Burning isn’t the only way to lose a book

Matthew Battles

  • The Library of Alexandria: Centre of Learning in the Ancient World edited by Roy MacLeod
    Tauris, 196 pp, £39.50, February 2000, ISBN 1 86064 428 7

The story of the burning of the Greatest Library of the Ancient World by the Arabs is well known: John the Grammarian, a Coptic priest living in Alexandria at the time of the Arab conquest in 641 AD, came to know ‘Amr, the Muslim general who conquered the city. The men were each other’s intellectual peers, and John became the Emir’s trusted adviser. Soon, John grew bold enough to ask ‘Amr what might be done with the ‘books of wisdom’ held in the ‘royal treasuries’, going on to tell him of the great collections amassed by Ptolemy Philadelphus and his successors. ‘Amr replied that he could not decide the fate of the books without consulting the Caliph, Omar. The Caliph’s answer, quoted here from Alfred Butler’s Arab Conquest of Egypt (1902), is infamous: ‘Touching the books you mention, if what is written in them agrees with the Book of God, they are not required; if it disagrees, they are not desired. Destroy them therefore.’ According to tradition, the scrolls were bundled up and delivered to the city’s baths, where it is said they kept the waters of the calidaria warm for six months.

It should surprise no one that the tale carries only the rudiments of truth. Indeed, it is likely to have been invented by Ibn Al-Qifti, a 12th-century Sunni chronicler. The Egyptian classicist Mostafa El-Abbadi argues that Al-Qifti invented it to justify the sale of books by the Sunni ruler Saladin, who sold off whole libraries to pay for his fight against the Crusaders. Despite its possible Islamic origin, however, the story has been amplified into an Orientalist lament for the fate of Western knowledge in the barbarian East.

By the time the Caliph’s army arrived at Alexandria in the seventh century AD, the city’s fabled library had already seen at least one major fire. When Julius Caesar came to the aid of Cleopatra in her war against young Ptolemy XIII in 48 BC, he burned the ships in Alexandria’s harbour to prevent his enemy from taking the city by sea. In the ensuing conflagration, the warehouses along the docks also caught fire; according to Seneca the Elder, some forty thousand books were lost, though other authorities hold that only a few scrolls, stored in the warehouses awaiting shelving, were burned. Most damaging of all, without doubt, were the centuries of neglect the library suffered under the Christians who, following their cultural triumph over pagans, Jews and Neoplatonists, found the Hellenic riches of the libraries discomfiting. Their anger reached fever pitch in the fourth century: Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, wanted the site of the Serapion for a church; he set loose a mob of Christians, who destroyed the pagan temple and, perhaps, the content of its library as well.

Whatever happened to them, there is no doubt that the number of works lost or destroyed at Alexandria is astounding. The classicist Rudolf Blum has estimated that as little as one per cent of all Greek literature has survived to the present day. Commentaries preserve traces of what has been lost, including the satyr-plays of Aeschylus and other dramatists (Euripides’ Cyclops is the only surviving example of this genre), Aristotle’s annotated lists of play performances at Athens and an enormous quantity of lyric poetry. Of course, we cannot know the extent of the loss without access to a catalogue, and the Pinakes, or Lists, the 120-volume catalogue of the Alexandrian library compiled by Callimachus, is also lost.

Many questions remain. Who founded the library? Ptolemy I Soter, or his celebrated son Ptolemy II Philadelphus? What was the design of the buildings, how were they used, where in the city were they situated? How many books were contained in the Mouseion, or temple of the Muses, and how many in the ‘daughter library’ outside the palace precincts? Who were their authors? We don’t have definitive answers to these questions, nor to many others.

When Alexander founded the city in 331 BC, he hoped to see the site flourish as an example of the imperial polity he envisioned: fruitful, multicultural and economically prosperous. The city offered the best port on the Egyptian Mediterranean, and essentially the only point of access to the breadbasket of the Delta and the inland Nile. After Alexander’s death, Soter, one of his generals, made the city the capital of the Ptolemy dynasty, a suitable location for a library that would concentrate – and give him dominion over – the learning of the Hellenic world. Although it was conceived as the heart of a community of scholars and counted Aristotle’s Peripatetic School as its immediate inspiration, the library became a think-tank under the firm control of Soter and his successors. The strategic implications of a monopoly on knowledge were not lost on the Ptolemies. They ordered the books of visitors to the city to be confiscated – these went into the library with a tag that read ‘from the ships’. In an effort to stop the growth of the library at Rhodes, which threatened Alexandria’s pre-eminence, the city’s rulers ordered a ban on the export of papyrus, over which Egypt held a monopoly. The move backfired, however, spurring the invention of vellum, which would prove to be the preferred writing medium in Europe until Gutenberg invented print.

