Monday, August 6, 2012

Alexandria: The Great Library (ca 285 BC-AD 391)

Alexander 3rd of Macedon, called "the Great" by tradition, used a battle-hardened army to conquer Egypt in 332 BC. The next year he ordered the building of a new city which he named after himself. Alexandria remained the capital of Egypt until the Muslim conquest of AD 641.

Alexander gave his city an ideal location. He had it built on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. He located it near the Nile River but far enough away to avoid getting flooded each year. It was close to trade from Asia coming to Egypt through the port of Suez on the Red Sea. It was also at the crossroads of overland trade between North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mesopotamia.

When Alexander was young, he was taught by the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle. After he conquered Egypt, Alexander wanted his city to be built according to Aristotle’s ideas. So its major streets were built straight and wide and crossed each other at right angles.

Alexander left his city soon after construction started. He continued to lead his army in conquests to the east. He never returned to Egypt. After his death, Ptolemy, one of his generals, became ruler of Egypt. Ptolemy’s descendants (including Cleopatra) remained rulers of Egypt until the Romans took control in 30 BC.

Before leaving Alexandria, Alexander had ordered a library to be built there. It was Ptolemy 1st, however, who paid for the construction of the library and for its first collection of scrolls.

Other famous libraries already existed in Pergamum and Ephesus (both in today’s Turkey) and in Babylon (in today’s Iraq). The library in Alexandria, however, soon became the largest and most important one. Early in the reign of Ptolemy 2nd (285-246 BC), he paid as many as fifty highly educated men to work at the library. He also gave them lots of money to buy new scrolls.

Using that money, the librarians collected as many important scrolls as they possibly could. They sent men to cities such as Athens to buy them. They also required the captains of all ships entering Alexandria to bring any scrolls they had on board to the library. Any interesting scrolls were copied. The librarians then kept the original scrolls and sent the copies to the captains.

One leading librarian was named Callimachus (310?-240 BC). During his lifetime, the library had almost 500,000 scrolls. Callimachus wrote the first library catalog to make finding the right scroll easier.

Even the great library in Alexandria came to end. There is some debate as to when this happened. Most likely it occurred while Theodosius was emperor of Rome. In AD 391 he ordered the closure of all temples dedicated to Olympian gods. The scrolls of the library in Alexandria were stored in buildings on land belonging to such temples. When those temples went up in flames, the scrolls did too. Certainly the scholarship associated with the library disappeared at this time.

Copyright © 2012 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.