The Great Library of Alexandria

Alexander the Great meant for Alexandria to be the linking city between Greece and Egypt, both physically and culturally.  The city as a whole was designed to be a beacon to the rest of the world and was home to many cultural wonders.  While it was the Lighthouse of Alexandria that was named a wonder of the ancient world, the Library was just as important and magnificent.  Alexander himself called for the Library but it wasn’t started until the reign of Ptolemy I.  The Library of Alexandria was meant to house the greatest works of philosophy, history, and literature.  Legend holds that Aristotle’s personal collection of books and scrolls made their way to Egypt via Ptolemy and Theophrastus.  Aristotle’s collection was the basis of the early library and slowly more and more scrolls were added.  Ptolemy and his heirs boosted the library’s holdings by recruiting in the best scholars of the age.  Large salaries, tax exemptions, and free housing attracted scholars from across the known world.  Most worked in the library, writing new works and finding ancients ones to add to the collection.  The academic work done in the Library and the conjoining museum were only possible because of the patronage of Ptolemy.  Classic works of Homer and Euripides were among the scrolls that lined the Library walls.  Scholars were sent out to find rare and ancient texts to add to the impressive collection in Alexandria.  It is estimated that over half a million scrolls in total were held within the Library and other estimates put the number closer to a million individual works.  It is difficult to measure the cultural and intellectual significance of the many volumes contained at the Library of Alexandria.


The Library wasn’t the only significant building focused on knowledge in Alexandria.  Connected to the Library was the Mouseion of Alexandria, a large research facility that attracted the brightest minds of the era.  Within the confines of the Mouseion scientific knowledge was being tested on a daily basis by great thinkers like Euclid, Hipparchus, and Eratosthenes.  Many great scientific advancements were founded on research done at the Mouseion in conjunction with the Library of Alexandria.  It was at the Mouseion that Euclid drafted his writings on geometry.  At Alexandria, Eratosthenes calculated the Earth’s circumference and Aristarchus put forth the idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun.  Under the Ptolemaic dynasty, Alexandria became the scientific center of the known world and the facilities at the Library and the Mouseion both grew larger and larger.  The original space at the center of city grew too small to house all of the scrolls and writings causing a larger warehouse facility to be built in the harbor.  This harbor building served as storage with the more prominent works being held directly within the main building of the Library.  The Library also had a temple to Serapis, the cult God of Alexandria.  As a whole, the entire complex had a prominent place within Alexandria and was a major attraction alongside the Lighthouse and the harbor.


            Political upheaval behind the scenes began to  undo the progress achieved at the Library of Alexandria.  Decline hit full stride during the reign of Caesar as interest and political ambitions impacted the Library.    There is a mythical quality to the burning of the Library of Alexandria but most historians agree that multiple fires devastated the complex.  The city was besieged in 48 BC.  Caesar set fire to his own ships and this fire spread to the mainland.  Part of the Library was destroyed and the future was set for the once great house of knowledge.  The Mouseion survived the fire in 48 BC and historians estimate that only 40,000 scrolls were burned.  History takes a few turns in describing other major destructions of the Library but not everyone agrees on which ones actual happened or which one was the final blow.  Some credit Emperor Aurelian with the final act of destruction but other accounts refute this idea.  Aurelian is said to have destroyed the Mouseion in 272 CE while fighting Queen Zenobia.  Others feel that Aurelian only damaged the building and the final destruction came during one of the many religious riots towards the end of the Roman Empire.  Christians rioted at the Temple of Serapis in 391 CE and attempted to destroy the pagan temple.  The Library and Mouseion are said to have been collateral damage from these riots.  Other historians credit the 415 CE violence between Jews and Christians with finally ending the massive collection at the Library.


            Regardless of when the Library of Alexandria was destroyed, the truth is that knowledge of the Ancient World was lost as nearly a million scrolls were lost.  The burning of Alexandria has become synonymous with the loss of a major piece of history or knowledge.  The Library achieved great advances in science and learning but the ultimate legacy is in the loss of much of the acquired knowledge from the Library and the Mouseion.  It is impossible to calculate the loss from the destruction of the Library but its legacy of seeking out the best and brightest minds lives on today in the form of modern research libraries around the world.

Erskine, Andrew. “Culture and Power in Ptolemaic Egypt: The Museum and Library of Alexandria.” Greece & Rome 42 (1995): 38-48. Accessed April 30, 2015.

Heller-Roazen, Daniel. “Tradition’s Destruction: On the Library of Alexandria.” October 100 (2002): 133-53. Accessed April 30, 2015.

Philips, Heather. “The Great Library of Alexandria.” Library Philosophy and Practice 2010. Accessed April 30, 2015.

Serageldin, Ismail. “The Ancient Library.” Serageldin. Accessed April 30, 2015.

“The Destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria.” Ancient-Origins. May 12, 2014. Accessed April 30, 2015.

“The Great Library of Alexandria.” Accessed April 30, 2015.


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