What happened to the world’s greatest library?

An artist's sketch of the Royal Library at Alexandria
An artist’s sketch of the Royal Library at Alexandria

FOR SOME, it was a temple.

Others called it a shrine.

A few even referred to it as a museum.

But no one doubted it was the largest, the greatest, the most significant library in the world, modeled after the Lyceum of Aristotle in Athens and looking stoically across the harbor of Alexandria.

It was known as the Temple of the Muses. It would be remembered as the Royal Library of Alexandria.

And the man responsible for its creation – scholar and orator Demetrius of Phalerium, envisioned that the temple would house a copy of every book in the world.

His were not empty words.

That was his goal.

And it was believed that as many as 70000 documents – books and papyrus scrolls – lined its shelves and were stuffed into its archives.

It was a repository for everything known or discovered throughout the ages of an ancient world.

The hunger for knowledge had been so great that all ships coming into port at Alexandria were forced to surrender their manuscripts to authorities.

Scribes copied them.

Copies were delivered to the ships.

The library kept the originals.

The undertaking was so massive that the temple housed more than a hundred scholars who carried out scientific research, lectured, published, translated, copied, and collected every manuscript they could find in Egypt, Assyria, Persia, and India. These included Buddhists texts and Hebrew scriptures. Even the private collection of Aristotle found its way into the library.

It was, scholars agree, the most complete collection of ancient literature ever assembled, an amazing storehouse of knowledge and culture and the sciences.

Now it’s gone.

Burned.

Lost for the ages.

And we are left to wonder: Who’s to blame?

Does it really matter?

Caesar is the most popular villain.

He was chasing Pompey into Egypt and found himself cut off by an Egyptian fleet in the harbor of Alexandria.

Caesar was outnumbered.

He was in enemy territory.

He struck back, burning the Egyptian ships, and, alas, the firestorm blazed across the the city and destroyed the Royal Library.

But here came the Christians, and some are quick to blame the Christians.

Alexandria was notorious for its violent and volatile politics.

Jews lived there.

So did Christians and Pagans.

One ancient scholar wrote that no people loved a good fight more than the people of Alexandria.

To kill or not to kill?

That was the question.

A Jewish mob killed a few Christians.

A band of Christians murdered a Jewish mob.

And Emperor Theodosius, being a good Christian himself, decided to rid the world of Pagans and all of that godforsaken Pagan literature in the Royal Library.

The library was burned to the ground.

A Christian church was built upon its ashes.

Maybe that’s what happened.

Maybe not.

Some scholars wrote that General Amrou ibn el-Ass and his Muslim army captured Alexandria at the end of a long siege.

He had long heard of the library.

He wanted to see it for himself.

But what about all of those books and scrolls?

What should a conquering army do with them?

Caliph Omar told him: “If those books are in agreement with the Quran, we have no need for them, and if they are opposed to the Quran, destroy them.”

In either case, the order was the same.

Burn the books.

The manuscripts were gathered and used as fuel to heat the four thousand bathhouses in Alexandria.

There were so many scrolls they kept the bathhouses hot for six months.

So who’s to blame?

No one knows.

Who cares?

We all do.

So what did we lose?

No one will ever know for sure.

We only know the library had been a gathering place for the world’s great thinkers, philosophers, dramatists, poets, scientists, mathematicians, astronomers.

What did they know?

What did they write?

What did they leave behind?

What vanished?

More than we’ll ever know.

More than we’ll ever imagine.

For all time, it has become known as the greatest catastrophe of the ancient world.

It was Fahrenheit 451 a couple of thousand years before the idea embedded itself in the mind of Ray Bradbury.

So much knowledge had become ashes in the wind.

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  • I love your conclusion: “It was Fahrenheit 451 a couple of thousand years before the idea embedded itself in the mind of Ray Bradbury.” Thanks, Caleb! And this is certainly a reminded how writers’ are inspired and how we all in debt to past thinkers and past event…

    • Caleb Pirtle

      What we lost when the library was destroyed boggles the mind. One book, known for references in other literature was a three volume history of the world. Volume one included everything that had happened from Creation to the Great Flood. Wouldn’t we like to know what it contained?

  • Priceless – had it survived. But they couldn’t protect their books, and had no backup storage possibilities (underground vaults? Dan Brown conspiracies? Is there a book in there?).

    Plus the possibility that after all these years many texts would not be legible.

    Do we know exactly where it was? Enough for ground-scanning radar?

    • Caleb Pirtle

      We know where the library stood. But, from all historical records, the manuscripts, books, and scrolls were burned. However, the conspiracy would make a great novel.

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