The Bibliotheke or Library of Alexandria

Michael Lahanas

Η Βιβλιοθήκη της Αλεξάνδρειας

Die Bibliothek von Alexandrien

...I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library. Jorge Luis Borges, Poema de los Dones, from El Hacedor

The Library burning in the film Caesar and Cleopatra

The Library of Alexandria was a place where most of the written knowledge of antiquity was collected and stored. Interesting is that we know almost nothing about the Library, when was it exactly founded, who were the directors and what was their work, how many "books" were collected, how long it was open, who could use the library, etc. etc..

Historians have different opinions of whether the so called catastrophic events related to the Library of Alexandria had really an influence in the development of science and technology. The question is how many books were destroyed and did copies of these books not exist in other libraries? How large was the number of books in the Library. Even with the upper estimates it would be nothing in comparison to the number of written books in our times. But is the number that matters? I find the discussion of the number of books of the Library by scholars useless. A single book can be more important than milions of “cooking books” that fill our modern libraries. What we probably certainly can say is that only a small fraction of ancient literature survived. It would require a financial support similar to that of the Ptolemies to collect, preserve and produce new copies of the ancient books.

Archaeologists have found what they believe to be the site of the Library of Alexandria, often described as the world's first major seat of learning. A Polish-Egyptian team has excavated parts of the Bruchion region of the Mediterranean city and discovered what look like lecture halls or auditoria. Two thousand years ago, the library housed works by the greatest thinkers and writers of the ancient world. Many works were later destroyed in a fire. For example from the 90 plays of Aeschylus we know only 7 in complete form. Announcing their discovery at a conference being held at the University of California, Zahi Hawass, president of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, said that the 13 lecture halls uncovered could house as many as 5,000 students in total. A conspicuous feature of the rooms, he said, was a central elevated podium for the lecturer to stand on. See: BBC News

BIBLIOTHEKE (biblioqhkh, or apoqhkh bibliwn), primarily, the place where a collection of books was kept; secondarily, the collection itself (Festus, s.v.). Little as the states of antiquity dealt with the instruction of the people, public collections of books appear to have been very ancient. That of Peisistratus was intended for public use (Gell.vii.17;Athen. i. p3); it was subsequently removed to Persia by Xerxes. About the same time, Polycrates, tyrant of Samos, is said to have founded a library. In the best days of Athens, even private persons had large collections of books; the most important of which we know any thing, belonged to Euclid, Euripides, and Aristotle. Strabo says (xiii.1) that Aristotle was the first who, to his knowledge, made a collection of books, and taught the Egyptian kings the arrangement of a library. The most important and splendid public library of antiquity was that founded by the Ptolemies at Alexandria, begun under Ptolemy Soter, but increased and re-arranged in an orderly and systematic manner by Ptolemy Philadelphus, who also appointed a fixed librarian and otherwise provided for the usefulness of the institution. The library of the Ptolemies contained, according to A.Gellius (vii.17), 700000 volumes; according to Josephus, 500000; and according to Seneca (De Tranq. An 9), 400000. The different reckoning of different authors may be in some measure, perhaps, reconciled by supposing that they give the number of books only in a part of the library; for it consisted of two parts, one in the quarter of the city called Brucheion, the other in the part called Serapeion. Ptolemy Philadelphus bought Aristotle's collection to add to the library, and Ptolemy Euergetes continued to add to the stock. A great part of this splendid library was consumed by fire in the siege of Alexandria by Julius Caesar: some writers say that the whole was burnt; but the discrepancy in the numbers stated above seems to confirm the opinion that the fire did not extend so far. At any rate, the library was soon restored, and continued in a flourishing condition till it was destroyed by the Arabs A.D. 640 (see Gibbon, c51). Connected with the greater division of the library, in the quarter of Alexandria called Brucheion, was a sort of college to which the name of Mouseion (or Museum) was given. Here many favoured literati pursued their studies, transcribed books, and so forth; lectures also were delivered. The Ptolemies were not long without a rival in zeal. Eumenes, king of Pergamus, became a patron of literature and the sciences, and established a library, which, in spite of the prohibition against exporting papyrus issued by Ptolemy, jealous of his success, became very extensive, and perhaps next in importance to the library of Alexandria. It remained, and probably continued to increase, till Antonius made it a present to Cleopatra (Plut. Anton. 58). William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

The word Mouseion (Museum) is derived from the word Muses and Ptolemy I Soter established poetic competitions dedicated to Apollo and the Muses.

