The Royal Library of Alexandria or Ancient Library of Alexandria in Alexandria, Egypt, was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world. It was dedicated to the Muses, the nine goddesses of the arts. It flourished under the patronage of the Ptolemaic dynasty and functioned as a major center of scholarship from its construction in the 3rd century BC until the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BC, with collections of works, lecture halls, meeting rooms, and gardens. The library was part of a larger research institution called the Musaeum of Alexandria, where many of the most famous thinkers of the ancient world studied.
The library was created by Ptolemy I Soter, who was a Macedonian general and the successor of Alexander the Great. Most of the books were kept as papyrus scrolls. It is unknown precisely how many such scrolls were housed at any given time, but estimates range from 40,000 to 400,000 at its height.
Arguably, this library is most famous for having been burned down resulting in the loss of many scrolls and books; its destruction has become a symbol for the loss of cultural knowledge. Sources differ on who was responsible for its destruction and when it occurred. The library may in truth have suffered several fires over many years. Possible occasions for the partial or complete destruction of the Library of Alexandria include a fire set by the army of Julius Caesar in 48 BC and an attack by Aurelian in the 270s AD.
After the main library was destroyed, scholars used a “daughter library” in a temple known as the Serapeum of Alexandria, located in another part of the city. According to Socrates of Constantinople, Coptic Pope Theophilus destroyed the Serapeum in AD 391, although it is not certain what it contained or if it contained any significant fraction of the documents that were in the main library. The library may have finally been destroyed during (or after) the Muslim conquest of Egypt in AD 642.
The exact layout of the library is not known, but ancient sources describe the Library of Alexandria as comprising a collection of scrolls, Greek columns, a peripatos walk, a room for shared dining, a reading room, meeting rooms, gardens, and lecture halls, creating a model for the modern university campus. The library itself is known to have had an acquisitions department (possibly built near the stacks, or for utility closer to the harbor) and a cataloguing department. A hall contained shelves for the collections of papyrus scrolls known as bibliothekai. According to popular description, an inscription above the shelves read: The place of the cure of the soul. -Alberto 2008_4-0″
The library was but one part of the Musaeum of Alexandria, which functioned as a sort of research institute. In addition to the library, the Musaeum included rooms for the study of astronomy, anatomy, and even a zoo containing exotic animals. The classical thinkers who studied, wrote, and experimented at the Musaeum include the great names of mathematics, astronomy, physics, geometry, engineering, geography, physiology, and medicine. These included notable thinkers such as Euclid, Archimedes, Eratosthenes, Herophilus, Erasistratus, Hipparchus, Aedesia, Pappus, Theon, Hypatia, and Aristarchus of Samos.
It is not possible to determine the collection’s size in any era with certainty. Papyrus scrolls constituted the collection, and although codices were used after 300 BC, the Alexandrian Library is never documented as having switched to parchment, perhaps because of its strong links to the papyrus trade. (The Library of Alexandria in fact was indirectly causal in the creation of writing on parchment — due to the library’s critical need for papyrus, little was exported and thus an alternate source of copy material became essential.)
A single piece of writing might occupy several scrolls, and this division into self-contained “books” was a major aspect of editorial work. King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (309–246 BC) is said to have set 500,000 scrolls as an objective for the library. Mark Antony supposedly gave Cleopatra over 200,000 scrolls for the library as a wedding gift, taken from the great Library of Pergamum, but this is regarded by some historians as a propagandist claim meant to show Antony’s allegiance to Egypt rather than Rome. The library’s index, Callimachus’ Pinakes, was lost with the rest of the library, and it is not possible to know with certainty how large and how diverse the collection may have been. At its height, the library was said to possess nearly half a million scrolls, and, although historians debate the precise number, the highest estimates claim 400,000 scrolls while the most conservative estimates are as low as 40,000, which is still an enormous collection that required vast storage space. This library, with the largest holdings of the age, acquired its collection by laborious copying of originals. Galen spoke of how all ships visiting the city were obliged to surrender their books for immediate copying. The owners received a copy while the pharaohs kept the originals in the library within their museum.
As a research institution, the library filled its stacks with new works in mathematics, astronomy, physics, natural sciences and other subjects. Its empirical standards were applied in one of the first and certainly strongest homes for serious textual criticism. As the same text often existed in several different versions, comparative textual criticism was crucial for ensuring their veracity. Once ascertained, canonical copies would then be made for scholars, royalty, and wealthy bibliophiles the world over, this commerce bringing income to the library.
The library was arguably one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world, but details about it are a mixture of history and legend. Its main purpose was to show off the wealth of Egypt, with research as a lesser goal, but its contents were used to aid the ruler of Egypt.
