Alexandria is on Fire

Alexandria

Firstly, cudos if you get the title’s reference.

You’ve probably heard about the Library of Alexandria. If you haven’t, I suggest you hit up more dinner parties. People at the dinner parties I go to always seem to bring up this book history gem. And I can see why – it’s fascinating. Well, that… and we’re usually all book historians.

Okay, so maybe you won’t end up discussing Alexandria at regular dinner parties.

Part of what makes the Library of Alexandria so fun to discuss is that we don’t actually know much about it. There’s some history, but a lot of the “information” that gets thrown around is actually based on legend.

We know that the Library was founded around 300 BC by either Ptolemy I or Ptolemy II and that when the Romans invaded Egypt in 30 BC the Library wasn’t treated very well. We know that mostly scrolls were stored in the library, as the codex hadn’t yet become popular as a medium for the written word (although there were likely one or two [papyrus] codices in the collection). We know that the Library’s first organizational system was established by Demetrius of Phaleron. Other than these few tidbits, though, we aren’t certain of much else.

No one, for example, is certain of how big Alexandria’s collection was, or of what it contained. Supposedly scribes were sent out to various places to copy texts, bringing them back for others’ reference. A few of my professors have told me about that ships would land in Alexandria’s port and all of the scrolls on board would be taken by scribes for copying. After the texts were copied, Alexandria would often keep the originals and would sneakily return the copies to the ship, hoping no one would notice. If this really is the way that the Library built its collection, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that the texts would have covered a wide range of topics. The Library probably did a pretty good job of collecting all of the world’s knowledge, and scholars from around the ancient world probably visited the library to use its resources.

There are a number of theories surrounding the demise of the Library of Alexandria. I’m partial to the theory that there was no one event that destroyed the Library; I believe, instead, that there was a series of events leading to its closing. And when I say a series of events, I actually mean a series of fires. Scholars believe that there was a fire at the Library around 89 BC (thanks to civil unrest), and then another around 47 BC (thanks to a certain Julius Caesar), and then another around 273 AD (thanks to the loyal followers to Zenobia), and then another around 391 AD (thanks to a bunch of angry Christians), and some believe that there was a final fire around 640 AD (thanks to a certain Caliph Umar). The general consensus seems to be that the Library was destroyed by the 391 AD fire. Seriously, though. You think that after the first fire people would learn that open flames near papyrus is never a good idea.

Here’s a cute cartoon someone made about the different fires. Click on the image to go to the website – there’s an awesome sidebar that outlines the various theories (which are explained using combinations of the panels from this comic) of scholars and regular people with opinions that may or may not be justified.

Fires at Alexandria

In 2002, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina was opened after five years of construction, serving as a memorial to the long-lost Library of Alexandria and as a new cultural centre for the people of Egypt. You can tell that the memorial is super-official because the name of the library is in Latin. Despite Latin not really being the language of choice in Egypt when the Library was around. And Latin still not being the language of choice in contemporary Egypt.

Nice try, guys.

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