By Minnie Apolis
"The Ptolomies and their librarians set out not only to collect every book in the world, but to translate them all into Greek." That was the lofty goal of these lovers of learning as stated by the author of the book "The Vanished Library."
In fact, Alexander created royal libraries in all the Hellenistic capitals, not just for the prestige value but because the Greeks felt they ought to understand their far-flung subjects if they were to rule them successfully. In fact, Alexander was going to build a library in Nineveh -- but good thing he did not get around to it since Nineveh was one of the losers when it came to surviving to modern times.
Moreover, the author mentions that there was quite a rivalry between Pharaoh Ptolemy Euergetes and the King of Libya to amass the largest collection of books and scrolls. How I would love for someone to find this long-lost library in Libya! Though it would not be a duplicate of the lost Alexandrian library it would certainly provide years if not decades of material for scholars to study.
There was yet another rival library in Pergamum. King Eumenes used methods similar to those employed by the Alexandrians to obtain scrolls, but was plagued with forgers submitting manuscripts for purchase. (Pergamum is a Greek city on the far west coast of Turkey -- not very far from where ancient Troy was situated.) The Pergamum library was alas (allegedly) plundered by Marcus Antonius (yeah, that Marc Antony) who presented the books to his pal Cleo.
So far we have mentioned several other ancient libraries that may or may not still turn up. But sticking to those established by Alexander in Egypt, the book lists three "libraries" in ancient Alexandria -- the book and grain warehouses by the port; the main library at the palace; and the "daughter" library in the temple of Serapis. These libraries were (tradition says) all established by Alexander, who was Greek, so the books or scrolls are in Greek. These are not truly ancient if you are thinking these libraries held papyri from the Egyptian pharaohs. So anyway, let me separate them and lay out what is stated in this book about each.
THE BOOK WAREHOUSE-
Near the port were warehouses that stored grain and books for export. They were only mentioned in passing most of the time, and not at all by Julius Caesar who was more interested in relating the military strategy of his defense. These warehouses were immediately next door to the harbor and unluckily for the book merchants contained (it is said) "some forty thousand book scrolls of excellent quality." Canfora states that "the treasures of the Museum cannot possibly have been outside the palace walls, let alone stored in the port alongside the grain depots."
Wikipedia quotes Theodore Vrettos that the warehouse was not all copies for the export trade. "Not at all connected with the Great Library, they were account books and ledgers containing records of Alexandria's export goods bound for Rome and other cities throughout the world."
THE DAUGHTER LIBRARY at TEMPLE of SERAPIS- aka Serapeum
This temple library was located in the district of Rhakotis, an older part of the city of Alexandria, and was established possibly as early as the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus. The books were arranged on shelves in recesses or niches beneath the covered porticoes, "where those who loved reading were able to consult them freely." The Serapeum was in other words open to the public.
The collection is described as the creme de la creme, holding duplicate copies of scrolls in the main Museum (palace library). Collection was said to number 42,800 scrolls. These were not scrolls from far and wide in the known world; what these were, were the "quintessence of definitive texts."
Destroyed in attack on pagan temples in 391 AD by Emperor Theodosius and Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria. Socrates gives a fuller description of this destruction. Yeah, it was an obscene crime perpetrated by philistines.
MAIN LIBRARY at ROYAL PALACE (or on palace grounds)- aka Bibliotheca Alexandrina
This was the jewel in the crown of the chain of libraries built by Alexander. Strabo gives this description: "The Museum too is a part of the royal palace. It comprises the covered walk, the exedra or portico, and a great hall in which the learned members of the Museum take their meals in common." But descriptions do not list it as a separate building; it is rather a group of shelves of books which were integrated into the palace -- shelves that incidentally formed a boundary with the part that showed images of the Egyptian gods.
This was not the site of Julius Caesar's fire in 48 BC. For one thing, there was never any record of a fire reaching the Palace or Museum itself. Secondly, Strabo visited these two buildings (Serapeum and Museum) about 20 years (25 BC) after Julius Caesar's visit and disastrous fire.
There is another Roman candidate for scapegoat, however. That is Aurelian, whose campaign (270-275 AD) to take the city heavily damaged the district of Bruchion, which included the royal palace, soma, theatre, and stadium. Ammianus says that the district was completely destroyed, although he may have exaggerated. The city was later completely sacked by Diocletian, and occupied by the Persians.
With the political situation in such flux, the library suffered greatly. Canfora says that the old scrolls were gone -- "their last remnants had been cast out as refuse or buried in the sand, and they had been replaced by more substantial parchment . . . the texts now consisted chiefly of patristic writings, Acts of Councils, and sacred literature in general."
Emperor Caracalla (reigned 198-217 AD) in one of his rages "threatened to burn down the Museum in revenge for the death of Alexander the Great, whom Caracalla believed to have been poisoned by Aristotle."
But it awaited the reign of the Turks for the final destruction and indignity. Caliph Omar was asked by Amrou, a new Emir of Alexandria, if he would permit copying what remained of the great royal library. Omar's message was as follows: "As for the books you mention, here is my reply. If their content is in accordance with the book of Allah, we may do without them, for in that case the book of Allah more than suffices. If on the other hand, they contain matter not in accordance with the book of Allah, there can be no need to preserve them. Proceed then and destroy them." [AMENDED TO ADD: This was around 642 AD.]
Emir Amrou was obliged to obey his Caliph and ordered that the scrolls be distributed among the public baths to be burned as fuel. "They say, says Ibn al-Kifti, that it took six months to burn all that mass of material." Canfora says that Aristotle's books were the only ones spared.
I suppose there is some chance that the other Greek libraries established by Alexander might have survived at least in part. Personally I think there might be more of a chance that scrolls survived in the similarly dry conditions of Libya -- worth a shot anyway.
The Vanished Library, Luciano Canfora, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1989, 205 pages. ISBN 0520073045 and 0520072553.