|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
28 June - 4 July 2001
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Shredding myths and scholarshipThe new Library is rising like a phoenix in Alexandria -- or is it? Jenny Jobbins delves into the story of what might have happened to the Great Library built by the Ptolemies
The legend of the ancient Library of Alexandria and how its valuable store of books was committed to an iconoclastic bonfire has persisted so long that it has entered our history books. Yet we have no contemporary record of such a conflagration, or of who lit the flames, or when. We do not even know exactly where the Great Library was or what shape it took, and we know very little about its organisation and administration, especially in its later years when Egypt had fallen under Roman rule.
The physican Galen, who studied and taught at the Mouseion (Illustration courtesy of Watani)
When Alexander the Great laid the foundation stone of Alexandria in about 331 BC, he envisioned a capital that would rival Athens in the glory of its architecture and the scope of its power. Yet barely before the first plans were drawn up he had left to fight the Persians in Asia Minor, never to return to see his city. Thus classical Alexandria began as it was to end -- in the shadow of a war with Persia.
Alexander's successor in Egypt was Ptolemy I Soter, who gave his name to the family dynasty of Greek Pharaohs which ruled Egypt, more or less competently (in spite of the vagaries of its neurotic members, among whom the tendency to commit parricide was an inbred weakness) until the suicide of its most gifted and last queen, Cleopatra VII. One of Ptolemy I's first acts was to commission the building of a great Mouseion, a "temple to the Muses", in concept not unlike a vast university campus, incorporating colleges, laboratories and observatories, a teaching hospital and a library.
The chief adviser to Ptolemy in establishing the Mouseion was Demetrius of Phalerum, himself an exiled former tyrant of Athens. Like most Greek political leaders of his day he had studied political philosophy, his mentor being Theophrastus, successor to Aristotle, who in turn had taught Alexander. In Athens, Demetrius had used Aristotle's private library, and this great collection soon found its way to Alexandria.
Leading scholars quickly answered the call to teach, attend lectures and walk the halls of this grand new seat of learning. And imposing it must have been. We can suppose that it was built, like the rest of Alexandria, in shining white marble, with elegant Grecian columns, its carefully tended gardens decorated with exquisite statuary. The Mouseion was built on the south side of the royal palace complex, the Brucheum, which adjoined the harbour. It was therefore close enough to the royal compound to receive the personal attention of the Pharaoh, and it was there that the royal children were educated.
The scholars who arrived were mathematicians, scientists, poets and dramatists, an indication of the schools for which Alexandria would become renowned. Philosophy was less prominent. Among the earlier arrivals were Euclid, Archimedes, Zenodotus and Callimachus. The most prestigious post at the Mouseion was that of director, who was expected to perform the duties of poet laureate, producing odes and eulogies for every occasion.
Ptolemy, who himself wrote a competent history of Alexander's campaigns, wanted Alexandria to become the new great centre of Greek learning. However, the chief sponsor of the library was his son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who also built the Pharos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, which survived as a lighthouse for a thousand years.
Under Ptolemy II the core of the library's collection was amassed. Demetrius lost no time in filling the stacks of the library with books. Not all his methods of acquisition were legal in the strict sense. Perhaps discarding his new hat of scholar for the old one of tyrant, he went to great pains to grasp all the manuscripts he could lay his hands on, even searching ships to confiscate those held in transit. In a startling parallel to how the shelves of the new library are being filled today, appeals went out to foreign states for manuscripts to be sent to Alexandria. The intention, though, in those pre-print and pre- computer scanning days, was that they would be meticulously copied and returned. The original dramas of Euripides and Aeschylus, and the works of Sophocles, were duly sent but, when the owners were unable to pay the high indemnities demanded for their safe return, the Mouseion administrators returned the copies and retained the originals.
One major aim was to translate everything written in other languages into Greek, and to this end the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew, which had long since ceased to be a living language. The main body of this work was completed during the first century BC, supposedly by 72 Jewish scholars working simultaneously in 72 cubicles and miraculously ptoducing 72 identical versions. Hence it was known as the Septuagint., though in all probability this is yet another library myth.
Pompey's Pillar at Rhakotis, site of the Serapeum library, from a drawing by EW Lane for his Description of Egypt.
Little is known about the administration of the Mouseion. We know even less about its layout, or of what form the library took, or whether each college had it own collection of books. But we do know that the volumes were regularly counted and cared for. Some of these counts have been passed down to us, and the number was thought to be between four and five hundred thousand (no counts were, or could be, the same). The first catalogue alone filled 120 volumes.
