Library of Alexandria

 The Library of Alexandria was once the largest library in the ancient world. According to the earliest source of information, the pseudepigraphic Letter of Aristeas, the Library was initially organized by Demetrius of Phaleron, a student of Aristotle under the reign of Ptolemy Soter.

Built in the Brucheion (Royal Quarter) in the style of Aristotle's Lyceum, adjacent to and in service of the Musaeum  (a Greek Temple or "House of Muses", where we get the term "museum"), the Library comprised a Peripatos walk, gardens, a room for shared dining, a reading room, lecture halls and meeting rooms. However, the exact layout is not known. This model's influence may still be seen today in the layout of university campuses. The library itself is known to have had an acquisitions department (possibly built near the stacks, or for utility closer to the harbour), and a cataloguing department. The hall contained shelves for the collections of scrolls (as the books were at this time on papyrus scrolls), known as bibliothekai. Carved into the wall above the shelves, a famous inscription read: The place of the cure of the soul.

Besides collecting works from the past, the library was also home to a host of international scholars, well-patronized by the Ptolemaic dynasty with travel, lodging and stipends for their whole families. As a research institution, the Library filled its stacks with new works in mathematics, astronomy, physics, natural sciences and other subjects. It was at the Library of Alexandria that the scientific method was first conceived and put into practice, and its empirical standards applied in one of the first and certainly strongest homes for serious textual criticism. As the same text often existed in several different versions, comparative textual criticism was crucial for ensuring their veracity. Once ascertained, canonical copies would then be made for scholars, royalty and wealthy bibliophiles the world over, this commerce bringing income to the library. The editors at the Library of Alexandria are especially well known for their work on Homeric texts, the more famous editors generally also holding the title of head librarian. These included, among others,

·         Zenodotus (early third century BC)

·         Callimachus, (early third century BC), the first bibliographer and developer of the Pinakes - the first library catalog.

·         Apollonius of Rhodes (mid-third century BC)

·         Eratosthenes (late third century BC)

·         Aristophanes of Byzantium (early second century BC)

·         Aristarchus of Samothrace (late second century BC)

Destruction of the Library

Ancient and modern sources identify four possible occasions for the destruction of the Library:

1.      Julius Caesar's Fire in The Alexandrian War, in 48 BC

2.      The attack of Aurelian in the Third century AD;

3.      The decree of Theophilus in 391 AD;

4.      The Muslim conquest in 642 AD or thereafter.


1.      Julius Caesar's Fire in The Alexandrian War, in 48 BC

There is no concrete evidence that Caesar accidentally or intentionally burned the library but the circumstantial evidence suggest that he did

·         The earliest descriptions of the Alexandrine War, written by Caesar or his crony, deliberately cover up anything that reflects badly on the great man. Their silence about burning down the world's greatest library, even by accident, is not surprising.

·         The library as a separate building did not exist by the time of Strabo's visit in 20BC.

·         The belief that Caesar had destroyed the library was widespread by the time his family no longer occupied the throne of the emperors in the late first century AD. Plutarch, Gellius and Seneca are all evidence for this. We must therefore assume that the library did not exist at this time. Plutarch, a Greek, would certainly have known if it did.

·         Although it cannot be proven with first hand evidence, it seems justified to claim that the book stacks of the Royal Library were burnt down by Julius Caesar. Perhaps the reading rooms, which in any case were part of the Museum, survived but, as Seneca and all the other sources tell us, the books themselves perished. That scholarship continued in Alexandria after this time cannot be doubted, but I can find no explicit mention of the Royal Library after Caesar's ill-fated visit. 


3. The decree of Theophilus in 391 AD;

Theophilus was the Patriarch of Alexandria at the time that the Serapeum was converted into a Christian church. The date for the events recorded is usually given as 391AD when Theodosius was emperor and energetically converting all his subjects to Christianity and ordered the destruction of all pagan temples, and the Christian Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria complied with this request. The contention made is that there was another library in the Serapeum temple that a Christian mob destroyed during their sacking of the temple. It is important to establish if there really was a library there and also if Theophilus destroyed it.


At the solicitation of Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, the Emperor issued an order at this time for the demolition of the heathen temples in that city; commanding also that it should be put in execution under the direction of Theophilus. Seizing this opportunity, Theophilus exerted himself to the utmost to expose the pagan mysteries to contempt. And to begin with, he caused the Mithreum to be cleaned out, and exhibited to public view the tokens of its bloody mysteries. Then he destroyed the Serapeum, and the bloody rites of the Mithreum he publicly caricatured; the Serapeum also he showed full of extravagant superstitions, and he had the phalli of Priapus carried through the midst of the forum. Thus this disturbance having been terminated, the governor of Alexandria, and the commander-in-chief of the troops in Egypt, assisted Theophilus in demolishing the heathen temples

The Serapeum once housed part of the Library, but it is not known how many, if any, books were contained in it at the time of destruction. Notably, the passage by Socrates Scholasticus, unlike that of Ammianus Marcellinus, makes no clear reference to a library or library contents being destroyed, only to religious objects being destroyed. The pagan author Eunapius of Sardis witnessed the demolition, and though he detested Christians, and was a scholar, his account of the Serapeum's destruction makes no mention of any library. Paulus Orosius admitted in the sixth book of his History against the pagans


Today there exist in temples book chests which we ourselves have seen, and, when these temples were plundered, these, we are told, were emptied by our own men in our time, which, indeed, is a true statement.


However Orosius is not here discussing the Serapeum, nor is it clear who "our own men" are (the phrase may mean no more than "men of our time," since we know from contemporary sources that pagans also occasionally plundered temples).


4. Muslim Conquest in 642

Arab Muslims invaded Egypt during the seventh century as their fanaticism carried them on conquests that would take form an empire stretching from Spain to India. The leader of the Moslem forces that took Egypt in 640AD was called 'Amr and it was he who was supposed to have asked Omar what to do about the fabled library that he found himself in control of. When knowledge of the existence of Alexandria great Library preserving all the knowledge in the world reached Mecca, Caliph Omar ordered that all the books in the library should be destroyed because, as he said "they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous." Therefore, the books and scrolls were taken out of the library and distributed as fuel to the many bathhouses of the city. So enormous was the volume of literature that it took six months for it all to be burnt to ashes heating the saunas of the conquerors who never knew such luxuries of bathing with hot water and soap. There is no historical evidence which contradict this claim as the history of the barbaric, destructive invading Arabs stand proof for that.