The modern Library of Alexandria from Space

The Library attracted many scientists:

The anatomists Erasistratus of Ceos and Praxagoras of Cos who opened a medical school in Alexandria during Ptolemy Soter and produced a generation of physicians: Herophilos of Chalcedon, Cleophanter of Ceos, Philinos of Cos, Chrysippus of Rhodes. The mathematician Euclid and astronomer Aristarchus of Samos who left Athens for Alexandria the early third century BC.

Others who visited Alexandria: Conon of Samos, Eratosthenes of Cyrene, Archimedes of Syracuse, Apollonius of Perge. They influenced Ktesibios (Ctesibius) and Philon of Byzantium and these Heron of Alexandria.

Additional Philosophers and writers were attracted:

Straton of Lampsacus, Sphairos of Bosporus, the comic writer Philemon of Syracuse, Machon, Kallimachos (or Callimachus) of Cyrene,

Heracleitus of Halicarnassus, Hermesianax of Kolophos, Herodas of Cos, Theocritus of Syracuse, Hedylos.

The chambers of the great library were spacious and bright. Visitors sat on luxurious couches to enjoy the lilting voices of the poets and to listen to the melodies played by musicians. Across the hall, doctors carried out research in vast laboratories and dissecting rooms. In still another chamber, inventors gathered to assemble their new contraptions. Day and night the library pulsed with activity. At dusk, astronomers met on the rooftop observatory to map the constellations. At dawn, botanists could be seen ambling through terraced gardens where they observed new varieties of fruit trees and crops behind the library walls, animal keepers tended the world’s first known zoo. Open walkways, bordered by lovely fountains and lotus flowers, divided the courtyards from the library chambers. Along these walks stood the bibliothekai, the name given to the niches, or cubbyholes, filled with scrolls. The library stored 500,000 scrolls, and none of them ever left the library. Scholars sat on small stools near the niches to read, unrolling the papyrus sheets on their laps to view the columns of writing. Some of the scrolls were twenty feet long!

Anne Nolting, The Ancient Library of Alexandria

100-200 AD, Papyrus manuscript of Homer's Iliad.

Carl Sagan said that if he had a time machine the most desired place to visit would be the Library of Alexandria. Three catastrophic events are mentioned in various sources such as in Carl Sagan books or in Simon Singh's book of the Fermat's last theorem that destroyed the Library of Alexandria and thus a large part of the knowledge of ancient Greek science.

1. In 47 BC Caesars army attacked the Alexandrian fleet which was set in fire in the harbour of Alexandria. The fire destroyed a large part of the Library of Alexandria. A part of the lost books were replaced by books transferred by Mark Antony from the Library in Pergamon to the Library of Alexandria.

It is often said that the Romans were civilized but their most famous general was responsible for the greatest act of vandalism during antiquity. Julius Caesar was attacking Alexandria in pursuit of his archrival Pompey when he found himself about to be cut off by the Egyptian fleet. Realizing that this would leave him in a desperate predicament, he took decisive action and sent fire ships into the harbor. His plan was a success and the enemy fleet was quickly aflame. But the fire did not stop these and jumped onto the dockside which was laden with flammable materials ready for export. Next it spread in land and before anyone could stop it, the Great Library itself was blazing brightly as 400,000 priceless scrolls were reduced to ashes. As for Caesar himself, did not think it important enough to mention in his memoirs.

2. In 389 AD the Christian Emperor of Byzanz Theodosius ordered the Bishop of Alexandria, Theophilos, to destroy all pagan monuments. The Library of Alexandria was at that time in the Temple of Serapis. The Christian mob destroyed the scientific work of centuries.

Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria, is also the patron saint of arsonists. As Christianity slowly strangled the life out of classical culture in the forth century it became more and more difficult to be a pagan. There stood in Alexandria the great temple of Serapis called the Serapeum and attached to it was the Great Library of Alexandria where all the wisdom of the ancients was preserved. Now Theophilus knew that as long as this knowledge existed people would be less inclined to believe the bible so he set about destroying the pagan temples. But the Serapeum was a huge structure, high on a mound and beyond the abilities of the raging Christian fanatics to assault. Faced with this edifice, the Patriarch sent word to Rome. There the Emperor Theodosius the Great, who had ordered that paganism be annihilated, gave his permission for the destruction of the Serapeum. Realizing they had no chance, the priests and priestesses fled their temple and the mob moved in. The vast structure was razed to it foundations and the scrolls from the library were burnt in huge pyres in the streets of Alexandria.

