The Destruction of the Library at Alexandria
Sun May 17 19:43:01 2009
The Library at Alexandria was a monumental institution and it is not surprising that we look for monumental causes for it’s destruction. I count five “destructions” of the library by fire: during the civil unrest in the reign of Ptolemy VIII around 88 BC; Julius Caesars Egyptian campaign in 47 BC; the war between Aurelian and Zenobia of Palmyra in 273 BC; the destruction of pagan temples and books encouraged by Theophillus, the Christian patriarch of Alexandria in 391 BC; and another theological cleansing under the Moslem caliph Omar after he captured Egypt in 645 AD. Yet all of these destructions lack contemporary corroboration and come to us largely through sources with strong political or religious motivations. The caliph Omar story is almost certainly an invention of the 12th century era of the crusades.
I think that what finally destroyed the Library of Alexandria was far more common and much less spectacular. The forces of history are not always, and perhaps not even usually, great events but the gradual accumulation small, unnoticed changes. As Matthew Battles describes in his Library: An Unquiet History, “What happened to the books of Alexandria? Many, many centuries happened to them–too many for their inevitable dispersal and disappearance to be staved off, no matter whose mobs rioted in the streets, no matter which emperors set fires.” What destroyed the Library of Alexandria is the same thing that destroys our libraries today, not great cataclysms but “moldering slowly through the centuries as people [grow] indifferent and even hostile to their contents.”