• Michelle Simons

The Burning of the Library of Alexandria

The library of Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great n the year 283 BC, was and still is, considered one of the greatest attempts in human history at creating a storehouse of all the knowledge of the world. At its peak, the library housed 400,000 scrolls (equivalent to 100,000 books).

The library was part of a Museum that served as a science research centre dedicated to knowledge. Later it was expanded to include a daughter library established in the Serapeum, a temple of the god Serapis, to store the thousands of books that were being bought and transcribed by the scholars working for the library.

The first account of destruction to the Library involved Julius Caesar in the year 48 BC. Caesar was in pursuit of Pompey into Egypt and was cut off by a fleet of Egyptian boats in the harbour of Alexandria. Greatly outnumbered and in enemy territory, he ordered the ships in the harbour to be set on fire. However, the fire spread and destroyed not only the Egyptian fleet but also a part of the city where the great Library stood. Caesar in his account of the fire in the harbour decided to not make mention of the burning of the library – proof that he wished to omit any bad records of him in history.

The second account of destruction is more well known, thanks primarily to Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and the Fall of the Roman Empire. During the reign of Theophilus as Patriarch of Alexandria, the Temple of Serapis was converted into a Christian church and many documents were said to have been destroyed. The Temple was estimated to hold a tenth of the total material belonging to the Library. During the reign of his successor, a Christian monk was publicly killed by a city prefect who was said to be under the influence of Hypatia (a female philosopher that was the daughter of one of the last members of the Library). Subsequently, riots broke out that further damaged the Temple.

The last individual blamed is Caliph Omar, who caused great damage to the Library during the attack on Alexandria in 640 AD. The Caliph was supposedly under the impression that the Library holdings would either agree with or contradict the Quran, and so leaving no place for superfluity, he ordered for all the texts to be used as tinder in the bathhouses. Even then, it was said to have taken six months to burn all the documents.

The loss of the Ancient World’s greatest archive of knowledge has been lamented over for centuries. The burning of the library of Alexandria is said to have set us back by at least 1000 years, but we will never know how much was lost amidst the mystery and rumours surrounding this great spectacle.

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