A reconstruction of the main hall of the Museum of Alexandria used in the series Cosmos by Carl Sagan. The wall portraits show Alexander the Great (left) and Serapis (right).
In this reconstruction, the doors from the Museum lead to storage rooms for the Library. Most of the books were probably stored in armaria, closed, labeled cupboards that were still used for book storage in medieval times.
Fabled as the greatest repository of knowledge in the ancient world, the first university and the home of antiquity’s wisest scholars, the Library of Alexandria has passed into the realm of legend. Its destruction has been painted as one of the bleakest chapters in mankind’s intellectual history, contributing to Europe’s plunge into the Dark Ages and setting back the development of science, philosophy, medicine and literature, if not the cause of reason itself, by a millennium. The loss of the Library has even been described as ‘the day that history lost its memory’. The Library’s legend is enhanced by the layers of mystery that surround it. How big was it? What incredible riches were stored within? How was it destroyed, and by whom? And where are its remains?
The legend of the library
The standard account of the library runs like this. Alexander the Great founded Alexandria in 332 BCE but hung around just long enough to lay out the basic street plan and get construction underway. When he died a few years later, one of his generals, Ptolemy Soter, took control of Egypt and made Alexandria his capital, building great palaces and temples, including a temple to the Muses (or Museum). His son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus (ruled 282–246 BCE), started the library, which was based in or next to the Museum, using Aristotle’s personal library as its core. Ptolemy III Euergetes continued the work, determined to gather in the library all the knowledge in the world, and he instituted an aggressive policy of collection that involved acquiring scrolls, copying them and then returning the (inferior) copies while keeping the originals. He supposedly had every ship that passed through Alexandria searched for new scrolls and borrowed the entire scroll collection of Athens, willingly forfeiting his massive deposit in order to keep the originals. Eventually the collection numbered over 500,000 scrolls – 700,000 by some accounts – making it, by a considerable margin, the greatest collection the ancient world had ever known. (The rival library at Pergamon was said to have 200,000 scrolls, which were supposedly transferred to Alexandria as a gift from Mark Anthony to Cleopatra, and the next biggest library in Rome had 20,000 at most.)
Along with the collection of parchment (and later vellum) scrolls, the Ptolemies paid for a permanent faculty of 30–50 scholars to live and work at the library, and over the centuries their number included most of the greatest names of antiquity, including Euclid (father of geometry), Eratosthenes (who calculated the circumference of the Earth), Archimedes (legendary discoverer of the lever, the screw, and pi) and Galen (the most influential medical writer of the next 1,400 years).
Thanks to the library, Alexandria became the centre of learning and knowledge for the entire Mediterranean world for over 600 years, and legends grew up around it. One wellknown story comes down to us from the scholar Aristeas (c180–145 BCE), the earliest source to mention the library, who tells how 72 rabbis were brought to the library to translate the Old Testament in Greek, and who, despite working in isolation from one another, arrived at 72 identical versions thanks to divine inspiration.
Alongside the Royal (aka Great) Library were ‘daughter’ libraries, especially one housed at the Serapeum, a magnificent temple to Serapis founded by Ptolemy II. Later Roman emperors, including Claudius and Hadrian, also founded libraries in Alexandria.