The Library of Alexandria

On the Friday of the new moon of the month of Moharram, in the twentieth year of the Hegira (this equates to December 22, 640), General Amr Ibn al-As, the Amir of the Agareans, conquered Alexandria, Egypt, placing the city under the rule of Caliph Umar. It was one of the beginnings of the end of the famous Library of Alexandria, built by Ptolemy Philadelphus in the early 3rd century BC. to “gather together the books of all the peoples of the Earth” and destroyed over a thousand years later.

The idea of ​​rebuilding the most formidable library of all time emerged in the late 1970s at the University of Alexandria. In 1988, the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, laid the foundation stone, but it was not until 1995 that the works really began. The sumptuous 11-story building, which cost US$212 million, much of which was paid for by UNESCO, was completed last year. The main library’s reading room alone has 38,000 m2, the largest in the world. The collection, which has not yet been fully assembled, should have 5 million books. It will be interesting to see how the Egyptian government, which is not exactly enthusiastic about freedom of information and expression, manages things. Will there be, for example, a copy of the “Satanic Verses” (Salman Rushdie’s work, considered offensive to Islam)? What about books that criticize the Egyptian government itself? Will all citizens have access to all works? But it is not so much the new library that interests me, but the old one, more specifically its destruction.

In fact, it would be more correct to speak of destruction. As in the myths, the demise of the Library of Alexandria has a number of political components. The anecdote with which I started this column is one of the versions. It’s against the Arabs. There are others, against Christians, against pagans. No people want to be left with the burden of having led to the disappearance of the library that brought together “the books of all peoples”. It is curious, in this regard, that the official website of the library ( only registers the anti-Christian and anti-pagan versions. The anti-Arabs are dismissed without even being mentioned. I mainly use here information presented by the Italian Luciano Canfora, in his excellent “A Biblioteca Desaparecida”.

Let’s go back to old Alexandria. Amr Ibn al-As was not an uncultured beast, as might be expected of a military man. Four years before the capture of Alexandria in 636, while occupying Syria, Amr had summoned the patriarch and posed quite subtle questions to him about the Scriptures and the supposed divine nature of Christ. He even asked that the Hebrew original be checked for the accuracy of the “Septuagint,” the Greek translation of the Old Testament, in relation to a passage from “Genesis” that had come up in the discussion.

As soon as he arrived in Alexandria, Amr began to frequent John Philopo, a by then advanced commentator on Aristotle, a Christian, of the brotherhood of the “Philopoes”. He was also a near-heretic, who defended Monophysite theses, but that is another story.

In the course of one of the long and erudite discussions they had, Philopão spoke to Amr of the Library, told how it came about, which came to gather almost 1 million manuscripts and asked for the release of the remaining books, which, like everything else in the city, were under the power of the general’s troops. The soldier stated that he could not dispose of the codices without first consulting the Caliph and offered to write to the sovereign.

Some time later (I am reporting the short version of the story), Omar’s emissary arrived with the answer, which could not have been clearer: “As for the books you mentioned, here is the answer; if their contents agree with the book of Allah, we can dispense with them, since in that case the book of Allah is more than sufficient. If, on the contrary, they contain something that is not in accordance with the book of Allah, there is no need to keep them. Go on and destroy them.”

That’s what Amr did. It is said that he distributed the books among all the public baths of Alexandria, which numbered 4,000, to be used as fuel. According to reports, it took six months to burn all that material. Only the works of Aristotle would have been spared.

The story is beautiful, but like all stories, it only tells part of the story. In more objective terms, the Library is most likely to have succumbed to several fires, and many of them have been pointed out by renowned scholars as the ones that caused the Library’s destruction. The one initiated by Amr at the request of Caliph Umar would have been the last of the last and also the most credible, to trust Canfora.

Another frequently mentioned fire is the one that would have been started by Julius Caesar in 48 BC, when the Roman general decided to help Cleopatra, who was then fighting a kind of civil war with her brother Ptolemy 13, and set fire to the Egyptian fleet. The fire would have consumed between 40,000 and 400,000 books. Another version says that what was left of the Library was destroyed in 391 AD. After Emperor Theodosius issued a decree banning pagan religions, the bishop of Alexandria Theophilus (AD 385-412) ordered the elimination of sections that had been spared by previous fires, as he considered them an incentive to paganism.

In fact, all these versions deserve some consideration and are not necessarily incompatible, as the Library, over more than ten centuries of existence, has been spread across several buildings and warehouses in the city. A fire in one would have spared the others, and vice versa. (The fire caused by Caesar, for example, took place in the port. According to Canfora, it could only have destroyed books that had just arrived or were ready to be shipped, as the main buildings of the Library, the Museum and the Serapeum, were far from the port.) .

By Rainer Gonçalves Sousa


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