The Library of Alexandria is one of the largest and most important libraries in the entire ancient world. It was part of the Alexandria Muséion Institute, found in Alexandria, Egypt. The idea of establishment belongs to Demetrius of Phalerum. Subsequently, Ptolemy I Soter laid down the plans for this monumental project. At the same time, the son of Caesar Ptolemy II completed the building. By then, the library rapidly accumulated a record number of papyrus scrolls. Indeed, the large amount of finance given by the Ptolemaic kings enhanced this process. It is challenging to calculate an exact figure for the number of scrolls stored at this place. However, we can assume the approximate number of scrolls varied from 40,000 to 400,000 during the heyday.
- Construction of Library of Alexandria
- The Layout of the Library of Alexandria
- Early Expansion and Organisation
- Scholars and Poets of the Library
- Early Scholars
- Later Scholars
- Destruction of the Library
- Restoration of Bibliotheca Alexandrina
- Contents of the Modern Library
Construction of Library of Alexandria
After the Romans conquered Egypt, the library did not lose its great importance. The new rulers supported its development until the 3rd century. The library workers enjoyed the excellent privileges of the Ptolemaic era. Great Alexandria was at a high level intellectually and educationally. A large number of worthy and famous scientists have worked in this particular library. Some of these people: Zenodotus of Ephesus – worked on the texts of Homeric poems. Callimachus – wrote Pinakes – the first library catalogue on earth. Eratosthenes of Cyrene determined almost precisely the earth’s circumference. Aristophanes of the Byzantine invented a system called “Greek diacritics” and was the first to split the text into lines.
There were two library collections:
- The main collection was accessible in the Brucheion area. It is the same area where the king’s palace was located. Although the civilians badly damaged during the war of Julius Caesar.
- Auxiliary – was located in the temple of Serapis (place of storage of literature for training).
The library of Alexandria was more like an academy. In this place, various scientists lived and worked. These scientists practised new research and teaching. At the same time, the library had its staff where they copied the books. A huge advantage was the funds that increased right there. Economically, a decisive factor behind that was Alexandria became the leading centre for the production of papyrus. Naturally, the Ptolemies did their best to make experienced professionals – grammarians and scribes.
The Layout of the Library of Alexandria
The exact layout for the library is not known. However, ancient sources describe the library of Alexandria filled with scrolls.
The structure had greek columns, a room for shared dining. Additionally, there existed a peripatus walk, a place to read. Moreover, it had lush gardens and lecture halls. According to this pattern, it resembled a modern university campus. Ancient texts indicate that the Mousein had a zoo with exotic animals. Also, it had a hall called Bibliothekai that housed a collection of papyrus scrolls. According to popular lores, there was an inscription above the shelves. That read as ‘The place of the cure of the soul’.
Early Expansion and Organisation
The founder rulers intended the library to be a plethora of knowledge. They expanded the collection through an aggressive policy.
The rulers sent Royal agents everywhere with a lot of money. Moreover, they had instructions to purchase as many texts as possible.
Furthermore, it could be about any subject. Hence, older copies found preference over newer versions. They did this in the hope that older versions were less copied. Therefore, they would resemble the original author more closely.
According to Greek writer Galen, guards searched any ship on the port for books. Subsequently, in the library, scribes copied the books. They kept the original texts there.
In turn, they returned the copies to the owners. Homeric poems were the foundation of Greek education. Hence, they made a particular focus on acquiring them.
Scholars and Poets of the Library
The Library of Alexandria housed the most incredible collection of texts. At the same time, the Mousein also served as a home to international scholars. In addition, it guested several poets, philosophers and researchers.
According to Strabo, the rulers provided scholars with a salary. Moreover, they offered them free of charge food and lodging during their stay. They lived together and ate meals in a high domed ceiling dining room.
Additionally, they designed classrooms in the structure of that building. Hence, scholars could teach students once in a while. According to Lionel Casson, they used a certain logic behind this housing concept.
If scholars went free from daily burdens, then they could focus on learning more. As early as 283 BC, around thirty to fifty learned men lived in the Mouseion.
The first registered head librarian was Zenodotus of Ephesus. He is known for combining rare words. Moreover, he organised them into alphabetical order. Hence, making him the first person to use this method of organisation.
The scholar Callimachus compiled the Pinakes. They divided the Pinakes into multiple sections. Each section contained entries for writers from a specific genre.
