The Great Library of Alexandria was considered one of the greatest and most important libraries in the ancient world. It was most likely established during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285–246 BC) leading the city of Alexandria to be acknowledged as the capital of knowledge and learning.
The Great Library of Alexandria
The Great Library of Alexandria was one of the most important ancient libraries in the world. The library itself was part of a much larger institution referred to as the Musaeum.
The Mouseion was dedicated to the Muses, the nine goddesses of the arts. Musaeum (“Institution of the Muses”) was the home of music or poetry, a philosophical school, and a library such as Plato’s Academy, also a storehouse of texts.
The proposal of creating a large institution such as a universal library is attributed to Demetrius of Phalerum, an exiled Athenian statesman living in Alexandria.
It is most likely that Ptolemy I Soter was the person who established the groundwork for the creation of the library.
However, the Great Library of Alexandria was most likely built during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus.
The earliest known reference detailing the foundation of the Great Library of Alexandria comes from the pseudepigraphic Letter of Aristeas, composed between 180 and 145 BC.
However, modern scholars agree that the Letter of Aristeas is very late, and it contains information that is now known to be inaccurate.
The library was constructed in the Brucheion (Royal Quarter) of the city of Alexandria.
Despite its importance, the exact layout of the library remains an enigma to modern scholars.
After construction, the library quickly acquired a plethora of ancient scrolls.
It is not known the exact number of scrolls housed in the library.
Scholars estimate that at its peak, the library stores as many as 400,000 ancient scrolls and documents.
Because of its vast collection of scrolls, the library became famous in the ancient world and is one of the main reasons why the city of Alexandria became regarded as the capital of knowledge and learning.
It is believed that the Great Library of Alexandria safeguarded works in mathematics, astronomy, physics, natural sciences, and other subjects.
Thanks to its vast collection of ancient documents, the library attracted the likes of many important, influential scholars including Zenodotus of Ephesus, Apollonius of Rhodes, Aristophanes of Byzantium, Eratosthenes of Cyrene, as well as Aristarchus of Samothrace among others.
Many people argue that the library was burned to the ground, but historical records show that the great Library of Alexandria went through a gradual decline that lasted several centuries.
The decline of the library most likely started following the purging of intellectuals from Alexandria in 145 BC during the reign of Ptolemy VIII Physcon.
The library, or better said parts of its cast collection were burned accidentally by Julius Caesar during the civil war in 48 BC.
It remains unclear as to how much of the library was burned, but it was most likely quickly restored thereafter.
Eventually, during Roman rule, the library declined mostly due to a lack of funding and interest.
The exact destruction of the library remains a debated subject. It is generally believed that a great deal of destruction was caused when in 272 AD, the emperor Aurelian fought to recapture the city of Alexandria from the forces of the Palmyrene Queen Zenobia.
During the battle, it is believed that the forces of emperor Aurelian destroyed the part of the city in which the main library was located.
It is believed that if the library did somehow survive the attack, whatever was left was destroyed when the emperor Diocletian laid siege on Alexandria in 297.
Despite the library’s importance, the Great Library of Alexandria was not the first and only of its kind.
In fact, a number of similarly-structured libraries are known to have existed in Greece and in the ancient Near East.
The most famous great library from ancient times, in the Near East, was The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, in the ancient city of Nineveh.
The earliest historical record of written materials can be traced to the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk, around 3400 BC, a period when writing had just begun to develop.
The curation and storage of literary texts are thought to have begun around 2500 BC.
The Great Library of Alexandria was ‘revived’ in modern times with the creation of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
The modern version of the library was finished in 2002, and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina now functions as a modern library and cultural center, but most importantly, it commemorates the original Library of Alexandria.