What was the Library of Alexandria and why was it important?

The creation of the city of Alexandria paved the way for one of the world’s most important centers of education, the Library of Alexandria. This great library was believed to have housed more than half a million written texts and served as the training grounds through which many of the world’s best writers, doctors, and philosophers emerged. This made Alexandria the hub for higher learning.

However, the influence of the library started to deteriorate following political and religious events. And what was once the key to understanding life in the ancient world was lost to mankind forever.

In the article below, we take an in-depth look at the history, construction and significance of the Library of the Alexander. We also explore the extent of damage the library suffered when it got burned.

History of the Library of Alexandria

Library of Alexandria was built during the early period of Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt

Around 331 BC, Alexander the Great – who was the King of Macedonia- founded the Egyptian city of Alexandria. He died a few years later and his generals divided up his empire amongst themselves. Ptolemy I Soter, who was one of Alexander’s most trusted generals, ended up becoming the ruler of Egypt and declared Alexandria as its capital.

Before Alexander’s death, he had begun preparations for a Library dedicated to the nine Greek Muses. The Muses were mythical creatures highly regarded as serving as the sources of inspiration in arts and knowledge.

Ptolemy I Soter continued with Alexander’s plans and began constructing the library around 295 BC. It was divided into two major sections: the “Biblion”, where texts were preserved, and the “Museion”, where people came to learn.

Despite it being a grand project, libraries weren’t completely unheard of. Many libraries had been constructed in ancient Greece, as well as the Near East, which is the modern-day Middle East area. Early written and archived records went as far back as 3400 BC and many ancient kingdoms and empires were known to collect books. It’s likely that Alexander the Great had been inspired by the Greek tyrant, Peisistratos, who founded the first public library in 6th century BC.

Ptolemy I tasked Demetrius of Phaleron (also known as Demetrius Phalerum) to create the library after the ruler had been moved by his deep knowledge and desire for learning. Demetrius had been a former politician back in Athens, Greece, and after losing his power, fled to Egypt and sought refuge under Ptolemy I’s court. His plan was to construct an imposing structure that rivaled that of Aristotle’s Lyceum back home in Athens. Ptolemy I bought into the grand plans of the scholar and provided the needed resources to see to the completion of the library.

Why was the Library of Alexandria built?

The Great Library of Alexandria was built and well-stocked by Ptolemaic rulers with the primary goal of making the city of Alexandria the hub of scientific knowledge and scholarly work in the ancient world.

The early Ptolemaic rulers made it a habit of gathering as many texts and papyrus scrolls to stock the Library of Alexandria.

According to Letter of Aristeas, the library was built by Ptolemy I Soter. The Ptolemaic rulers made it a habit of gathering many texts and papyrus scrolls to stock the Library of Alexandria. The goal was to turn the city into hub of scientific knowledge and learning. This, as well as many other infrastructural projects, helped enhance the city’s image and attract many scholars from all over the Mediterranean world. Image: Ptolemaic Dynasty pharaohs (from left to right): Ptolemy I Soter, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, and Ptolemy III Euergetes

Was the Library of Alexandria the first of its kind?

The Great Library of Alexandria was not the first in the ancient world. As a matter of fact, it has been stated that the ancient Greeks and other civilizations in the Near East maintained a tradition of building libraries. Scholars often cite the library built in the ancient Sumerian city-state of Uruk as the first known compilation of scrolls and text in history. That library was built around 3400-3500 BC. It makes a lot of sense, considering the fact the Sumerians had just invented writing.

Then there was the Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, which was built by the famous Neo-Assyrian king Ashurbanipal of the 7th century BC. Discovered by British archeologist Austen Henry Layard in the 1850s, the library is said to have housed over 32,000 clay tablets, including the famous ancient Mesopotamia epic poem called the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Similarly, one of the achievements of Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, also known as Nebuchadnezzar the Great, was the library he built in the city of Babylon in the 6th century BC.

Read More: 10 Most Famous Ancient Mesopotamian Kings

Who was the first librarian of the Library of Alexandria?

It’s likely that the Greek scholar Zenodotus of Ephesus served as the library’s first head librarian and did so under the reigns of both Ptolemy I and his successor Ptolemy II. Zenodotus is credited with editing the literary works of the ancient Greek author and poet Homer, and many other historical writers like Pindar and Hesoid. Zenodotus himself was also a poet and grammarian. Zenodotus was succeded by Apollonius of Rhodes, a former student of Callimachus.

