The Great Library of Alexandria

Ptolemy II Philadelphus is shown conversing with scholars in the library of Alexandria in this 1813 work by the Italian neo-classicist painter Vincenzo Camuccini (1771-1844). Camuccini was probably inviting paralleis with Napoleon, portraying him as a patron of the arts.

The most celebrated library of the ancient world was established in Alexandria, Egypt, in the first half of the third century BCE, during the reigns of Ptolemy I Soter and Ptolemy II Philadelphus, king of Egypt 322-246 BCE. The library was part o a museum, which included a garden, a common dining room, a reading room, lecture theatres and meeting rooms, creating a model for the modern university campus.

A Papyrus fragment with lines from Homer’s Odyssey, from the early Hellenistic period c. 285-50 BCE, found in Egypt. Papyrus was usually inscribed with a sharpened read using black ink. The library of Alexandria made a point of collecting Homeric texts.

Attempt were made to gather together all the knowledge of the known world. Messengers were sent to buy items at the book fairs of Rhodes and Athens. International scholars came on funded visits. According to Galen, all ships visiting Alexandria were obliged to surrender their books for immediate copying – the owners received a copy, but the pharaohs kept the originals in their museum. The Alexandria library collection included the best available texts of Greek authors and also of non-Greek works, such as the Hebrew Old Testament. In this way, the museum asserted the power of the Ptolemaic kings over both the Greek and non-Hellenic worlds.

At its height, the library of Alexandria was said to posses nearly half a million scrolls- In the mid-third century BCE, the poet Callimachus was employed there, and created the first ever alphabetically arranged library catalogue. Ptolemy II Philadelphus even set up an offshoot library, the Serapeum, which was more of a public library, whereas the main library was designed for scholars.

Collecting Greek books in imitation of Alexandria became a sign of cultural status, and the library at Pergamum was established in the second half of third century BCE. in direct competition with Alexandria. Greek scholarship enjoyed enormous prestige. The study of Homer, for example, was considered essential for an educated man. Many papyrus fragments of Homer were found in Egypt. Euripides (480-406 BCE.) and Demosthenes (384-322 BCE.) were also part of the curriculum in Hellenized Mediterranean cities such as Oxyrhynchus, Ephesus, Pergamum, and Corinth.

According to a spurious legend, the library of Alexandria burned down in 48 BCE. when Julius Caesar set fire to the Egyptian navy, and the flames accidentally spread to the onshore port installations. Althought Caesar’s fire may have destroyed a book depot, the library was not situated near the port. In fact, Greek scholars reported working in the library twenty years later. It was probably destroyed when Alexandria was captured by the Roman emperor Aurelianus in 273 CE. In 2002 the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a major library and museum complex supported by Alexandria University, UNESCO and the egyptian goverment, was established close to the site of the ancient library, with the aim of re-establishing Alexandria as one of the great intellectual and cultural centres of the twenty-first century.

In the new Biobliotheca Alexandrina, the main reading room is located beneath a 32-metre (104 foot) glass-panelled roof which is tilted out towards the sea like a sundial and measures 160 meters (524 feet) in diameter. The walls are made of grey Aswan granite and engraved with characters from 120 different scripts.

Source: Martyn Lyons, Books- A Living History, 2011

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31 thoughts on “The Great Library of Alexandria

  1. Amazing post and love, love the painting. I do love ancient History. I wish Dr. Who could take me in the Tardis to see Alexandria at this time. Are you a History Professor? Your picture is very pretty.

  2. You mentioned that (the libriary at Alexandria) “was probably destroyed when Alexandria was captured by the Roman emperor Aurelianus in 273 BCE” Please check your dates on that. You may have meant to say “273 CE” (i.e., A.D.), during which Aurelian was a Roman emperor.

  3. I think Ptolemy was continuing the trend that Aristotle began, under the patronage of Alexander. Aristotle sent a lot of missions abroad to collect information from all corners of the world.

  4. Very interesting blog – I wonder how the Grand Library of Baghdad compares to the Great Library of Alexandria. I was of the opinion the Baghdad library was the greatest – or reported to be of course in scriptures, until the Mongols sacked it. What’s your view about the Baghdad library?

  5. Your blog is fantastic and the content there in is classic

    I love history and I love your blog
    it is a big library on its own
    perhaps better than anything

    I think it is one of a kind blog on wordpress

    Congratulations dear you have won my heart

  6. Pingback: Super Sweet Blogging Award – 3 Nominations | Ajaytao 2010

  7. So glad to have discovered your blog, you stole my thunder! In a good way of course, The Library of Alexandria is a subject that facinates me. So much knowledge has been lost through the ages. Thanks for doing what I wish I had the time and patience for!

  8. An interesting read. I had the pleasure of visiting the Bibliotheca Alexandrina this past summer. It was a beautiful sight, especially with the history in mind. Thanks for the follow as well. I appreciate it.

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