Library Tour: The Library of Alexandria

Because the world of The Osteria Chronicles resembles Ancient Greece, I’ve been immersing myself in books on the Greeks for the past few weeks to get ideas for the next story in the series and for setting details, to get a handle on Greek words and, well, just because I like history (nerd alert!). Thanks to all this reading, this month’s library tour is going to take a different, more historical swing.

A LITTLE BACK STORY

One of my favorite “characters” in history has always been Alexander the Great, the strapping and swoon-worthy young man who really made a go of the whole empire thing. He got as far as settling his forces into lands far away from his Macedonian home and name a whole heaping helping of cities after himself. One of these cities was the Alexandria in Egypt, which became famous for its center of culture and its wealth.

File:BattleofIssus333BC-mosaic-detail1.jpg

Alexander the Great mosaic

Although Mr. The Great was well educated (Aristotle was one of his teachers), it wasn’t Alexander who built the library. See, when Alexander died he had no heirs so his empire was split amongst his generals. One of these generals was named Ptolemy and he received the portion that included Egypt. He then founded the Ptolemaic Dynasty that eventually gave us other fascinating historical characters like Cleopatra.

THE LIBRARY

Sometime during Ptolemy’s reign (323 to 283 BCE) or perhaps his son’s reign (283 to 246 BCE), a grand library was designed and built. And, as would be appropriate for the ancestors of Cleopatra, this project was done on a grand scale.

Although there is little information on how large the physical building of the library was, it is believed that the library housed up to 700,000 books and scrolls making it that largest library in the ancient world.

Part of what helped build up the collection was love (or lust) since Mark Anthony (Marcus Antonius) supposedly gave Cleopatra 200,000 scrolls as a wedding present. Besides this grand gesture, the collection was boosted by everyone who used the library. If you were a scholarly type who had written a book and you studied in the library, you had to leave a copy of your book to add to the library’s collection. Apparently libraries didn’t shy away form self-published books back then.

Alexandria, Library of: German engraving

“Alexandria, Library of: German engraving”. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.

The library also built up its collection by borrowing books (for a small fee) from other libraries around the ancient world and then laboriously copying them by hand so the Alexandrian library could have its own copy. Another way to get books? Wait for ships to come in. Any books found on ships that sailed into the port of Alexandria were taken. A note was made regarding who the books belonged to, then scribes set about to copying the books word by word. The library kept the original. The books’ owners got the copy.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE

The Library of Alexandria wasn’t just a place for smarty pants to check out a scroll or two for some light reading. The complex included gardens, a museum, halls for lectures and even dining rooms. Also part of the library complex was the Museum of Alexandria. This museum served as a center for scientific research in area such as physics, astronomy, medicine, zoology (there was even a small zoo on the premises), and many other branches of science.

SOMETHING SPECIAL

Besides its size and wealth of offerings, the Library of Alexandria is still remembered because it was the first public library run by the government. Yes, there were libraries all over the ancient world, but they were not public. Controlling knowledge has always been a way to control the people, so books (scrolls) were kept by rulers or priests who put a big For Our Eyes Only stamp on the documents.

At Alexandria, for the first time, the general public could stop by and read whatever they fancied (if they could read, of course). For those who couldn’t read, they could always pop in and listen to lectures by scholars such as Euclid or Archimedes.

BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE

The Library at Alexandria was destroyed. Several times according to history.

First, Julius Caesar accidentally burned the library around 48 BCE when he set fire to 100 of his own ships. He was trying to quell a civil war between Cleopatra and her little brother. Unfortunately, the fire spread to the library and burnt a portion of it. Oops.

The Roman Emperor Aurealian (270 to 275 CE) lost most of the library’s collection as he tried to stop a rebellion in the city. The library continued, though, in a smaller form called the Serapeum where the remaining portions of the collection were housed. When Roman Emperor Theodosius outlawed anything pagan in 391 CE, all pagan temples, including the Serapeum were destroyed.

The Burning of the Library at Alexandria in 391 AD (from Wikipedia, public domain image)

Supposedly.

Somehow, remains of the library, the collection, the Serapeum or all of the above were still around in 642 when the city was taken by Muslim conquerors. This invasion was said to ring the final death knell for the library as the invaders burnt it to the ground in the belief that the Koran was the only book the world needed.

TODAY

After many years of work, a new library was opened on the same site as the ancient library in 2002. The building has an oval shape and reaches ten stories tall. Like the old library, this is a place for people to gain knowledge from books, listen to lectures and conduct research. Unlike the ancient library, this one was designed by Norwegians and has a large digital collection. They also no longer copy books by hand.

liberary of alexandria

The modern Alexandrian Library (from ask-aladdin.com)

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