The Library of Alexandria was one of the most important known libraries in history, where much of the knowledge of the ancient world was collected and produced. In addition, it has inspired the university models we have today, as well as housing the world’s first medical school.
The library was built in the heart of the ancient city of Alexandria, Egypt, and was founded in the 3rd century BC by Ptolemy II, one of Alexander the Great’s successors.
This site, which served as the research center and largest collection of history and ancient science, was destroyed by a fire, which brought with it great information and knowledge of humanity.
Learn now a little about the treasures in the Library of Alexandria, and what we lost with their destruction.
How did the Library of Alexandria become the largest knowledge center in the ancient world?
Alexander the King of Macedonia and the succeeding kings considered knowledge to be of the utmost importance, strongly supporting research and scholarship. His studies and advances in mathematics and astronomy were considered great treasures of his empire.
With this in mind, the Alexandria Library was founded as part of a research institution called Mouseion. In fact, it originates from it the word “museum”, which we use today.
In addition to the great hall where the books were stored, there were ten large research laboratories in the Library of Alexandria, as well as botanical gardens, study rooms, astronomical observatories, and a zoo with species brought from different parts of the ancient world.
It also housed the world’s first medical school and was an inspiration to the universities as we know today.
But the greatest highlight of the Library of Alexandria was its vast collection of books, made up of copies of the most diverse languages and cultures.
Its rulers intended it to become the largest library ever seen. For this, agents were sent to buy (or steal) libraries in other parts of the world. In addition, all vessels arriving in the city were searched by the authorities, and the papyri found on them were copied. These copies were returned to their owners while the originals were sent to the library.
What the loss of the Library of Alexandria meant to humanity?
Because of the fire that destroyed it, it is difficult to estimate the amount of books in the library. However, it is believed that between 500 and 700 thousand papyrus scrolls were already part of the Library of Alexandria collection. For this, about 100 employees worked in its operation.
After the destruction, only a few fragments could be recovered. These passages give us a sense of how much knowledge has been lost forever and what subsequent generations, including ours, have been deprived of.
For example, there are remnants that Aristarchus of Samos had written in the third century BC, which was the Earth orbiting around the Sun, as well as other planets. It took about two thousand years for Nicholas Copernicus to rediscover heliocentrism, presenting his idea in 1530.
Another example would be the research of Heron of Alexandria, who created a first steam engine model about two thousand years before James Watt.
Mysteries of the past, scientific discoveries, and the process by which these scholars came to their conclusions were lost forever with the fire. And in addition to discoveries about astronomy, mathematics, and historical records, there were also medical techniques that, if not lost, would have been very useful in the development of this science.
Great names from the Library of Alexandria
As we have seen, in addition to the large collection of knowledgeable books from around the world, at their research centers were big names in astronomy, mathematics and other areas of knowledge.
Among them, we can highlight:
-Eratosthenes, the chief librarian of Alexandria, was the first to measure the circumference of the earth.
-Hipparchus, considered the father of astronomy, mapped the constellations and measured the magnitude of the stars.
-Euclid, considered the father of geometry.
-Ptolemy, one of the greatest astronomers of his day, created the basis for what we know today as astrology.
-Herophilus, the father of anatomy and founder of the medical school, identified that the brain was responsible for intelligence, not the heart.
-Dionysius of Thrace was the one who organized the prayer scheme we use today, with verbs, pronouns, nouns, etc.
-Hypatia: Astronomer and Mathematics, was head of the Platonic School of Alexandria.
Many of these have had much of their knowledge and research lost forever. We can cite Euclid as an example, as we currently only have access to about 50% of his work. Nevertheless, the little that is left of the Library of Alexandria has been essential for the future development of the most diverse areas of knowledge.
And who was responsible for the fall of the Library?
The destruction of the Library of Alexandria is one of its greatest mysteries. Lacking architectural records and archaeological remains, many historians argue that it was the target of a fire. However, there is still no consensus as to who would have initiated it, and whether that would indeed have been the cause of its destruction.
One of the main theories is that Julius Caesar was the cause of the fire during a persecution of Pompey in the 48th century BC.
When Caesar found himself surrounded by Egyptian fleets, he ordered to set fire to his own ships to block the way of his enemies. This fire would have spread rapidly, reaching the city as well. According to Lucano, a Roman poet, the fire would have hit the Library and burned part of its collection.
The Muslim invasion is also one of the alleged causes of the destruction of the famous library. According to this theory, the Library of Alexandria would have fallen at the hands of Caliph Omar when his army invaded the city in 640 AD.
However, other hypotheses argue that the library began to collapse much earlier due to lack of investment, or that it would have been attacked by the Catholic Church.
All of the above hypotheses contain historical records that support them, but none of them has sufficient evidence to define who was really to blame for the destruction of the largest library in the ancient world.
A fresh start: the new Alexandria Library
In honor of the ancient Library of Alexandria, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina was built in 2002. Like the old one, it also functions as a research center, containing laboratories, museums, auditoriums, a planetarium, as well as a large collection.
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is currently the largest in Egypt and contains the largest digital collection of historical manuscripts in the world.
So which theory do you think is most likely about the destruction of the library of Alexandria? Leave your comment.