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.

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