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Library of Alexandria

The Library of Alexandria was founded under the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt (323-30 BC) and flourished under the support of the early rulers of this dynasty until it became the most famous library in the ancient world, attracting scholars from all over the Mediterranean, and making Alexandria the leading intellectual center of its time until its decline after 145 BC.

Although legend has it that the idea for this great library came from Alexander the Great, this has been disputed and was apparently proposed by Ptolemy I Soter (r. 323-282 BC), who was the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and built during his reign. Ptolemy II Philadelphus (282-246 BC), who also collected the first books for library collections. Under the reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes (r. 246-221 BC), the size of library collections increased as books were taken from ships in port to be copied and the originals were then stored in bookshelves.

Under the reign of Ptolemy IV (r. 221-205 BC) support continued, then Ptolemy V (r. 204-180 BC) and Ptolemy VI (r. 180-164 & 163-145 BC) made acquisitions for libraries became such a top priority around the Mediterranean region that scholars began hiding their private libraries to avoid confiscation. Ptolemy V, in order to weaken the prestige of the Pergamon Library, banned the export of papyrus (a water reed that grows in Southern Europe and North Africa) needed to produce copies of books, and inadvertently encouraged the parchment industry (a stationery substitute for paper made from animal skin ) at Pergamon.

The ultimate fate of the Library of Alexandria has been debated for centuries and continues to be. According to the most popular claim, this library was destroyed by Julius Caesar by fire in 48 BC. Other claims state that the library was destroyed by the emperor Aurelian in his war against Zenobia in 272 BC, by Diocletian in 297 BC, by Christian fanatics in 391 and 415 BC, or by Arab Muslim invaders in the 7th century.

Since the library still existed after the time of Julius Caesar and was mentioned during the early Christian era, the most likely explanation for its collapse is the loss of support from the later Ptolemaic rulers (after Ptolemy VIII expelled foreign scholars in 145 BC) and the uneven support of the Roman emperors leading to a decline in the maintenance of collections and buildings. Religious intolerance, following the rise of Christianity, led to civil war, prompting many scholars to seek positions elsewhere, further resulting in the decline of libraries. In the 7th century Arab Muslims are said to have burned the library collection, but there is no evidence that the books or even the building that was supposed to house them, still exists in Alexandria.

Establishment of a Library

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, Ptolemy I (Alexander’s successor) took over Egypt during the Wars of the Diadochi and founded his dynasty. He appears to have proposed the library as a continuation of his overall vision for the city of Alexandria as a great melting pot, blending Egyptian and Greek cultures, as symbolized by his hybrid god Serapis, who was a combination of Egyptian and Greek gods. According to the Letters of Aristeas , written between 180 and 145 BC, the idea for the library was suggested by the Greek orator Demetrius of Phalerum (lived c. 350 to 280 BC) who was a pupil of Aristotle (lived c. 384-322 BC). or another of Aristotle’s students, Theophrastus (lived c. 371 to 287 BC) although the authenticity of this letter is still debated.

Ptolemy II Philadelphus Founds the Library of Alexandria
Ilustrasi Ptolemy II Philadelphus yang Mendirikan Perpustakaan Alexandria Vincenzo Camuccini (Public Domain)

However, if Demetrius did propose the idea of ​​a universal library (a library with a universal collection spanning multiple cultures, languages, and disciplines), then that would easily explain the description of the building which seems to reflect Aristotle’s Lyceum school, especially the rows of pillars on which the scholars can walk and discuss issues even if the colonnade does not specifically refer to the school. Demetrius is also said to have prepared a library as a repository for every book ever written and proposed the name Mouseion, inspired by the temple to the Nine Muses (goddesses symbolizing art, science, art and literature in Greek mythology) because at least it would later be there was a section of the library called the Mouseion (a name that later became the origin of the English word “museum”). In answer to the question, “Why was a universal library built in the relatively new city of Alexandria?”, scholar Lionel Casson wrote:

Head Librarian & Organization

The Mouseion complex of intellectual institutions and the Royal Library, was built during the reign of Ptolemy II, and its first librarian was the scholar Zenodotus (lived in the 3rd century BC). The chief librarians who succeeded him during the Ptolemaic Period were, in order, as follows:

  • Apollonius of Rhodes (lived 3rd century BC)
  • Eratosthenes (lived c. 276-195 BC)
  • Aristophanes of Byzantium (lived c. 257 to 180 BC)
  • Apollonius “former” (date unknown)
  • Aristarchus of Samothrace (lived c. 216 to 145 BC)

Although often referred to as a librarian at Alexandria, Callimachus of Cyrene (lived c. 310 to 240 BC) never held that position. However, he was responsible for developing Zenodotus’ early bibliographic system into what is today called a ‘card catalogue’ of library collections. Callimachus’s Pinakes (in “tablets” made of clay tablets – full title: Table of Prominent Persons in Every Branch of Science Together with a List of Their Written Works ) is a comprehensive survey and catalog of all extant works in Greek , which contains 120 books and creates a paradigm (example) for future library organization systems. Casson wrote:

