The Library at Alexandria: Bibliotheca Alexandrina


Illustration of the Library at Alexandria.

I realize that I’ve referred before to the great Library at Alexandria, Egypt, but since it’s one of my obsessions, I’m afraid you’re going to hear about it again.

The original Library was founded by Ptolemy I, who inherited Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great, in around 300 BCE. It was part of the Museum, a center of scholarship and scientific research. Other large libraries in the ancient world had been personal libraries – but this one was “public,” open to anyone with the credentials to get in. The Library had a huge budget (and in an age before copy machines, enough papyrus in the Nile Delta to make copies of manuscripts it acquired).

Many Library Firsts

The Library held about half a million rolls of papyrus. Among the accomplishments of the Librarians were the first library catalogue, the first list of anything in alphabetical order, the glossary, and the authoritative text edition.

Sadly, the Library was destroyed sometime towards the beginning of the last millennium – we don’t know exactly how. It, or perhaps only its warehouse on the docks, burned down when Julius Caesar fought in Alexandria on the side of Cleopatra in 48 BCE. Or, the Christian Church, or perhaps a Christian mob, destroyed the pagan library in about 415 CE. Or, a Muslim Arab general may have ordered the books of the library burned as the writings of infidels,in the 7th century. Or maybe the books and library were the victims of neglect. Or all of the above.

I Am Indebted To:

Lionel Casson, Libraries in the Ancient World. 2001.

Fred Lerner, The Story of Libraries, from the Invention of Writing to the Computer Age. 1998. for historical information.

For a long time, no trace of the Library was found. Maritime archaeologists have been exploring the modern harbor, and it is possible that they have discovered some evidence of it.

Aerial shot of the Library at Alexandria.

Did You Know?

There’s a new Library at Alexandria? It’s called the Bibliotheca Alexandrina! It was built by Egypt with the support of the international community, and contains terrific architecture, a large collection of books and manuscripts from many countries, a conference center, museums, exhibitions, labs, and a planetarium. Want to go? These two websites are made for the armchair or about-to-be traveler:

Author Bio:

Vaughn Harrison attended the Humanities West program "Alexander/Alexandria: The Flowering of Hellenistic Culture" in Feb., 2010.

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