Moreover, every section listed the author in alphabetical order. Each entry included the name of the author along with all of their known works.
According to tales, the famous mathematician Archimedes visited the library. Observing the rise and fall of The Nile, he invented the Archimedes screw. Later he returned to Syracuse, where he continued creating things.
The third head librarian was Eratosthenes of Cyrene. He is best known for pushing geography to become a scientific discipline. As the library expanded, it eventually ran out of space.
Hence, a satellite collection opened in the Seapeum of Alexandria. A temple to the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis was placed close to the royal palace. The peak of Literary Criticism.
Aristophanes was the fourth head librarian. Aristophanes edited poetic texts and introduced a new idea. Under his observation, a more mature phase of the library’s history peaked.
He divided poems into separate lines on the page. Earlier, they were written like prose. He also developed the system of Greek diacritics.
Aristarchus of Samothrace was the sixth head librarian. He produced texts of classic poems. Additionally, he wrote commentaries that would explain the meaning of a section.
He made many additions to the study of Homeric poems. However, later he was expelled out of Alexandria by Ptolemy VIII.
Destruction of the Library
A prevalent version is that the library disappeared when certain events occurred. It is not the case: it simply became unusable over time for many years. The library declined around 145 BC when Ptolemy VIII was ruling. Then, The chief librarian retired, after which the Alexandria Library began to disintegrate. In addition, the rebels randomly burned a large part of it when the civil war was going on. Of course, nobody can identify the exact extent of the destruction.
Following the end of the war, the Ptolemies restored the library and rebuilt it. Later, the Romans devoted less attention to the library because there was no financial ability to maintain it. Also, all the staff disappeared by about 260 AD. Finally, the year 273 witnessed the loss of the first library. By then, Aurelian destroyed and set fire to Brucheyon during the attack on Alexandria.
The final blame for the destruction of the library
The library declined over time with the prestige of Alexandria. The final blame, however, rests with Caliph Omar. Historians say that he gave a direct order that led to the destruction of the scrolls. He instructed them to destroy all texts that were not following the Quran. However, these tales could be untrustworthy, according to many historians.
Restoration of Bibliotheca Alexandrina
Lotfi Dovidar, president of the University of Alexandria, laid the idea of restoring the Library of Alexandria in 1974. Later, in 1986, in May, Egypt submitted an appeal to UNESCO to allow an international organisation to revive this project. Since the beginning of 1988, there was full support for an international architectural competition to design the Library of Alexandria. This support came with the participation of UNDP and UNESCO. The Egyptian authorities gave as much as four hectares of land so that the library could be recreated. Also, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak himself revealed a personal initiative for this project. Of course, this initiative greatly simplified the financial part of the restoration.
The Egyptian government completed the restoration of the library in 2002. Currently, we called this library the “Bibliotheca Alexandrina” in memory of the first version of the Library of Alexandria. Now, the new Library of Alexandria houses the International School of Information Sciences. This school serves as an educational institution to train students in rare specialities. The new library plays a role to provide everyone with easy access to new knowledge. It is now fully operational.
In the course of building the library, the latest education system in Egypt flourished. Now, the educational system does not depend mainly on the government of the country.
During the revolution of 2011 in Egypt, people crowded around the library, tightly holding hands to protect it from marauders.
Contents of the Modern Library
Today, the new library of Alexandria is a cultural centre located on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It possesses such a vast building designed of granite stone, glass and aluminium. It fascinates everyone with its futuristic appearance, but it completely lacks traces of the antique period. The collection of books gathered in that modern library is simply impressive.
Currently, this collection counts half a million volumes; among them, there are unique and inimitable samples. Uniquely, it homes precious Arabic manuscripts of the 7-8 centuries. In addition, it gets a copy of Claudius Ptolemy’s atlas of the world. Undoubtedly, it will demand even more time (about twenty years) to collect four to eight million books. The government decided to present this particular number of books to the library fund.
The entire filling of the library is due to private as well as government donations. No matter how unique the modern collection is! It will not be possible to restore what it had two thousand years ago ultimately. It doesn’t remain easy to fill the Alexandrian Library with all the wisdom of the world.
The Great Library of Alexandria was a treasure trove of knowledge. The world collectively lost a great deal with the destruction of it.
The tragedy is not the uncertainty of who burned the library eventually. But, it lies in the fact that ancient history and literature was lost from the world forever.