THE GREAT LIBRARY OF ALEXANDRIA
THE LOST HALLMARK OF HUMAN UNDERSTANDING
BY DANIEL T. GOMES
Ancient Egypt was home to several great marvels of its time, defying the splendorous constructions found in other Near-Eastern and Mesopotamian cultures. Out of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only the Great Pyramid of Giza has withstood the test of time. Magnificent temples in Karnak, Luxor and Abu Simbel continue to inspire awe despite their decay, while the tomb of Tutankhamun stands as a testament of pharaonic power and wealth.
Yet it was in Egypt’s twilight years that the city of Alexandria affirmed itself as a Mediterranean power. The Ptolemaic reign of Ancient Egypt undertook two innovative enterprises in Alexandria, the Lighthouse and the Great Library – one to light up the coast’s physical darkness, the other to light up the citizens’ intellectual darkness. While the Lighthouse was a renowned prowess of engineering, the Great Library was at one point the largest vault of human knowledge and the hallmark of Hellenistic scholarship. Comprising dozens of thousands of texts and parchments, the Library stood for centuries as the world’s learning hub. It was an unprecedented endeavor that stays alive in the books of history as well as in our imagination, millennia after its destruction.
Legend asserts that when Alexander the Great invaded Egypt and founded the city of Alexandria, he desired to build a “library” dedicated to the Muses – the Musaeum. His successors in Egypt, the Greco-Egyptian kings of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, took upon themselves to raise up this museum, with the addition of a library that would supersede anything remotely similar in their time. According to one source, King Ptolemy I Soter sought Theophrastus to tutor his heir; the latter declined, but recommended Demetrius of Phaleron, a former student of Aristotle, as a tutor in his stead. Demetrius, who had previously helped Theophrastus in founding a philosophical school of his own, accepted Ptolemy’s invitation and became heavily involved in the construction of the Musaeum complex.
Under Ptolemy II Philadelphus and subsequent Hellenistic rulers, a number of foreign scholars took up residence in the Museum: among them were revered names such as Euclid, Aristarchus, Archimedes and Strabo, to name a few. These scholars profited from Ptolemaic patronage to stay and work in Alexandria, a patronage they repaid by contributing to the Library’s accumulated wisdom. The Library grew with the city, becoming home to thousands upon thousands of scrolls. Such was the immensity of its contents that it prompted the construction of a satellite library in the Serapeum, a temple dedicated to the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis. The Library sought to retain, copy, translate and examine every piece of writing it could find in its quest for collecting knowledge.
At its core, however, the Great Library of Alexandria was a paradoxical concept. It was not built with the intent of merely being the largest depository of literature in the world; it was meant to be the only one. It is safe to say that the Ptolemaic kings wanted to eclipse every other nation in its collection of domestic and foreign intelligence. Such was proven when Ptolemaic kings stopped exporting papyrus to the Seleucids, who were building their own library in Pergamum.
Devastation was brought to the Great Library as the city of Alexandria lost its relevance. The Great Fire of Alexandria in 48 BC, the plundering of the city by Caracalla in the third century AD, the destruction of the Serapeum under Theodosius and the Arab invasion in the seventh century all worked together to put a gradual yet definitive end to the Library’s existence. The Library’s destruction is still mourned to this day; its size and content knew no equal, and its tragic loss represented an equally tragic loss for humankind in its attempt to understand itself. While cloud storage and the Internet have presented themselves as invaluable resources for the safekeeping of knowledge, the dream of Alexandria remains too appealing to give up on – and if there ever was a dream worth pursuing, is that of creating the means to light up the people’s minds.