The Ultimate Nerd H.Q: The Library of Alexandria

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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I know what you’re thinking. “Nerd H.Q.? You mean the tabletop game shop downtown?”

Nope.

“So you must be talking about the field at the park where college kids play Quidditch then, right?”

No, no that one either.

“Microcenter?”

You’re getting warmer, but I’m going to stop you there. Those are all great headquarters for nerds, but the topic at hand is the Nerd H.Q. of antiquity.

I’m talking about the greatest library of the ancient world. A library that included the works of great ancient minds like Socrates, Plato, and Homer. A library so great that it made the city of Alexandria in Northern Egypt an intellectual capital of the old world.

I’m talking about the first-known universal library in human history: the Library of Alexandria.1

So, Just a Library, Then?

“Library” is an understatement: this library supposedly contained the cumulative wisdom of the known world at the time, and it was of a great complex called the “Temple of the Muses” or the “Musaeum.” You know, like the world’s first museum.

The Library of Alexandria. Looks like the dude in the center dropped something.
Maybe it was a candle? Mystery solved.

The Musaeum served as a center for intellectual and philosophical discourse. It may have housed over half a million documents from nations across the known world, including Assyria, Greece, Persia, Egypt, India, and more. There was so much information that it spilled over into a “daughter” library at the Temple of Serapis. Over 100 scholars lived there in order to pursue research full time. There were lecture halls, observatories, laboratories, a zoo, botanical gardens, living quarters, and even a Sbarro. OK, that last part is just a guess, but it did have a dining hall, probably.

If I sound a little unsure about the dining hall, it’s because nobody’s 100 percent sure about any of these details. While the Library of Alexandria likely did exist, archaeologists haven’t been able to find any artifacts directly connected to the site. The popular belief is that the Library of Alexandria was destroyed in a massive fire around 2,000 years ago, along with its smorgasbord of scrolls.2 3

The founding of the complex is a bit fuzzy, as well. The common thought is that an exiled Athenian politician named Demetrius of Phaleron had found refuge at the court of King Ptolemy I Soter around 297 BCE. About two years later, Ptolemy I tasked Demetrius with founding the universal library and Musaeum.

So, we have a rough idea of who created the Library of Alexandria—but who destroyed it?

Jocks

The nerd’s natural enemy is, of course, the jock. It’s the cycle of civilization: learned folks put together something that shows the capacity for human achievement, and, sooner or later, a bunch of other, less thoughtful people get aggro about it and burn it down, blow it up, whatever. For our purposes here, let’s say the former group are the nerds, and the latter, the jocks.

Alas, nothing that happened 2,000 years ago is ever totally clear, so we have a few potential jocks to pin the library’s destruction on. Here are the three most popular suspected scroll burners:

Julius Caesar

Number one is Julius Caesar, one of history’s most renowned jocks. He was such an alpha male that he took one of history’s greatest republics—Rome—and made it an empire, just so he could be in charge. While he was trampling his way through history, he may well have destroyed the Library of Alexandra by accident.

Julius Caesar, who never heard the idiom: “people with leafy hats shouldn’t start fires.”

Caesar was chasing Pompey, his adversary, into Egypt around 48 BCE. While in enemy territory, Caesar became trapped at Alexandria when an Egyptian fleet cut off his escape. Caesar was outnumbered, so he ordered all the ships in Alexandria’s harbor be set on fire, naturally. It worked, and the fire spread to the Egyptian fleet, which was burnt to the waterline.

But not even Caesar could control fire. It spread from the ships in the harbor to Alexandria, burning down the area of the city that contained the Library of Alexandria.

We know this happened because Caesar wrote about setting the fire. However, he didn’t mention burning the library. That doesn’t mean he didn’t do it—Caesar was wont to flatter himself in his memoirs, so he might have left out the bit about destroying the world’s greatest center of knowledge by accident.

This theory is further complicated by writings from stoic philosopher Strabo, who was working in Alexandria in 20 BCE. He describes the Musaeum in detail, 28 years after Caesar is thought to have burned the area containing it. However, he does not mention the library. It’s unclear if he didn’t recognize a distinction between the Musaeum and the library, or if the library was no longer there.

That said, if Caesar had burned the library, we don’t know how bad he burned it. Did Caesar’s harbor arsonry burn the whole thing down? Did it wipe out the whole section containing Virgil’s YA fiction, now lost to time? Or did the fire merely raze the Sbarro?

Perhaps a better question might be: did the Romans even give a sh*t about some 250-year-old, dog-eared Greek knowledge depository? It doesn’t seem like Caesar did.4 5

Emperor Theodosius I via Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria

This theory is even more complicated, and not just because it technically involves two jocks.

