There are many sad incidences in human history where mankind and historians have mourned the death and the loss of lives, but there are few, and in fact, only one popular incident where mankind and historians mourn the loss of knowledge.
The loss of a huge archive of ancient knowledge of immense value and rarity is why historians and a whole lot of interested individuals have mourned and still mourn the destruction of the library of Alexandria.
The city of Alexandria was established by Alexander the Great during his conquest in North Africa, and his successor, Ptolemy I Soter, founded the Royal Library of Alexandria in 283 BC, though it was not built until the reign of his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus.
The library was part of a larger museum called the Mouseion which had other parts such as the lecture areas, a zoo, a garden, and shrines for each of the nine muses or goddesses of the art.
The Great Library of Alexandria was one of the greatest and the largest libraries of the ancient world and during the height of its operation, it was said to house over half a million scrolls from Assyria, Greece, Persia, Egypt, India and many other nations. Actually, the stipulated scrolls by various sources fall within the range of 40,000 to 400,000.
Alexandria became the very center of research and learning across the world due to the Great Library of Alexandria. Many scholars travelled from far and wide to visit the library, and about 100 scholars lived at the Museum at the height of its operation to “perform research, write, lecture or translate and copy documents.”
But sadly, the Library was not to last, probably just like every good thing, as it experienced its first devastation in 48 BC and by Julius Caesar. It is told that a part of the library of Alexandria got burnt during the civil war when Julius Caesar chased Pompey into Egypt and was cut off by an Egyptian fleet. As Caesar saw that he was outnumbered, he then ordered that the harbour be set on fire.
The fire destroyed the Egyptian fleets and it also burnt some part of the library. This is just one of the accounts of what led to the destruction of the library of Alexandria.
Another account puts the blame on Theophilus who was a Patriarch of Alexandria from 385 to 412 AD. It was during the reign of Theophilus that he razed the temple of Serapis and converted it into a Christian Church. It is said that some of the texts that were considered to be of “pagan” origin were destroyed during this operation.
The Temple of Serapis was said to hold about ten percent of the overall scrolls of the library of Alexandria. Also, violent riots usually erupted among the Christians, Jews and Pagans that lived in Alexandria during that period and these riots are said to have led to the destruction of the scrolls in the library of Alexandria.
And according to history, Hypatia, a popular female philosopher and daughter of the “last member of the Library of Alexandria”, was said to have been killed in one of these riots. She was the last Head Librarian.
The second presented account of the destruction of the library of Alexandria places the blame on the religious differences in Alexandria that usually led to violent riots among the Jews, Christians and Pagans in Alexandria.
The third account of the destruction of the library of Alexandria places the blame on the invasion of Egypt by the Arabs. The Moslems took over Alexandria in 640 AD and the conquering general, general Amrou, asked the Caliph Omar for instructions on what to do with the contents of the library.
And according to the story, he was instructed by the Caliph that:
“If their content is in accordance with the book of Allah, we may do without them, for in that case the book of Allah more than suffices. If, on the other hand, they contain matter not in accordance with the book of Allah, there can be no need to preserve them. Proceed, then and destroy them.”
So, allegedly, all the texts were destroyed “by using them as tinder for the bathhouses of the city. Even then it was said to have taken six months to burn all the documents.”
This third account of the destruction of the library of Alexandria is not taken seriously by historians because it was written by “Bishop Gregory Bar Hebræus, a Christian who spent a great deal of time writing about Moslem atrocities without much historical documentation.”
There are many accounts of the destruction of the library of Alexandria but I have just chosen to present these three accounts which according to my findings are the most popular.
Now, the library of Alexandria was not the only prestigious library of the ancient world. There were other libraries of the ancient world with almost equal status as the library of Alexandria in Greece, Syria and in many other places.
But I think that the destruction of the library of Alexandria is a significant and historical example of the loss of knowledge and how a world that values knowledge should mourn its loss.
The destruction of the library of Alexandria, though historical, represents the substrate for our collective intuition of the loss of some ancient knowledge that will always be significant for humanity’s progress and existence. This is why the destruction of the library of Alexandria is such a sad event in history.
So I don’t think it matters whether there were other libraries in the ancient world; we must learn and preserve this necessary lesson not to destroy knowledge whether out of desperation like Caesar did or out of religious intolerance like Bishop Theophilus.
Today, many historians mourn the destruction of the library of Alexandria because it is thought to have held important knowledge of the ancient world that were of extreme rarity. Many believe that the world suffered a major set-back due to the destruction of Alexandria.
There are a lot of myths and speculations surrounding the destruction of the library of Alexandria and the implications of its destruction and we may never really know what the world actually lost due to the wanton destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria which was reputed to have held “the world’s knowledge”.
However, in 1974, the Egyptian government embarked on an ambitious project to restore the Great Library of Alexandria and this resulted in the inauguration of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in October 2002. This is what I have chosen to refer to as the structural rebirth or incarnation of the old library.
But besides the achieved structural rebirth to restore the Library of Alexandria, there is a bigger picture of emergence occurring upon the Earth which is the intellectual or cultural rebirth of the ancient wisdom of the world that followed The First Civilization.
So with this, should we continue to mourn the destruction of the library of Alexandria?
Until next time,
I will be here.
– M. V. Echa