My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The first time I visited the New York Public Library to write a research paper on female monasticism in the High Middle Age, I was amazed by the volumes of book it possessed and its classification system of organization staffed by knowledgeable librarians, as well as the colossal architectural building in the middle of Manhattan, New York. Perhaps it might have been this kind of awe and wonder kindled in the minds of ancient travelers or scholars who had seen or visited the Library of Alexandra, one of the largest and greatest of the ancient libraries in the history of civilization, which is said to exist from the 3rd century B.C. until the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 B.C. The Library of Alexandra: The History and Legacy of the Ancient World’s Most Famous Library by Charles River Editors presents a comprehensive history of this great ancient library from its genesis to demise on the grounds of historical accounts and logical scientific reasoning thereof.
For centuries when libraries were still few and far between as written knowledge had been exclusively held by the religious classes in private repositories, the image of this ancient library once existent in Alexandria had been evocative of mysterious ambience of esoteric mystical knowledge of the bygone eras and thus inspired imagination to create myths and legends. In fact, libraries as we know now and find ubiquitously are fairly a modern invention born of the cultural legacy of the Library of Alexandria as the apotheosis of two ancient literary and cultural traditions converging the Greek and the Egyptian.
- The Egyptian Background
When Alexander the Great and his army conquered the ancient Middle East in the 4th century – one of which was Egypt -, they were encountered with cultures with long literary traditions and traditions of literary documents in repositories called, “the House of Life” and “the House of Books” that housed thousands of documents written in papyrus-made scrolls for the Egyptian and clay tablets for the Mesopotamian under the administration of the priest class. Of these two houses of documents, it is the House of Life, the ancient Egyptian equivalent of a library, from which the majority of texts have survived until the present time. Consequently, Alexander and his army were overawed with the rich literary culture of their conquered land, took the ancient Egyptian concept of a library and transformed it from a religious to a secular institution by providing a bridge of knowledge from the most ancient concepts of libraries to the modern libraries in the process of Hellenization of the Egyptian.
- The Greek and Hellenization (The spreading of the Greek culture)
Alexander’s Hellenization was a two-fold political program consisting of (1) acculturation by performing and accepting certain religious and cultural traditions making him look “Egyptian” to gain acceptance by the Egyptian elite class; and (2) the promotion of the Greek culture, “Hellenism” by spreading the Greek culture throughout Egypt. The process of Hellenization in Egypt was well succeeded by his general named Ptolemy, (the founder of the Ptolemy dynasty from 304 to 330 B.C., including Cleopatra VII) who made Alexandria the capital of Egypt and the cultural center of the Hellenistic and the famed Library of Alexandria as the centerpiece. In fact, the Ptolemies’ subsidization of the Library was their way to link their dynasty, which was in a foreign land far away from their homeland Greece, to the greatness of their culture. They also banned the export of papyrus from Egypt, which resulted in increase of prices for books and creation of the industry of forgeries and plagiarism.
According to the Greek historian/geographer Strabo (64 B.C.-24 A.D.) upon visiting the Library of Alexandria, it was part of the royal palace and an annex to the museum, which was a community of academic and religious scholars gathering in the shrine of the Muses of the arts and intellect. The membership was exclusive to the men holding property in common with a priest in charge of the museum. The library housed over 500,000 papyrus book-scrolls written by the ancient notables, such as Homer, Euripeds, Sophocles, and Herodotus, all in Greeks as most of the documents stored therein had been translated from their original languages by priests under the Hellenistic influence. Besides, the Library organized all the entries into alphabetical order as a classification system of library organization that is akin to modern library information system.
- Destruction of the Library of Alexandria
Since there has been no definite archeological evidence of the Library discovered, myths and legends concerning its end are still rampant in the imaginations of creative minds. It is said to be burned down by the Civil Wars in 48 or 47 B.C. by Plutarch in Life of Caesar, the theory advocated by Seneca, a famous Roman orator, and later popularized by Edward Gibbon of “The Fall and Decline of the Roman Empire.” However, the most plausible and logical theory of the destruction of the Library is that the humidity must have ensued the destruction of books in papyrus and that the process of destruction would have taken place over hundreds of years contrary to a popular dramatic version of its being burned to ashes by Caesar’s men in one night. Also, another speculation is that after Egypt was annexed to the Roman Empire in 30 B.C., the presence of the Library of Alexandria became an afterthought to the Romans, who imported Greek Scholars and books into Rome, rather than made a long trip to the foreign land. The Romans were more concerned with building their own architectural building, including libraries and schools, in their own land by sending their book agents to the Library of Alexandria to take the originals back to Rome, which contributed to a gradual demise of the Library, by making its presence obsolete and unnecessary for the upkeep of the maintenance.
The great ancient Library of Alexandria as an architectural artifact might have disappeared into history, but its cultural inheritance of civilization preserving intellectual act of learning in appreciation of arts and beauty still strongly resonates with its historiography and contribution to our modern world by continuing to inspire our minds to carry it on for posterity. The Library of Alexandria still exists in the presence of any place of learning or knowledge as long as we appreciate such cultural influence on what we take for granted, such as using our own library. Now that I have read this book, the next time I visit any library, I will think of those ancient librarians and appreciate the legacy of the Library of Alexandria and Alexander the Great for making it all possible.