"The number of themes, of words, of texts, is limited. Therefore nothing is ever lost. If a book is lost, then someone will write it again, eventually. That should be enough immortality for anyone." ~ Jorge Luis Borges
The city and library were founded after the collapse of Alexander's empire, and its subsequent division among his generals into separate kingdoms. Each wished to be the strongest as well as the most learned - the rivalry for knowledge being
particularly intense between the Ptolemies in Egypt, the Selecucids of Syria and the Attaids in Pergamum. Each established a research library in their capitals of Antioch, Alexandria and Pergamon - so the world's first, but hardly last information war began. Ptolemy I even made it law that all ships passing through the port must be searched- any books found would be confiscated, copied, then the copy was returned to owner while the original was incorporated into the Library.
One scholar describes Byzantine records indicating the Library possessed 532,800 scrolls in the 3rd c. BC. Extrapolate this by estimating the information content of an average scroll at the time. The Iliad was traditionally divided into 24 books, one book per scroll for optimum reading, and given that the text of the Iliad is equivalent to 5 million 'bits' of information, Douglas Robertson (in his book The New Renaissance, 1998) estimates the entire Library contained roughly
100 billion bits of information at the height of its collection, during the reign of Philadelphus. Herodas described those nights in Alexandria as alive with '...wealth, power, prosperity, glory, shows, wine, all the good things and women more numerous than heavenly stars.' (Mimes, i, ll. 26-33) There was at that time contact between scholars in Alexandria and priests as far away as India and China; Buddhist monks, sent by King Asoka, visited Alexandria around this time as well.
The Ptolemies wanted international coverage : Greek knowledge and the translation of other nations' works into Greek...Melancthon1, an Egyptian priest translated Egyptian histories into Greek; Berossos, a Chaldean, did the same for Babylonian chronology; Pliny tells us Hermippus of Smyrna, a student of Callimachus, wrote 'On The Magi', a
two million line work on the life and teachings of Zoroaster (the early father of Manichaeism), then later composed the Lives2, a vast
collection of biographies to accompany Callimachus' catalogue Pinakes (which disappeared later with the library).
Finally there was the translation of the Pentateuch and the Septuagint from Hebrew into Greek.
As for the destruction of the library itself, three ancient sources seem to carry similar versions : Lucan wrote in his Pharsalia (an epic
poem on the civil war between Ptolemy and Cleopatra), Seneca the Stoic in his De Animi Tranquillitate, and Aulus Gellius in his Attic Nights that the library was destroyed when Julius Caesar set fire to the Egyptian fleet, and the flames spread to the dockyards and then the city in 48 BC. Gellius writes all 700,000 works in the Library were lost in that first siege.3 However, numerous faults have been pointed out by various historians regarding this possibility. First, the fire would never have spread quickly enough to reach and consume the whole library, on account of the city's building being constructed mainly of stone and that recent archeological discoveries place the site of the library at least a kilometer away from the ancient dockyards, quite far away from the shoreline. Second, while there is consensus between the authors mentioned, they were all Romans writing at least a century after the fact, and may have been garnering political favour by painting Julius Caesar in a negative light. Third, none of them agree on the numbers. And finally, there is direct textual evidence and contemporaneous historical accounts which show serious scholarly activity continued well into the 2nd-3rd c. AD.
However, by the time of Hypatia of Alexandria, several centuries later, Christian rioting and violence was endemic to Alexandria. The Roman presence in Egypt was waning as the Empire began to recede from its own borders, both in Africa and the North. In 270, Septimius Severus sacked the city in his efforts to control local uprisings led by the revolutionary militant Queen Zenobia. In 391, the city was in turmoil again as Christians destroyed the Serapeum and other pagan institutions. Hypatia was lynched in a similar disturbance in 415, on the steps of the Museion.
There is also of course the much cited tale that Moslem invaders fed the books of the Library to the fires of the City Baths in the 6th c. AD. This is then, in light of the above-mentioned evidence, most likely either convenient historical distortion (the story seems to have arisen during the Crusades) or a purely pious fiction.4
1See 'A Theologian in Death', as written by Emanuel Swedenborg, trans. by Jorge Luis Borges.
2Aristophenes, 221-205 BC, librarian in Byzantium, wrote a Critique to this work.
3Lucan, Pharsalia, X. ll. 486-505; Seneca, De Animi Tranquillitate. IX. 5.; Gellius, Attic
Nights. VII. 17. 3.
4See also Ibn Al-Qifti's History of Wise Men or Butler's Arab Conquest of Egypt (1902) for the
Luciano Canfora. The vanished library trans. from the Italian. (1989)
Forester, EM. Alexandria, A history and Guide (1961)
Fraser, PM. Ptolemaic Alexandria (Oxford: 1972)
Mostafa El-Abbadi. The life and fate of the ancient Library of Alexandria (Paris: UNESCO, 1990)
Rudolf Blum. Kallimachos : the Alexandrian Library and the origins of bibliography trans. from the German.
Parsons, Edward Alexander, 1878- The Alexandrian library; glory of the Hellenic world, its
rise, antiquities, and destruction. (NY : Elsevier ,1967)
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