In 391 CE, Christian Emperor Theodosius had had it up to here with all the pagans, so he officially called for the destruction of the Temple of Serapis. Remember that temple? It was home to the daughter library to the Library of Alexandria.

Theodosius I, another pyromaniac Roman emperor.

Theophilus was the bishop of Alexandria, and so he carried out the order. The Temple of Serapis was destroyed, and a Christian church was built on its ashes.

The hypothesis for this theory is that, when the Temple of Serapis was razed, the daughter library and the main library may have been razed as well. Of course, that’s assuming the main library even existed at that point—which is a big assumption, considering this all happened nearly 700 years after the Musaeum and main library were constructed. Not exactly an airtight case.6

Caliph Omar

Last, and honestly, least, is Caliph Omar. I’ve got nothing against Caliph Omar, it’s just that this theory feels thin.

Here’s the story behind the accusation: In 640 CE, the Arab army captured Alexandria after a lengthy siege. They had supposedly heard legends about a great library that contained all the knowledge in the world, which piqued their collective curiosity.

Caliph Omar—my guess is he’s the one with the knife, and not the guy who’s about to get stabbed off his horse.

Unfortunately, as the story goes, Caliph Omar’s interest was decidedly un-piqued. He reportedly said of the great library’s contents, “They will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.”

So, instead of reading the manuscripts and seeing how they squared with the Koran, he used them to fuel fires in Alexandria’s 4,000 bathhouses for six months.

Why is this theory thin? Well, aside from the fact that it presupposes the Library of Alexandria survived all the way to 640 CE, we have to turn a critical eye toward the author of this account.

The “facts” of this story were written down hundreds of years after the events took place by a guy named Gregory Bar Hebraeus—a 13th-century Christian bishop who had a thing for writing about supposed Muslim atrocities. At best, his writings would have some inaccuracies and embellishments. At worst, he just made it up.

The theory that Caliph Omar destroyed the library is weakened by the fog of time and a biased author.7

Fourth Possibility: All the Things

The thing about this mystery is that the answer could be all of the above. It’s possible that the Musaeum and the Library of Alexandria went through a long period of decline, destruction, reconstruction, and destruction again that may have spanned all of three of these different periods. It’s like that nerd versus jock cycle I mentioned earlier.

Maybe Caesar burned part of it, Theophilus burned some more, and Caliph Omar burned whatever was left by the time he rolled into Alexandria?

Or maybe it just closed. Sometimes libraries do that.

Like any great historical mystery that’s far enough removed, we all get to project some of our own beliefs and assumptions on what happened. It seems like more than a coincidence that each of the most popular suspects belongs to a different tradition: Roman paganism, Christianity, and Islam. Could these theories just be the wishful thinking of partisan historians who wanted to pin on their competitors a wanton act of aggression toward enlightenment?

If you’re the type to pick one of those teams and root against the others, then maybe the answer seems simple. But none of these cultures have a clean track record when it comes to destroying the artifacts of the traditions they sought to replace.

As far as I’m concerned, all three of these groups likely have book blood on their hands, whether they burned the Library of Alexandria or not. Intractable ideological systems are pretty good at gaining power, but they’re often not too kind to intellectualism. So, my sympathies instead lie with the ancient nerds who just wanted to kick back at the Musaeum botanical gardens and read some scrolls.

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. El-Abbadi, Mostafa. (Accessed April 13, 2018). Library of Alexandria. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Library-of-Alexandria
  2. Haughton, Brian. (2011, February 1). What happened to the Great Library at Alexandria? Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/article/207/what-happened-to-the-great-library-at-alexandria/
  3. Chesser, Preston. (Accessed April 13, 2018). The Burning of the Library of Alexandria. Retrieved from https://ehistory.osu.edu/articles/burning-library-alexandria
  4. Haughton, Brian. (2011, February 1). What happened to the Great Library at Alexandria? Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/article/207/what-happened-to-the-great-library-at-alexandria/
  5. Chesser, Preston. (Accessed April 13, 2018). The Burning of the Library of Alexandria. Retrieved from https://ehistory.osu.edu/articles/burning-library-alexandria
  6. Haughton, Brian. (2011, February 1). What happened to the Great Library at Alexandria? Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/article/207/what-happened-to-the-great-library-at-alexandria/
  7. Haughton, Brian. (2011, February 1). What happened to the Great Library at Alexandria? Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/article/207/what-happened-to-the-great-library-at-alexandria/

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Chesser, Preston. (Accessed April 13, 2018). The Burning of the Library of Alexandria. Retrieved from https://ehistory.osu.edu/articles/burning-library-alexandria
  • El-Abbadi, Mostafa. (Accessed April 13, 2018). Library of Alexandria. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Library-of-Alexandria
  • Haughton, Brian. (2011, February 1). What happened to the Great Library at Alexandria? Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/article/207/what-happened-to-the-great-library-at-alexandria/