The papyrus or parchment scrolls, some of which would be wrapped in linen or leather, were kept in pigeonholes. A handwritten manuscript contained much less information than a modern, tightly printed book, and one volume might run into several scrolls. The volumes contained poetry, drama and classical literature, and also the research and theses of the scientists and mathematicians working at the Mouseion.
One of the fields in which Alexandria became famous was medicine. An early medical scientist to study there was Herophilus of Chalcedon (335--280 BC), the founder of the basic science of anatomy, who carried out systematic dissections of the human body, accurately describing the brain, eye, and circulatory, digestive, glandular and genital systems. He also studied the nervous system. His pupil, Erasistratus (302-250 BC), pioneered the science of physiology, or study of the normal function of the bodily organs. Other leaders in medicine were Sallus and Syrabios the Alexandrian, whose career was sparked off when he studied the drugs the Ancient Egyptians had used. Galen was in Alexandria for only eight years (152- 158 AD), but he did some seminal work there and his anatomical studies, though not definitive, remained unchallenged for 13 centuries.
But by Galen's time Alexandria's golden age under Ptolemaic Greek rule was over. In 30 BC Egypt lost its autonomy and was thenceforth ruled from Rome, where the imperial exchequer tended to allocate its funds to military campaigns, not scholarship. These resources became less plentiful as the empire shrank. One of the most significant facts about the Roman empire was that as soon as it reached its zenith, under Trajan and Hadrian between 110 and 130 AD, it began to decline. However, it took a long time to die, and its death throes reverberated around the Mediterranean for the next few centuries.
What was happening, then, to Alexandria, and to its library? The historian Strabo, who came to do research at the Mouseion, left us a description of the city as it was towards the end of the first century BC. He described the view as one sailed into the harbour: of the royal palace, the temples of Serapis, Saturn and Poseidon, the Mouseion, the hippodrome, the brand new Caesareum and Timonium built respectively by Caesar and Antony -- the former fronted by two obelisks Caesar brought from Heliopolis, one of which now stands in London, the other in New York -- the shops and docks and the Pharos towering over them all.
The study of sciences and the Mysteries continued. By now there was not one library, but two. West of the city, on a hill probably inhabited from the Late Kingdom, was a town and a temple dedicated to a pre-classical god, Rhakotis. Under the Ptolemies, who prudently took on the religion of the Egyptians and many of the customs, including the title Pharaoh (though none until the last, Cleopatra VII, troubled to learn the language) Rhakotis became a centre for the new Graeco-Egyptian cult of Serapis. It also grew into a populous suburb, inhabited mostly by native Egyptians.
At Rhakotis, Ptolemy III Evergetes I built a temple to Serapis, the Serapeum, and in catacombs beneath he installed a library, smaller than the Great Library in the Brucheum, but no less important. This was probably used as an overspill from the Mouseion, and it was here that the 200,000 volumes from the Pergamum library were kept after Mark Antony presented them to the scholarly Cleopatra.
If we look at the political map of Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa in the first centuries of the Christian era, we can see that the Roman Empire had pushed its borders beyond what its central administration could feasibly govern. Insurrections were springing up all over the empire, and belligerent neighbours were constantly trying to encroach on or pillage its territories.
Egypt, as throughout its history, had no shortage of political and religious activists. The list of insurrections makes Palestine and Northern Ireland look like peace havens. During the Jewish revolt, the worst of the Jewish insurrections, which began in 115 AD and went on for three years, the Serapeum was sacked and the contents of its library destroyed. The temple complex was rebuilt, but these manuscripts, at least, were gone.
They were not the only books to be lost. In 48 BC Caesar, partly to aid his paramour, the 20-year-old Queen Cleopatra, but mostly because of his power struggle with Pompey, torched the fleet of her husband and younger brother Ptolemy XIII who, backed by Pompey, was determined to oust her.
Unfortunately the young Pharaoh's fleet was not the only victim of the fire. The sea wind fanned the flames, and a consignment of books on the docks bound for the library -- which library is not clear -- was consumed.
Plutarch, who was not born until 90 years after this event, claims the fire also destroyed the royal palace and the Mouseion, and this tale is repeated in the fifth century by the Christian apologist Paulus Orosius. As we have seen, however, Strabo, who was in Alexandria only a few decades after the fire, described what was far from a ruin. The complex may have been rebuilt in the intervening years, but Plutarch does not reveal his sources, nor does he mention how flames can rip through marble buildings. One has only to visit the numerous mediaeval towns in continental Europe and compare them with Britain, where hardly any complete mediaeval streets survive, to see the advantage of building in brick and stone rather then in timber as the British did.
