This is where my distaste/disgust and loathing for religious piety, politics, and capitalism stems from. It’s quite possible we would be living like the Jetsons right now. The internet has essentially become our perpetual reconstruction of humanity’s library of knowledge. But for real though…don’t neglect your library. Books for life.
Why was Alexandria so important? Carl Sagan explains.
Below via io9’s article "The Great Library at Alexandria was destroyed by budget cuts, not fire":
One of the great tragedies of ancient history, memorialized in myths and Hollywood film, is the burning of the great library at Alexandria. But the reality of the Library’s end was actually a lot less pyrotechnic than that. A major cause of the Library’s ruin was government budget cuts.
Alexandria was a Hellenistic city founded in Egypt by Alexander the Great’s invading forces. Ptolomy II Soter, who ruled after Alexander, wanted to found a museum in the Greek style, based on Aristotle’s Lyceum in Athens. He imagined that this place — called Ptolemaic Mouseion Academy — would attract great scholars from all over the world. No longer would Alexandria be a colonial backwater or just a nice vacation spot for rich Greeks. Instead, it would become a great city of wealth and learning.
And so, in 283 BCE, the great library at Alexandria was born. Over decades, its librarians and scholars packed it with hundreds of thousands of scrolls. Academics from all over the Mediterranean and Middle East came to give lectures there, and to consult its texts. At one point, over 100 scholars lived there full time, supported by state stipends that helped them maintain the scrolls, translate and copy them, and conduct research. As time went on, the city opened another branch of the library at the Temple of Serapis — this was often called the “daughter library.”
Unlike the many private libraries that existed in the palaces of the wealthy in the ancient world, the library at Alexandria was open to anyone who could prove themselves a worthy scholar. In principle, it was far more democratic than most other learning institutions. The royal Mouseion library and its Serapis branch were so famous for their bounty that it seemed impossible that they could last very long.
Indeed, within a couple hundred years of its founding, we hear that Julius Caesar burned the library down in an attack on the city and Egypt’s ruler Cleopatra in 40 CE. But there is little evidence that either the library or its daughter branch were wrecked; some scholars believe that references to “40,000 lost scrolls” in the historical literature refer to warehouses full of scrolls for export that Caesar burned when he sacked the port.
There are other reports of burnings and sackings as well. Supposedly the library was destroyed by Emperor Aurelian in a battle against Queen Zenobia in 272 CE. It’s very likely that this battle left its scars on the part of the city where the library was housed, but still there is no evidence that the structure was lost. Religious riots in 391 and 415 also damaged the library, but it was rebuilt and its collections restored afterward.
All of these violent events left their wear and tear on the library, and no doubt diminished its collections — as well as its reputation as a center of scholarship. But as library historian Heather Phillips notes in an essay on the library at Alexandria, the destruction was gradual — and it had more to do with government spending cuts than it did with a great fire. Writes Phillips:
What’s interesting here is Phillips’ emphasis on how the decline of the library rested as much on its reputation as a learning center as it did on the number of books in its collection. What made the Museum and its daughter branch great were its scholars. And when the Emperor abolished their stipends, and forbade foreign scholars from coming to the library, he effectively shut down operations. Those scrolls and books were nothing without people to care for them, study them, and share what they learned far and wide.
The last historical references to the library’s contents meeting their final end come in stories about the events of 639 CE, when Arab troops under the rule of Caliph Omar conquered Alexandria.
Luciano Canfora has written one of the most complete histories of the library, based on primary source material — documents written by people who knew and worked in the library. In The Vanished Library, he describes what the library at Alexandria had been reduced to by the time of its ultimate destruction in 639:
This was not Ptolemy’s great collection, nor was it the center of scholarship in what was then the modern world. It was a broken-down remnant of its former self, neglected for centuries. The collection was mostly stocked with materials that reflected what Judeo-Christian bureaucrats would have considered important; these materials did not reflect the Greek ideal of universal knowledge that had birthed the library in the first place.
In the end, it was only this diminished version of the library that was burned on the orders of Caliph Omar when Emir Amrou Ibn el-Ass took the city. Writes Canfora:
Even this account of the burning has to be taken with a grain of salt. The first stories of it appear hundreds of years after the events that took place, and historians aren’t sure whether it’s accurate. Canfora also notes that by the time this alleged destruction took place, the men who cared for the library were aware that many of its important works were in circulation elsewhere in the world. Major centers of learning had been established in India and Central Asia, along the great Silk Road, where nomadic scholars wandered between temples that were stocked with books.
Though we imagine that knowledge and civilizations are destroyed in one fell stroke, a rain of fire as it were, the truth is a lot more ugly and more slow. The ancient world’s greatest library didn’t die in battle — it died from thousands of little cuts, over centuries, that reduced this great institution of knowledge to a shadow of its former self.
Allow Carl to massage your mind further by explaining how the Christian/Catholic church impeded (and instigated) the work of Galileo via “heresy”, and how science deflates our conceits. On Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (Episode 1: The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean), Carl introduces the library of Alexandria and its significance in history.
Still curious about Alexandria? Hypatia? There’s a pretty beautiful and tragic film (starring Rachel Weisz as the mathematic philosopher/scientist Hypatia) called 'Agora'.
Purchase or stream…but view this film. It’s more important and relevant than you may be aware.