The Role and Fate of the Library at Alexandria

Image result for papyrus scrolls library

In passing we have heard of it, this great destruction of a vast library, but what was it, where was it, how did it happen? We can believe that ancient planetary cataclysm, of one type or another, could have thrown us back into ‘dark ages’, but maybe we forget that the disappearance of a vast library might also have set our species back into ignorance.

About Alexandria ~

It is a port city in Egypt, on the Mediterranean coast.

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Up until 331 BC it was a small Egyptian settlement called Rhacotis dating back at least to 1500 BC, but then a 25 year old King from Macedonia – Alexander the Great – who was intent upon building the greatest empire on the planet, liberated Egypt from Persian rule.  He made Alexandria into a great city. It was intended to be the link between Greece and the Nile. Alexandria was a great location for a naval base enabling Alexander’s forces to control the whole Mediterranean.

Image result for empire of alexander the great

Alexander’s general Ptolemy developed Alexandria – it was known for the splendour of its architecture and it became the most important centre of culture and learning in the ancient world. The occupiers, under Ptolemy, blended the cultures of Greece and Egypt. Alexandria was the centre of the Greco-Egyptian Ptolemic dynasty (whose last ruler was Cleopatra until 30BC). It was a crossroads between East and West, connecting Europe down the Arabian peninsula into India, and the city became very wealthy due to trade. This surplus of wealth encouraged the arts due to patronage, and also the development of philosophy, sciences and so on. Some of the greatest teachers and scholars, artists and scientists of the ancient world migrated to Alexandria. It remained influential and thriving for 1000 years. Famous scholars who came there included Euclid, Archimedes, and Strabo. Aristophanes read and reread every book in the Library of Alexandria (which seems unlikely, given how many there were.) Eratosthenes – who accurately calculated the circumference of the earth – worked in the Library. Hypatia is said to have studied maths, astronomy and philosophy at the Library of Alexandria. Her father Theon was the last member of the Musaeum, which was the structure around the Library. And Hypatia’s murder (415AD) is sometimes said to mark the final downfall of Classical Antiquity and the intellectual life of Alexandria.

Greeks, Romans, and Jews constituted the majority of people living in Alexandria in its heyday, but there were also many thousands of Egyptians, Persians, Syrians, Moroccans, Turks, and many Asiatics.  Alexandria was a melting pot of people from all over the ancient world. ~

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Alexandria was famously home to a large colony of Jewish scholars, including the 70 scholars who translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek – The Septuagint. It is also noted that Indian scholars were a common sight in the city. There are records of Buddhist colonies in ancient Alexandria.  Resources and knowledge would have flowed there also from other places conquered by Alexander, such as Babylon and Persia.

Ptolemy founded the Library of Alexandria in 295BC. It was part of a greater institution called the Musaeum, which might be loosely translated as ”University” today.  Rulers from kingdoms far and wide were invited to contribute their knowledge, and if they did not do so voluntarily, sometimes force was used. All ships docking in Alexandria were searched and all books on board were confiscated to see if they were suitable for the Library. Any traveler passing through Alexandria by any means of transport, was required to surrender any written material they carried to be copied at the Musaeum, before the copy, not the original, was returned to them. There were more than 1000 scholars paid to work at the Musaeum, supported completely  by the Pharaoh and tasked with sharing ideas among different cultures and expanding human knowledge.

Imagining of The Pharos – The Great Lighthouse at Alexandria

One of the missions of the library was to collect a copy of every book written to that time. As a related point of interest the population of the planet in 295 BC has been guesstimated to about 150 – 200 million people, many of whom could not read or write, although literacy rates were high in Greece. To be a polymath in those days would have been somewhat easier than now as the volume of written material was inevitably less. It is said nonetheless that the Library of Alexandria held up to 500,000 books/papyrus scrolls. Some say up to 700,000. Many of these were duplicates.

These would, before the eventual demise of the library,  have included books on literature, poetry and the natural sciences, history, geography, philosophy, alchemical and hermetic works, Gnostic scriptures, Neo-Platonic philosophies, and works from the various mystery traditions of distant lands. Alexandria was described as a melting pot of philosophies.

Books were mostly purchased at huge book markets in places like Athens and Rhodes. Galen also tells the amusing anecdote of Ptolemy asking unsuspecting Athenians if he could borrow the original standardized texts of their tragedies by Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, so he could have them copied. Ptolemy was asked to put a deposit of fifteen talents on the transaction, which he willingly did. Ptolemy never did return the originals, but gave the Athenians back copies. ~

Alexandria did not just develop a Library but also the concept of scholarship and academia. Collecting, copying and evaluating the contents of books was part of what happened in the Library. The Library was said to be so vast that the science of properly indexing libraries – bibliography – was born there.

Image result for library of alexandria

Various accounts of what happened to the Great Library occur. Did Julius Caesar burn it down accidentally in 48 AD? Did Civil Wars fought in the early 4th century AD finish off what remained of  a declining Library and University which was no longer properly funded by the state? Were the last traces of a ‘daughter’ Library connected with the long gone original, and linked speculatively with Hypatia, torn down on the instructions of a Roman Emperor at the end of the 4th century, in an effort to wipe out any remaining elements of what the Romans saw as pagan culture? Or rather to erase all the scriptures of the esoteric Christians? Or were the remnants of a once great Library finally done for with the Islamic conquests of Alexandria in the 7th century AD?

No one can say for sure.

What is interesting is that more than 2000 years ago,and enduring through a flourishing time of peace and syncretism, scholars, sages, seekers and scientists from many tribes, speaking many languages, converged in a publicly-funded venue to explore together the possibilities and expanses of human knowledge and experience in all spheres.


Generally just Being. Nothing in particular, no claims to fame. I like gardening and the sea, nature, art in all forms from poetry to films and everything in between, and being in the company of my family.

Posted in Inner Transmissions, Uncategorized, Western Mysticism
One comment on “The Role and Fate of the Library at Alexandria
  1. jac forsyth says:

    I had no idea that material was taken by force, what an interesting article. Thank you.


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