It was also a tradition of the Ptolemaic era for the head librarian to tutor the king’s children and other high-borns. For example, Apollonius of Rhodes, the Library’s second librarian, tutored Ptolemy III Euergetes, Ptolemy II’s son and successor. Apollonius of Rhodes is also famous for his work the Argonautica, the epic poem that narrates the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts to acquire the Golden Fleece from Colchis.

How did the Library come to have such a vast collection of works?

As stated Ptolemaic rulers’ goal for the Library was quite big. Hence, those rulers provided funds for the purchase of books of all kinds and on all subjects. The Ptolemaic kings dispatched  royal agents to buy and collect as many texts that they could lay their hands all across the Hellenistic world. It was also the case that the Library’s officials preferred older copies of texts, as they reasoned that those copies had not suffered as much changes as the new ones.

Furthermore, Ptolemaic kings, especially Ptolemy II, ordered the seizure of books from every ship that docked in Alexandria. The library officials would then make copies of those seized books and keep the original. According to Aelius Galenus (also known as Galen), the copied works would then be returned to the owner.

Importance of the Library

As many years passed, the Library of Alexandria continued to expand, partly because the Ptolemaic rulers recognized the importance of learning. Many of these rulers ensured that the library was well funded.

Although the main design of the library is not known, it’s widely believed that it included many features such as lecture halls, gardens, laboratories, and even a zoo. Several medical students also studied at the Library of Alexander, where students learned how to dissect cadavers.

Soon, many other rulers were determined to establish libraries to surpass the Library of Alexandria. One of such rulers was King Eumenes II of the Attalids, who founded a library in Pergamum (located in modern Turkiye). This move sparked a competition of sorts amongst leaders to determine who had the largest collections.  As a result, future kings in Alexandria funded scholars to travel abroad to collect any books relevant to the library and whenever ships arrived at the port in Alexandria, any books on deck had to be transcribed, with the original texts archived in the library and its copies sent to its owners.

The Library of Alexandria was too massive for the others to keep up and remained the largest library during that period. It contained between 70,000 to 700,000 papyrus scrolls at any given time, and it was nearly impossible to catalog all texts. As a result, the city of Alexandria became known as a city of scholars and academic work.

Many important studies and researches came from the library. Notable scholars like Callimachus and Eratosthenes of Cyrene were known for creating the earliest library catalog and accurately calculating the Earth’s circumference respectively. Many of the studies conducted by academics at the library continue to be relevant even well into the 21st century.

However, many criticized the library for not being open to the public. Sensing the frustration from some members of the public, Ptolemy II Philadelphus decided to build a smaller library, where the public could access some texts of the library.

Notable scholars of the Library

Not only did it serve as a place for archived written works, but it functioned as an academic institution. Many renowned scholars such as Euclid of Alexandria, Aristarchus of Samos, Apollonius of Rhodes, and Plotinus the Philosopher all studied at the Library of Alexandria.

Most of the scholars that worked there had been appointed by rulers and received stipends, while living on the library grounds. The Ptolemaic rulers instituted those stipends so as to ensure that the scholars could devote their time to the pursuit of scholarly works.

The scholars of the Library were sometimes required to teach as well. It has been estimated that between 30 to 50 scholars were present at the Library at every time. Those scholars had the academic freedom as they did not have to adhere to any specific philosophical school.

It has also been stated that the famous mathematician and inventor Archimedes of Syracuse once visited the Library. The story goes on to say that Syracusan scholar invented the the Archimedes’ screw while in Alexandria. The screw, which was very popular in the ancient world, was used as a pump for transporting water in irrigation.

Eratosthenes of Cyrene – third head of the library – is famed for applying mathematics to geography and map-making. In addition to providing the map of the entire known world at the time, the scholarly famously calculated the circumference of the earth. Interestingly, modern scientists would reveal that Eratosthenes was only off by a few hundred kilometers in his calculation, which appeared in his work Concerning the Measurement of the Earth.

Eratosthenes of Cyrene, one of the distinguished scholars of the Library of Alexandria, is famous for advancing the study of geography by making it more scientific.

Also, the likes of Aristophanes of Byzantium and Zeuxis the Empiricist all made remarkable contributions to the Great Library and scholarly work in Alexandria. The former, who was the fourth head librarian, is praised for ushering in an era of literary criticism. Zeuxis, on the other hand, achieved a lot in the study of medicine as he provided commentaries on the Hippocratic Corpus.

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Expulsions by Ptolemy VIII Physcon in 145 BC marked the beginning of the decline of the Great Library. The king purged intellectuals like Aristarchus of Samothrace, Dionysius Thrax and Apollodorus of Athens. Image: Ptolemaic Dynasty pharaoh Ptolemy VIII Physcon

Ptolemy VIII Physcon’s decision to purge influential scholars from the city of Alexandria following a power struggle also contributed to the decline of the Library.

