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The Library At Alexandria

April 29, 2016

What is the worst disaster to befall mankind? It’s not a trick question; there have been many. My answer is the loss of the library at Alexandria, Egypt.

Alexandria lies at the isthmus of the Nile River as it enters the Mediterranean Sea. It was founded by Alexander the Great as one of the many “Alexandrias” he fostered. It served as the capital of the new Hellenized Egypt after 305 BC under Ptolemy I.

The library was created by Ptolemy I (Soter) who was a Macedonian general and the one of the successors of Alexander The Great. Most of the books were kept as papyrus scrolls, and though it is unknown exactly how many such scrolls were housed at any given time, their combined value was incalculable even in ancient times. By some accounts over 400,000 scrolls were houses in this library, making it one of the largest libraries in the ancient word.

The library and all of its unique knowledge and history has been lost forever. There are several theories as to how it was destroyed by fire. The most widely accepted version is that Julius Caesar burnt some of his own ships during his invasion of Egypt in 48 BC. This tactical move proved disastrous. The fires spread to the docks and then to surrounding buildings that included the famous library.

So why is this loss so very important? The simple explanation is that most of the collective knowledge of the ancient Greek Egyptian world was lost in one blow. For instance, we have no accurate information as to exactly where Alexander The Great was interred, no full Greek translations of Egyptian histories, and very few of the first hand accounts left by the library’s founder Ptolemy I. In short, most of what we now want to know about the ancient Greek-Egyptian world was lost for all time. Fortunately, there were “sister libraries” in other nearby buildings that survived the fire but their contents were minimal by comparison.

If a modern library, say in Los Angeles, went up in flames tomorrow it would be a huge tragedy. However, almost all of its texts could be found in other libraries throughout the world. The effect would be minute when compared to the loss of the Library at Alexandria. There just weren’t many large libraries in the ancient world. To put it current perspective, a more comparable loss would be the complete destruction and loss of today’s internet.

That’s my take…. what’s yours? What would you say is mankind’s biggest loss?

By the way, the above photo is of the well-known relief of a Rhodian trireme (warship) cut into the rock at the foot of the steps leading to the acropolis in Lindos, Greece. On the bow stood a statue of General Hagesander. The relief is the work of the sculptor Pythokritos and dates from about 180 BC. (Photo by Allen E. Rizzi, 2007)

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