The works cataloged by Callimachus were not housed in a single building, but rather in a complex of buildings in the palace precinct ( Bruchion ) in the city’s Greek district. This library complex appears to resemble a modern university with dormitories, common dining halls, classrooms for teaching, reading rooms, library shelves, laboratories, observatories, scriptoriums, lecture halls, gardens with natural designs, and perhaps also a zoo. During the Ptolemaic Period, only male scholars were supported in living in libraries with free room and board; it is unclear whether female scholars, although not permitted to reside there, could use the library’s resources, which supposedly include 500,000 works on as many topics as anyone has ever written.

Hypatia and Theon of Alexandria
Illustration of Hypatia and Theon of Alexandria Mod Producciones, Telecinco Cinema (Copyright, fair use)

Implementation & Acquisition Under the Ptolemaic Dynasty

The number of books the library held and who had access to them, as with most information relating to the Great Library of Alexandria, is unclear. The figure 500,000 is the one most often said, but this may be an exaggeration. Casson, who more or less agreed with the figures, commented:

This library, which began during the time of Ptolemy I, was funded by the royal family. Scholars, scientists, poets, literary critics, writers, copyists, linguists, and others accepted as members of Mouseion lived there tax-free, rent-free, and were provided with food and wages. The aim of this support was to enable the best minds of the time, free from the distractions of everyday life, to devote themselves to study, writing, and teaching. Each scholar placed at Mouseion is expected to teach in some capacity and give lectures; although exactly who is permitted to take classes or attend lectures is unclear.

The chief librarian is appointed by a member of the royal family and serves for life. During the Ptolemaic Period, each chief librarian was a distinguished scholar who had made original contributions to his or her field of knowledge. In the case of Zenodotus, he was the first to create an authoritative version of Homer’s works and also the first to implement an alphabetical system of organization in library collections. Apollonius of Rhodes is famous for his epic poem, Argonautica , about Jason and the Argonauts (a group of Greek heroes famous for their journey in search of the Golden Fleece). Eratosthenes was the first person to calculate the circumference of the earth and create a widely known world map.

Euclid of Alexandria

Apart from the librarians, there were also famous intellectuals who lived and worked there, including the mathematician Euclid (lived around 300 BC), the anatomist Herophilus, the inventor and engineer Archimedes of Syracuse (lived around 287-212 BC), the physicist Strato, the grammarian Dionysius Thrax, and the innovative writer and poet Istros the Callimachean (a pupil of Callimachus), and many others. These scholars created their own works and had thousands of others as accessible references, thanks to the acquisition policies of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Casson commented:

To acquire the library’s collection, book agents were sent out to purchase any works they could find. Books were confiscated from ships docked in the port of Alexandria, copied, and the originals were kept in libraries; then a copy is given to the owners. Older works are the most sought after because they have not been copied much and therefore contain fewer typographical errors. According to Casson, this created a new black market industry: counterfeiting “old” copies to sell at high prices (35). Famous works also cost a lot of money. Ptolemy III is said to have paid an exorbitant deposit of 15 talents (the medium of exchange used in Ancient Greece or Rome) or around 15 million dollars or more to Athens to borrow original manuscripts of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles to copy, and promised to return them. Once the manuscripts were copied on high-quality papyrus, he sent the copies to Athens, kept the original manuscripts, and told the Athenians they could keep the money.

The acquisition policy of the Ptolemaic descendants was reflected by the kings of the Attalid Dynasty (281-133 BC) who needed books for the collection of the Pergamon Library, a rival to the Library of Alexandria. During the reign of the Attalid Empire, king Eumenes II (r. 197-159 BC), Ptolemy V banned the export of papyrus to prevent Pergamon from making copies of books. However, this actually started the parchment industry (stationery substitute for paper made from animal skin) in Pergamon. The English word ” parchment ” actually comes from the Latin pergamena meaning “Pergamon paper” because parchment replaced papyrus as a writing material.

Setbacks & Destruction Claims

The Library of Alexandria began to decline under the reign of Ptolemy VIII (r. 170-163/145-116 BC), a scholar who had written about Homer and supported the protection of the library, but who withdrew his support after a power struggle with his brother Ptolemy VI, and punished those who sided with his opponents, and expelled all foreign scholars from the city. Among them was the chief librarian Aristarchus of Samothrace who fled to Cyprus in 145 BC and died soon after. The Ptolemaic Kingdom’s support for libraries then waned, and the position of head librarian was no longer given to prominent scholars, but instead was given to political cronies. It is possible that when they were expelled from Alexandria, the scholars took the books with them, but, even if not, the texts would have been standardized and copied by that time and would have been in private libraries and in central collections other intellectuals such as Athens and Pergamon.