Despite competition from Rhodes, Athens, Pergamum and other centres of Hellenic culture, the libraries thrived under the Ptolemies. The Mouseion alone is thought to have held upwards of 700,000 scrolls at one time. These riches enticed scholars from throughout the Greek world to make their home at Alexandria: Euclid – who may also have been born in the dusty Egyptian village that existed on the site before Alexander founded his city – wrote his Elements there, and Archimedes passed through as a student. Eratosthenes, Strabo and Galen all relied on the riches of Alexandria. Legend has it that at Ptolemy II’s urging, 70 Jewish scholars convened in the library to translate the Torah into Greek – the Septuagint was the result.

We can be fairly certain that the place in which these 70 Jewish scholars laboured was quite different from a modern research library. Accounts of it tell us that scrolls were stored in shelves or bookcases, called armaria, which may have been tucked into spaces along colonnades and hallways. Each scroll carried a tag, not unlike a latter-day catalogue card, giving the names of the authors and works it contained. There were no reading rooms, however, to which scholars might repair; instead, they probably searched out quiet spots for themselves among the columns and the heaps of scrolls on the shelves. The translators of the Septuagint would have found themselves in a polyglot place, among critics tracing variants in passages from Homer or tracking down copies of Persian poems to translate into Greek, doctors in search of written testimonials to support their cures, librarians busily copying out texts, or tagging and shelving scrolls.

In the first centuries AD, the city was the scene of great cultural struggles between pagans, Jews, Christians and Neoplatonists; what we know today as the ‘Judaeo-Christian tradition’ has its origins in the eclecticism of Alexandria. But the libraries always had an even grander mission: they sought to compile and contain the entire corpus of Greek literature, as well as the most significant works of many foreign languages. It was the first library with universal aspirations: with its community of scholars, it became a prototype of the university of the modern era.

This ideal of universality, as it comes down to us from Alexandria, presupposes an idea of literature existing as a whole – as a conversation, with all its disparate utterances falling into meaningful relations with each other. To hold the conversation one has to bring all the books together in one place. This aspiration is so compelling that we are not satisfied merely to act in what we imagine is the spirit of the ancient libraries. Even – or rather, especially – in this time of global data networks, we reckon our progress mythically: ours is an age of iron or even clay, reflecting the golden age of Alexandria darkly at best. Soon, however, we shall have a new Alexandrian Library. Funded jointly by Unesco and the Egyptian Government, the new library, set to open in the autumn, will live inside a stunning disc of glass and cut stone looking out on the Mediterranean and the troubled horizons of Magna Graecia. Its capacity is said to be some eight million volumes: if its librarians fill it, the collection will dwarf that of the Mouseion and Sarapion of old Alexandria.

The Library of Alexandria: Centre of Learning in the Ancient World is an Australian celebration of this grand undertaking. Edited by Roy MacLeod, a professor of history at the University of Sydney, the volume brings together essays by classicists, historians, archaeologists and conservators. Taken together, they represent the range of feelings the Library continues to stir. As a whole, however, the volume suffers for the widely ranging purposes and techniques of the authors.

The book is divided into two parts, though the territory they claim overlaps. The essays of the first section attempt to situate Alexandria in its historical context. The essays by the archaeologist D.T. Potts and the classicist R.G. Tanner sketch, with rigour and original scholarship, the context in which the great library arose; other efforts are less successful. Wendy Brazil, for example, a teacher of classics, interlards her imaginary account of a visit to ancient Alexandria with snippets from Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet – the result is mystifying. Essays in the second section are similarly divergent in their aims and effects: Samuel N.C. Lieu’s ‘Scholars and Students in the Roman East’ admirably presents the changing sociology of education as Alexandria introduced a powerfully consolidated institutional model to the peripatetic tradition of the Hellenes. In contrast, J.O. Ward puts his erudition to dubious use, ranting in great detail about the implausibility of the fictional medieval library at the heart of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. In doing so, he leaves unanswered a number of intriguing questions about the library as metaphor, and the impact of Alexandria on the Western intellectual imagination.