3. As if this was not enough in 642 the Moslem Caliph Omar ordered that all remaining books should be destroyed keeping only the Koran. The books of Alexandria that survived the Christian attack were used to heat the public baths. Some of the manuscripts were copied by Arabs who seemed not to share the opinion of Caliph Omar.

The Moslems invaded Egypt during the seventh century as their fanaticism carried them on conquests that would take form an empire stretching from Spain to India. There was not much of a struggle in Egypt and the locals found the rule of the Caliph to be more tolerant than that of the Byzantines before them. However, when a Christian called John informed the local Arab general that there existed in Alexandria a great Library preserving all the knowledge in the world he was perturbed. Eventually he sent word to Damascus where Caliph Omar ordered that all the books in the library should be destroyed because, as he said "they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous." Therefore, the books and scrolls were taken out of the library and distributed as fuel to the many bathhouses of the city. So enormous was the volume of literature that it took six months for it all to be burnt to ashes heating the saunas of the conquerors.

Saracens Conquer Egypt, Destruction of the Library at Alexandria , WASHINGTON IRVING

Are these stories true? In the sources for these events are discussed and they are considered as not supported. Works such as that of Gibbon's “The Decline and the Fall of the Roman empire” seems to be responsible for the opinion that Christianity is against science and the story of the Library of Alexandria is an example for this as also the history of Hypatia. The website presents very detailed sources that support that these events actually did not happen. On the other side we cannot ignore that books were set on the index by the Roman Church. We cannot ignore the burning of “witches”. Roger Bacon is probably not a great scientist and he could be a liar considering himself as a martyr.

As one said ironically the only thing we know is that the Library existed and that it does not exist anymore. The Library of Alexandria did not survive because of fires, attacks, earthquakes etc. The Library of Alexandria contained probably over 500000 books (Papyrus rolls) and the first head of the mathematics department was none other than Euclid. Whether this number is correct and how many knowledge accumulated there survived probably we will never learn. Considering that 24 Papyrus rolls were needed for Homer's Odyssey we can say that the Library contained the equivalent of a library today with around 25000 “modern” books. The modern new Library of Alexandria has 10 times more books (and place for much more) but this is a small number even compared to that of small libraries in the United States (not to mention the greatest Libraries).

It was Demetrius Phalaerus, who was forced to leave Athens and who convinced Ptolemy to collect all books in a Library in Alexandria. He said that great minds will follow. Agents were traveling all over the known world to collect books to fill the Library of Alexandria. The books of all visitors of Alexandria were confiscated and stored in the Library and the owners obtained a copy of their books. This copy process was very important as some copies and copies of these copies survived until today. Phalaerus opinion was confirmed, the Library of Alexandria attracted the most important scientists to Alexandria that became the scientific and cultural center of the ancient World.

With the Romans gaining power a large fraction of books that survived were transported to Rome. Lucius Aemilius Paullus took books from Pergamon in 167 BC to Rome, Sulla in 86 BC transported the remains of the Library of Aristotle in Athens. As Plutarch says "his use of them was more honorauble than the way he acquired them". Rome attracted Greek scientists, artists and Philosophers such as Strabo, Polybius, Galen, Posidonius, etc. Greek Art was transported to Rome but also from all other places so that Rome attracted everything and according to Aristides, "whatever one does not see here neither did nor does exist” (Romanae spatium est urbis et orbis idem), the world and the city of Rome occupy the same space as Ovid says.

Today with the World Wide Web we have something similar like the Library of Alexandria. Scientific work is supported to a large part by taxes and the knowledge acquired should be available to all. The Internet, as many other projects, was invented for military purposes to provide a security for information access.

The rapid increase of knowledge has converted libraries actually into museums. Before you can find a scientific book in a library it is almost too late to be used for research.