Around 145 BC, Ptolemy VIII is said to have gone on vindictive streak and exiled every scholar that supported his rival and predecessor, Ptolemy VII Neos Philopator. One of the leading scholars that fled the city of Alexandria was Aristarchus of Samothrace, the head librarian. Also Dionysius Thrax and Apollodorus of Athens had to flee the city. The departure of those scholars marked the beginning of the demise of the Library as well Alexandria as a hub of knowledge in the ancient world. Those scholars spread across the Mediterranean and established a number of libraries and research institutions that were modeled on the Library of Alexandria.

Also, during Rome’s rule, the library was starved off the needed funding. Basically, the decline of the city of Alexandria corresponded with the decline of the Library.

Did you know…?

As the Library’s status in the ancient world declined, it happened that the word “Alexandrian” came to be used to refer to process of editing of texts, fixing textual errors, and the presentation of commentaries and intellectual criticisms.

Burning of the Library of the Alexandria

While many are familiar with the Library of Alexandria, the institution developed an infamous reputation for being burned down several times within a thousand-year period. There are three main events that heavily contributed to the decline and eventual destruction of the library.

According to the historian Plutarch, the first fire damage to the library was caused by the Roman dictator and general Julius Caesar. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon River in defiance against the Roman Senate, it sparked a civil war between Caesar and General Pompey (also known as Pompey the Great).

During that period, Caesar found himself in a series of battles in Alexandria. During the Siege of Alexandria in 48 BC, Caesar ordered his soldiers to set some Egyptian ships on fire; however, the fire quickly spread to other parts of the city and destroyed sections of the library.

It is widely purported that the fire destroyed about 40,000 scrolls from the library. Caesar wrote about the events of the civil war later but conveniently left out the damages caused in Alexandria.

But that wasn’t surprising, as Caesar was notorious for writing positively about himself. After his assassination in 44 BC, his co-consul and lieutenant, Mark Antony, presented Queen Cleopatra VII with 200,000 scrolls for the library.

Read More: Cleopatra’s Greatest Achievements

The second major fire incident that ravaged the library was as a result of religious attacks. Between 385-412 AD, a man named Theophilus served as Patriarch of Alexandria and he was responsible for changing the Temple of Serapis into a Christian church.

According to some historians, the temple housed about 10% of the library’s activities, which were destroyed by Christians who had taken over. Over a period of time, the Christians led several attacks against the library.

It was the third event, however, that completely destroyed the library. In 640 AD, Alexandria fell under Muslim rule. Its leader, Caliph Omar believed that the content in the library contradicted the teachings in the Quran. Because of that, all of its books were burned down. It reportedly took about 6 months to fully burn all the materials. This shows just how many books were contained in the Library of Alexandria.

The Mouseion

The Library was affiliated to a very famous research institution in Alexandria called the Mouseion. The institution was headed by the priests (epistates) of Muses. In Greek mythology, the Muses were revered as inspirational goddesses of the art and science.

The Serapeum of Alexandria

Remains of the Serapeum in the city of Alexandria

The Serapeum of Alexandria was a kind of annex library built during the reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes. The library was set up in the Serapeum, a very popular temple of the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis. The Ptolemaic rulers honored Serapis as the god of healing, unity and the afterlife.

Read More: Timeline of Ancient Egypt: From the Predynastic Period to the Hellenistic Age

Other Interesting Facts about the Library of Alexandria

  • The Library of Alexandria mainly used papyrus scrolls owing to the abundance of the papyrus plant in Alexandria. As a matter of fact, the city of Alexandria refused exporting papyrus to Pergamon, an ancient Greek city in Mysia, due to the rivalry that existed the Library of Alexandria and the Library of Pergamum.
  • It is very likely that the Library had a zoo as Ptolemy II was said to be very interested in the study of zoology.
  • As of the 21st century AD, there exist little to no traces of the library in Alexandria. The city has transformed into a bustling metropolis. Still, there’s no denying the influence the Library of Alexandria had back then and in contemporary times.
  • While in existence, it inspired the establishment of other notable libraries across the world, including the Theological Library of Caesarea Maritima and the Library of Jerusalem.
  • In 2002, the Egyptian government unveiled the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in commemoration of the original library. Boasting of a shelf space for eight million books and a 20,000 square meter-reading room, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is known for serving as the home of the International School of Information Science, where students train to become professional librarians.

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