The Great Library of Alexandria

Nowadays, we’re quite familiar with the concept of centralized information. We can browse the web with any given question or visit a public library, returning home with books ranging in topics from Mediterranean style cooking to plant care. We understand that libraries are centres wherein learning is facilitated and encouraged. In many ways, these gifts are a given. While access to information is still an ongoing discussion, especially in reference to politics, we expect access to information. We not only crave it, we see it as a right. Curious about knitting? The nature of fire? Why the sun rises and sets? Today, these questions are easily answerable. In fact, these answers are centralized and categorized within refined search systems in order to enable access.

The city in which I live has 18 public libraries in addition to private libraries, such as the many libraries belonging Calgary’s various educational institutions. When I walk through the library at school, the shelves are filled with volumes exploring every historical era, genetics, the psychology of love… There are more books than one could read in a lifetime. But while libraries are normalized, ingrained in our society, this wasn’t always the case. There were, supposedly, attempts to build such a massive library prior to the Great Library of Alexandria (hereafter referred to as the Great Library) but the near mythic institution built by the ancient Greeks was the first lasting attempt, an attempt that, in its grandness, persists within the cultural consciousness of modern societies. There were other libraries but drawing global works together made this endeavor unique.

The Great Library  is so well known that it’s become enshrouded by myth, even glorified. It’s said that Alexander the Great, upon witnessing the great library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh (a library established in the 7th Century BCE in Assyria, named after the last great king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire), felt inspired to combine the works belonging to the nations he’d conquered. He would have them translated and centralized. While the desire to consolidate information certainly played a role, the endeavor also speaks to Alexander’s desire to establish a multicultural empire unified under the influence of Hellenism. In other words, he wished to form a library combining the works of various nations as a way to bolster Greek authority.

Unfortunately Alexander died before he could create the Great Library, thus his successor, Ptolemy I, oversaw the beginnings of its creation. The Great  Library was a massive undertaking. For this reason, its construction would extend beyond the influence of a sole ruler. Speculations hold that Ptolemy I (a.k.a Ptolemy Soter) began its construction and his son, Philadelphius, contributed to its continued growth.

In a previous post, I spoke of the the strangeness surrounding book ownership, how some will go so far as to steal books to satisfy an innate craving. The ancient Greeks were no different. The Great Library had between 400,000 and 700,00 rolls in its collection. These rolls, however, were acquired in various ways, some of which might be considered immoral. The first three Ptolemies were bibliomaniacs. They contributed to the growth of the Great Library in ways that are undeniable. The following is one example of the lengths taken to acquire not only books, but the “the best, most original, most authoritative copies.” Under Ptolemy Eurgertes’ reign, the Great Library borrowed the official copies of plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides from Athens. They paid what would today be the equivalent of millions of dollars. Note the word “borrowed.” They paid to borrow the plays, ensuring their return. Scribes working for the Great Library went on to copy the plays using the finest parchment. They returned the newly made copies to Athens and kept the originals for the Great Library.


That a library with such a large, unique collection was destroyed is perhaps part of the reason the Great Library is mythicized. The story of the library’s destruction is in fact unknown, leaving four possible stories to account for its ruination. The most popular story involves a massive fire some 2000 years ago that destroyed the Great Library’s many works, including works by the likes of Homer, Socrates and Plato. Because it seems people want someone to blame, many have turned to point a finger at Julius Caesar. In 47 BCE a series of skirmishes were fought between Caesar, who’d entered Alexandria during the Roman Civil War in his pursuit of Pompey, and various figures, including Ptolemy VIII. The Siege of Alexandria ensued. It is around this time that the Library is thought to have been burned (if a burning was, in fact, the cause of destruction.) The story goes on to tell of Caesar’s occupation of Alexandria in 48 BCE wherein he found himself cornered by an Egyptian fleet in the harbour. He ordered his men to set the Egyptian fleet on fire and the fire is said to have lost control and spread into the city, destroying warehouses, depots and, perhaps, the Great Library.

Other possible causes of destruction include an event occurring in 272 CE wherein the Emperor Aurelian (the Roman Emperor from 270 to 275 CE) sacked Alexandria during his war with Queen Zenobia (Queen of the Palmyrene Empire in Syria). Another possibility is destruction in 391 CE during a series of religious riots or again, in 415CE during fights between Alexandria’s Jewish and Christian populations. The ultimate cause remains unknown and it is for this reason, perhaps, that the Great Library intrigues us so.

This is a very brief overview of the Great Library. Of course scholars have conducted in-depth research, much of which you can find by accessing online archives and searching various libraries! If you have any questions please comment below and I’ll happily get back to you with an answer. Likewise, if you have any comments or would like to expand on part of the Great Library’s story please feel free to do so.

Main Sources:
Phillips, Heather. “The Great Library of Alexandria?” Library Philosophy and Practice (2010). Academic OneFile (accessed January 23, 2017).

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