In his introductory essay, the editor traces the cultural uses of the Alexandrian library, from the Ptolemies to the present. He recognises the ambiguous gifts of the Alexandrian legacy:

Scholars of antiquity are amused when modernists credit Francis Bacon with inventing the phrase ‘knowledge is power.’ Bacon may have popularised the tocsin of the scientific revolution, but in Alexandria, eighteen hundred years earlier, the quest for universal knowledge had already inspired kingly enterprise. The impulse emerged again in the time of Nicholas V and Pius II, in the creation of a library at the centre of the imperial Vatican, and it has reappeared repeatedly in Western history. To attempt to control the diffusion of knowledge is a concept of Ptolemaic ambition – perhaps an achievement impossible until the age of the key-hole satellite and the World Wide Web. Yet, this was the Alexandrian project at its best, and most problematic.

The great pile of books at Alexandria defined a new approach to the value of knowledge, in which the goal was to hold literally everything, from the authoritative manuscripts of the Iliad and Hesiod’s Works and Days to the most obscure lists of secondary (and fallacious) commentaries on Homer, the misattributed works, the works pointing out their misattribution, the works refuting those works. In furthering this goal, the Ptolemies made good on the essentially Alexandrian intuition that knowledge is a resource, a commodity, a form of capital to be acquired and hoarded at the pleasure of the regime. The centralisation and consolidation of libraries serves the convenience of scholars and princes alike. But in times of war, disaster or decay, enormous centralised libraries are problematic: their fate becomes the fate of the literatures they contain. Much of what comes down to us from antiquity survived because it was held in small private libraries tucked away in obscure backwaters of the ancient world, where it escaped the notice of both zealots and princes.

Above all, it is the needs and tastes of private readers and collectors that determine what survives. Before the flames, before theft and censorship, the fate of books is bound up with the constant shuffling and transformation of the word. Samuel Lieu’s chapter here describes this process as it took place in the manuscript culture of the ancient world: ‘The high cost of copying also meant that some works of great literary value but not often read in rhetorical schools were not regularly re-copied ... Besides the high cost of books, the narrow syllabus of the rhetorical schools also contributed to the gradual disappearance of many literary works.’ The rest – the works of minor poets, the extra-canonical, the pseudepigraphic – dropped out of view.

Libraries do of course disappear in toto – the fate of the Bosnian National Library at Sarajevo, bombed and burned by the Serbs in 1992, is a recent testament to this fact. More often, though, they dissolve, with the remnants of ever-changing collections being preserved in shreds and patches. The abbey libraries of Britain were dispersed with the dissolution of the monasteries: piles of manuscripts in lost languages – Anglo-Saxon, for instance – were carted off and sold; many were pulped to provide material for the new printing presses. But some treasures, including the only known manuscript copy of Beowulf, were preserved for the simple reason that they were not all kept in the same place. If the Ptolemies had not pursued their aggressive acquisitions policy in Alexandria, confiscating books from private readers and failing to return scrolls borrowed from other repositories for copying, many of the lost works might well have survived. But the Ptolemies didn’t see their library as a universal source of liberal learning open to scholars and artists from the whole Hellenic world – however much our cherished myths may have us believe it was so. In many eras – including that of the Ptolemies and, in some instances, our own – libraries are as much about losing the truth as they are about finding it. A Russian librarian I know tells of the constant exertions of cataloguers in Soviet libraries as they responded to Stalin’s whim: when authors fell out of favour or were shot, librarians ran through the stacks pulling their books for the discard pile. Following the dictates of the regime, they erased notations on catalogue cards and scribbled new ones in their place. Today, the bibliography of the period is hopelessly confused; it will only get worse with the increasing neglect of Soviet writing in the post-Communist era.

So what happened to the books, the scrolls of Alexandria? The obliteration even of the precise location of the libraries themselves invites the kind of speculation of which myth is the inevitable product. The libraries mouldered slowly through the centuries as people grew indifferent and even hostile to their contents. Ancient Greek, never a linguistic monolith in any case, became incomprehensible to Alexandrians of the Christian era with their mixture of Coptic, Aramaic, Hebrew, Latin and Koine (demotic Greek). Ignored by the generations to whom they were indecipherable, the scrolls were damaged by alternating periods of moisture and dryness, eaten away by the troublesome fauna and flora that have evolved especially to live in libraries, stolen, lost and burned. They were replaced by patristic writings and the thinning literature of the declining Roman world. The lens of retrospect compresses the millennia, placing Theodosius and Cleopatra in the same ground occupied by Alexander and Archimedes. 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 who held the monopoly on papyrus, no matter which mobs rioted in the streets and which emperors were responsible for the fires, no matter which barbarians the Alexandrians, whether in anxiety or hope, awaited.