We know, then, or have fairly reliable evidence, that Caesar accidentally set fire to a stock of books in the harbour and that the library at the Serapeum was probably destroyed in the Jewish Revolt about 170 years later. We know, too, that in the intervening years and in the centuries to come there were many more civil disturbances. The city was pillaged and its inhabitants forcefully defeated when Rome annexed Egypt in 30 BC, and uprisings by the inhabitants did not stop there. As Christianity took a foothold in Egypt there were waves of terrible violence, with official persecution of the Christians under orders from Rome, especially under the Emperors Maximinus and Diocletian, giving way to the destruction of the temples by mobs of Christian monks. In 391, incited by the patriarch Theophilus, angry monks dismantled the second Serapeum stone by stone and probably set fire to it, almost certainly destroying the replenished library in the process. After that, travellers reported seeing only empty shelves in the Serapeum.
Two martyrs stand out: St Catherine, supposedly put to death on a wheel by Maximinus in about 320, and Hypatia, seized from her chariot and torn to shreds by a rabble of frenzied Christians in 415. Hypatia, an astronomer and mathmetician, was the daughter of Theon, the last director of the Great Library. With these events the Mysteries gave way to Christian theology, and the doors closed on the Mouseion.
So, was that the end of it all? There is still a further chapter to refute. In the middle ages another fire legend sprung up, but this one contains as much propaganda as Shakespeare's pro-Tudor historical plays. Nevertheless, like Shakespeare, it has endured, despite being debunked as far back as the early 1800s. This episode concerned an order alleged to have been given in 641 to Amr Ibn Al-As by the Caliph Omar to the effect that, after invading Egypt, he was to destroy any written material he found that did not agree with the Qur'an. Whether or not his troops used biblical texts as fire- lighters to annoy the Egyptians we shall never know, but the story of a bonfire has long been exposed as a political fabrication invented 500 years later.
Even if there was no fire in the Great Library, that does not mean to say that books were not destroyed. Certainly iconoclastic Jews and Christians burned pagan books, and probably Arabs burned Christian books, and vice-versa. But in all this, there is one central point. We must look at the manuscripts themselves. In the early days, these were of papyrus, as were most of the documents produced in ancient and classical Egypt. But later on fine skin parchment, or vellum, came into use. Most of the volumes in the Pergamum library were of parchment, since Egypt had stopped exporting papyrus to prevent the Seleucids from making books. In Roman times, scrolls were replaced by codices, which were in book form.
Let us now take the first known fire, Caesar's accidental immolation of the harbour. Had the fire indeed spread to the Great Library, the volumes held there would by then have been up to 300 years old. The Ptolemies, though, would have paid to have them copied, and these copies might have been in good condition. However, we don't have any proof that the fire spread that far. When we look at the next fire, at the Serapeum in 115 AD, the books in the libraries, which were now funded by public money, are beginning to look a bit tatty. By 391 they have been handled so much they are probably in shreds. The Mouseion is now only a shadow of its former self. While teachers are still paid by their students, there are no salaries for clerks: little is probably being written, and even less copied. Not only that, but law and order has long since broken down. There is no money to pay soldiers to patrol the streets, let alone guard the library. The papyrus scrolls have lost their cases, the parchment has dried and cracked. Books are stolen, borrowed or lost.
Not so long ago a German archaeologist examining a mummy cartonnage found a letter signed by Cleopatra VII herself squidged into the papyrus maché. It is not hard to see what happened to the original plays of Aeschylus and Euripides. Even had they survived the 900 years until Amr Ibn Al-As arrived, they would have been small piles of dust, not even fit for spills.
The Romans considered the Vandals their main threat in the West, and the Persians their main threat in Asia Minor. They paid little attention to Egypt, which they used as a bread basket, helping themselves to its grain and other produce but giving next to nothing in return. The last Roman Emperor of Egypt, Heraclius, was not a bad leader, but he was a military man and in poor health: he needed to expend all his effort in consolidating his campaign against Persia. He failed to protect Egypt. In 619 the Persians invaded, sacked Alexandria, massacred or abducted thousands of the inhabitants and razed half the city. The trail of destruction they left along the coast across North Africa was still visible when the Arabs arrived 20 years later. In all this, was there any time left for books?
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