.

Well-patronized and cared for by the Ptolemaic dynasty, in the Mouseion and Alexandria library, the scholars produced some of the greatest achievements of all times! You can read more about them in our article Library of Alexandria - Important achievements.

Apart from the famous Alexandria library which compiled up to 700 000 scrolls, in the Mouseion, there were gardens, meeting rooms, a zoo, a shrine for each one of the nine muses, shared dining rooms...

It was here, among the gardens, the colonnades and all the fabulous facilities, that the literature and science of those days were formed, all that to spread the glory of the Ptolemies!

If you wonder how the library got to contain so many scriptures from all around the ancient world, well, there is an apocryphal story that says how all the visitors to the city were required to surrender all books and scrolls to local authorities! Then they would be copied by the library scribes, to be returned to the owners.

Sometimes, the copies would be so authentic-looking, the owners wouldn't even realize they weren't getting back the original!


Destruction of Alexandria Library

It's not clear how such a great library would vanish from the face of the Earth with no trace but there are three possible occasions, which are the possible suspects for its destruction:

1. Ceasar's fire - it's interesting that one of the greatest generals of Rome was to blame for one of the greatest acts of vandalism in the history of mankind. Namely, in pursuit of his rival Pompey, Caesar sent fire ships into Alexandria harbour. It is very possible that at this occasion the fire spread to the dockside and set the priceless scrolls of Alexandria library on fire. After this, a smaller portion of the library located at the Serapeum survived.

2. Coptic Pope Theopilus' decree in 391. made the paganism illegal and allegedly he ordered the destruction of the Library at the Serapeum (the so-called daughter library) which held about 10 percent of the overall  library's holdings. He knew that as long as people read those writings, they would be less inclined to believe the Bible. However, this story has no support in historical resources.

3. The Moslem Conquest - in 640. Moslems took Alexandria. Upon learning there was a library that contained all the knowledge of the world, the local general asked Caliph Omar what to do about it. His answer was: They will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous." So the scrolls were destroyed, being used as tinder for the bathhouses of the city. Even so, it took 6 months to burn all the documents. All of these stories seem a bit biased but at the same time it is very possible that all the culprits had some blame in the Alexandria library destruction.

Since, as we mentioned already, there's no single stone standing from the old library, don't miss visiting the brand new modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a fascinating commemoration of the ancient library, inaugurated in 2002 near the site of the old library!

The best way to see Bibliotheca Alexandrina is to take one of the organised tours of the city. Private tours are most flexible and will allow for as much time as you need at the library.

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