LIBRARIANS at the Great Library of Alexandria

Zenodotus of Ephesus (284-260 BC) probably the first librarian,
Callimachus of Cyrene (260-240 BC)
Apollonius of Rhodes (240-235 BC)
Eratosthenes of Cyrene (235-195 BC)
Aristophanes of Byzantium (195-180 BC)
Apollonius Idographus (180-160 BC)
Aristarchus of Samothrace (160-145 BC)


Since the first Adam who beheld the night
And the day and the shape of his own hand,
Men have made up stories and have fixed
In stone, in metal, or on parchment
Whatever the world includes or dreams create.
Here is the fruit of their labor: the Library.
They say the wealth of volumes it contains
Outnumbers the stars or the grains
Of sand in the desert. The man
Who tried to read them all would lose
His mind and the use of his reckless eyes.
Here the great memory of the centuries
That were, the swords and the heroes,
The concise symbols of algebra,
The knowledge that fathoms the planets
Which govern destiny, the powers
Of herbs and talismanic carvings,
The verse in which love's caress endures,
The science that deciphers the solitary
Labyrinth of God, theology,
Alchemy which seeks to turn clay into gold
And all the symbols of idolatry.
The faithless say that if it were to burn,
History would burn with it. They are wrong.
Unceasing human work gave birth to this
Infinity of books. If of them all
Not even one remained, man would again
Beget each page and every line,
Each work and every love of Hercules,
And every teaching of every manuscript.
In the first century of the Muslim era,
I, that Omar who subdued the Persians
and who imposes Islam on the Earth,
Order my soldiers to destroy
By fire the abundant Library,
Which will not perish. All praise is due
To God who never sleeps and to Muhammad,
His Apostle.
Jorge Luis Borges, Translated by Stephen Kessler


What most strikes us with wonder and regret is, that of these two writers, Manetho, an Egyptian priest who wrote in Greek, Eratosthenes, a Greek who understood something of Egyptian, neither of them took the trouble to lay open to their readers the peculiarities of the hieroglyphics. Through all these reigns, the titles and praises of the Ptolemies were carved upon the temples in the sacred characters. These two histories were translated from the same inscriptions. We even now read the names of the kings which they mention carved on the statues and temples; and yet the language of the hieroglyphics still remained unknown beyond the class of priests; such was the want of curiosity on the part of the Greek grammarians of Alexandria. Such, we may add, was their want of respect for the philosophy of the Egyptians; and we need no stronger proof that the philosophers of the museum had hitherto borrowed none of the doctrines of the priests. S. Rappoport, History of Egypt.

Charmadas quidem in Graecia quae quis exegerat volumina in bibliothecis legentis modo repraesentavit, (Charmadas from Greece could recite (memorise) the content of every book in the library ... Pliny the Elder

Diogenes Laertius biography of Plato

And some people, (of whom Satyrus is one,) say that he sent a commission to Sicily to Dion, to buy him three books of Pythagoras from Philolaus for a hundred minae; for they say that he was in very easy circumstances, having received from Dionysius more than eighty talents, as Onetor also asserts in his treatise which is entitled, Whether a wise Man ought to acquire Gains. ...Plato also appears to have brought the books of Sophron, the farce-writer, to Athens, which were previously neglected; and to have availed himself of them in his Speculations on Morals: and a copy of them was found under his head.

1 minae = 100 drachmae

Socrates in Plato's Phaedo:

One day I heard someone reading, as he said, from a book of Anaxagoras, and saying that it is Mind (Nous) that directs and is the cause of everything...I eagerly acquired his books and read them as quickly as I could in order to know the best and the worst as soon as possible.

History of Greek and Roman Egypt

Image of a reconstrution of the Library of Alexandria

History of Libraries

Other Libraries


Doxography of Ancient Philosophy

Curiosities of Literature

The Destruction of Paganism

Ancient Greek and Roman Libraries

Timeline of Bibliometrics The modern Library of Alexandria

The Alexandria Journal

Daniel Gore, Farewell To Alexandria: Solutions to Space, Growth, and Performance Problems of Libraries, Greenwood, Press 1976

Lionel Casson, Libraries in the Ancient World

Roy MacLeod, The Library of Alexandria : Rediscovering the Cradle of Western Culture

The Library of Alexandria by Kelly Trumble, for the young readers


In the Library

From Vroma: Reconstruction of a private library based on the library at Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli.
Modern replicas of rolled scrolls; replica of an unrolled scroll EUR (Rome), Museum of Roman Civilization. Credits: Barbara McManus, 2003

Today many try to transform the Internet into a Library of Babel , that once Jorge Luis Borges invented. In Borges Library it is extremely difficult not only to find "The Book" but even some useful book.


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