The Ptolemaic Period ended with the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BC and during the Roman Period followed support for libraries that was uneven even under the best of circumstances. The Roman emperor Claudius (r. 41-54) supported libraries, as did Hadrian (r. 117-138), but did any other emperor do the same? still unclear. In 272 when Aurelianus reconquered Alexandria from Zenobia, who had claimed it as part of the Palmyrene Empire, the library district was destroyed although it is not known whether the buildings that once housed the library still exist. In 297, the emperor Diocletian also leveled that part of Alexandria and, most likely, this was the time when whatever remained of the library was destroyed. However, by that time, as already mentioned, Alexandria scholarship was a distant memory. Whatever great work was done in the city had been done elsewhere since about 145 BC.

All this seems certain, but that doesn’t stop writers from repeating the claim that the Great Library of Alexandria, which contained all the knowledge of the ancient world, was burned by Julius Caesar in 48 BC, by Christians in 391 (or perhaps in 415 around the time of the assassination of Hypatia of Alexandria), or by Muslims in the 7th century. Whatever was burned in the fire sparked by Julius Caesar in 48 BC, it was not a library as that institution was referred to by later writers. Mark Antony, according to Plutarch, gave the entire collection of 200,000 books from the Pergamon Library to Cleopatra VII in 43 BC for the library; thus, it is clear that a library still existed in Alexandria after Julius Caesar’s death in 44 BC. Augustus Caesar (r. 27 BC to 14 AD) is said to have returned some, but not all, of these books to Pergamon.

In 391, Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, oversaw the destruction of the Temple of Serapis, which housed part of the library’s collection, but it is unknown if any books remained there. Alexandria had become increasingly hostile to the kind of inclusive scholarship encouraged by the library since the rise of Christianity in the city after 313. By 391, civil unrest sparked by religious intolerance had become a hallmark of the city. It appears that the Serapeum (Temple of Serapis) was destroyed at this time, and a church was built on the site, but there is no evidence of the destruction of the library; perhaps because the library had been destroyed by Aurelian or Diocletian.

Serapeum of Alexandria
Location of the Alexandria Serapeum Site Carole Raddato (CC BY-SA)

The claim that Arab Muslims under the leadership of Caliph Umar destroyed the library in 641 is completely untenable. The famous story about Umar tells that he ordered the burning of the huge collection, saying that if the works were in accordance with the Koran, then they were useless (because they were already represented by the Koran ), and if they contradict the Qur’an, then these works are bid’ah (actions or methods that were never exemplified by Rasullalah saw), appearing 600 years later in the work of the Christian writer, Gregory Bar Hebraeus (lived in 1226-1286) taken from 13th century Arab Muslim writers such as Ibn al-Qifti. These accounts have been dismissed by scholars as fiction since the 18th century.

Conclusion

The claim that the loss of the Library of Alexandria in a great fire turned the knowledge of the ancient world into smoke and stunted humanity’s intellectual development for thousands of years is a tale that has become increasingly accepted through repetition in articles, books, television shows, documentaries, videos, and assorted blame-mongering pamphlets. one party or another for the destruction of libraries to advance a certain agenda.

The picture of the Great Library of Alexandria and all the knowledge of the ancient world burning down is certainly more dramatic than the more usual scenario of the library’s decline caused by the consequences of petty political intrigues and changes in socio-political-religious views, but the latter is almost certainly what actually happened. There is no doubt that written works were destroyed in 48 BC and later, but this does not mean that all the books stored in libraries during their heyday were lost. As already mentioned, copies were made from the collection, and they left Alexandria with their owners.

Alexandria may have boasted the title of greatest library in the ancient world during the early Ptolemaic Dynasty, but there are no records from antiquity to support the claim that it was still a great intellectual center in the Roman Period. It is clear from references in the works of various ancient authors that a large number of manuscripts were lost in Alexandria between about 48 BC and 415 AD, but what exactly was lost is unknown. Many of the works referred to as part of the library’s collection still exist today throughout the world and are part of the collection of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (“Library of Alexandria”), which opened in 2002 in Alexandria, Egypt, as a tribute to the great libraries of ancient times.

Question answer

What is the Library of Alexandria?

The Library of Alexandria was a universal library founded during the reign of Ptolemy I of Egypt to store all the books ever written and create a “thinking tank” for the leading intellectuals of the time.

When was the Library of Alexandria founded?

The Library of Alexandria was founded during the reign of Ptolemy I of Egypt (323-282 BC) and built by Ptolemy II (282-246 BC).

How long did the Library of Alexandria survive as an intellectual center?

The Library of Alexandria flourished between 323-145 BC when it was funded by the rulers of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. This library began to decline after support from Ptolemaic descendants decreased since 145 BC.

What happened to the Library of Alexandria?

The Library of Alexandria experienced decline due to lack of support from the kings of the Ptolemaic Dynasty and uneven support from the Roman emperors. The claim that thousands of ancient books were destroyed in a massive fire that destroyed the library is pure fiction.

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