According to the earliest source of information, the pseudepigraphic Letter of Aristeas composed between c.180 and 145 BC, the library was initially organized by Demetrius of Phaleron, a student of Aristotle, under the reign of Ptolemy I Soter (c.323 BC—c.283 BC). Other sources claim it was instead created under the reign of his son Ptolemy II (283–246 BC). The Library was built in the Brucheion (Royal Quarter) in the style of Aristotle’s Lyceum, adjacent to (and in service of) the Musaeum (a Greek Temple or “House of Muses”, whence the term “museum”).
The Library at Alexandria was in charge of collecting all the world’s knowledge, and most of the staff was occupied with the task of translating works onto papyrus paper. It did so through an aggressive and well-funded royal mandate involving trips to the book fairs of Rhodes and Athens. According to Galen, any books found on ships that came into port were taken to the library, and were listed as “books of the ships”. Official scribes then copied these writings; the originals were kept in the library, and the copies delivered to the owners. Other than collecting works from the past, the library served as home to a host of international scholars, well-patronized by the Ptolemaic dynasty with travel, lodging, and stipends for their whole families.
According to Galen, Ptolemy III requested permission from the Athenians to borrow the original scripts of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, for which the Athenians demanded the enormous amount of fifteen talents (1,000 lb, 450 kg) of a precious metal as guarantee. Ptolemy III happily paid the fee but kept the original scripts for the library. This story may also be construed erroneously to show the power of Alexandria over Athens during the Ptolemaic dynasty. This detail arises from the fact that Alexandria was a man-made bidirectional port between the mainland and the Pharos island, welcoming trade from the East and West, and soon found itself to be an international hub for trade, the leading producer of papyrus and, soon enough, books.
The editors at the Library of Alexandria are especially well-known for their work on Homeric texts. The more famous editors generally also held the title of head librarian. These included Zenodotus, Apollonius of Rhodes, Eratosthenes, Aristophanes of Byzantium, and Aristarchus of Samothrace, among others. (While Callimachus—the first bibliographer and developer of the “Pinakes”, which is popularly considered the first library catalog—did his most famous work at the Library of Alexandria, he was never the head librarian there.) In the early 2nd century BC scholars began to abandon Alexandria for safer areas with more generous patronage, and in 145 BC Ptolemy VIII expelled all foreign scholars from Alexandria.
The famous burning of the Library of Alexandria, including the incalculable loss of ancient works, has become a symbol of the irretrievable loss of public knowledge. Although there is a mythology of “the burning of the Library at Alexandria”, the library may have suffered several fires or acts of destruction of varying degrees over many years. Ancient and modern sources identify several possible occasions for the partial or complete destruction of the Library of Alexandria.
During Caesar’s Civil War, Julius Caesar was besieged at Alexandria in 48 BC. Many ancient sources describe Caesar setting fire to his own ships and state that this fire spread to the library, destroying it. [W]hen the enemy endeavored to cut off his communication by sea, he was forced to divert that danger by setting fire to his own ships, which, after burning the docks, thence spread on and destroyed the great library.
Bolstering this claim, in the 4th century both the pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus and the Christian historian Orosius wrote that the Bibliotheca Alexandrina had been destroyed by Caesar’s fire. However, Florus and Lucan claim that the flames burned only the fleet and some “houses near the sea”.
The library seems to have continued in existence to some degree until its contents were largely lost during the taking of the city by the Emperor Aurelian (AD 270–275), who was suppressing a revolt by Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. During the course of the fighting, the areas of the city in which the main library was located were damaged. Some sources claim that the smaller library located at the Serapeum survived, though Ammianus Marcellinus wrote of the library in the Serapeum temple as a thing of the past, destroyed when Caesar sacked Alexandria.
Paganism was made illegal by an edict of the Emperor Theodosius I in AD 391. The temples of Alexandria were closed by Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria in the same year. The historian Socrates of Constantinople describes all the pagan temples in Alexandria being destroyed, including the Serapeum. Since the Serapeum had at one time housed a part of the Great Library, some scholars believe that the remains of the Library of Alexandria were destroyed at this time. However, it is not known how many, if any, books were contained in it at the time of destruction, and contemporary scholars do not mention the library directly.
In AD 642, Alexandria was captured by the Muslim army of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As. Several later Arabic sources describe the library’s destruction by the order of Caliph Omar. Bar-Hebraeus, writing in the 13th century, quotes Omar as saying to Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī: “If those books are in agreement with the Quran, we have no need of them; and if these are opposed to the Quran, destroy them.” Later scholars are skeptical of these stories, given the range of time that had passed before they were written down and the political motivations of the various writers.
Although the various component parts of the physical library were destroyed, in fact the centres of academic excellence had already moved to various capital cities. Furthermore, it is possible that most of the material from the Library of Alexandria actually survived, by way of the Imperial Library of Constantinople, the Academy of Gondishapur, and the House of Wisdom. This material may then have been preserved by the Reconquista, which led to the formation of European Universities and the recompilation of ancient texts from formerly scattered fragments.
Completed in 2002, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina functions as a modern library and cultural center, commemorating the original Library of Alexandria.