The Library of Alexandria Is Long-Gone – And All Around Us
The Library of Alexandria was completely destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago leaving no physical trace behind – but its formative scholarship and cultural resonance endure.
In 48 B.C., Julius Caesar was engaged in a fierce battle for power against his arch rival Pompey.
By this time, the Romans largely controlled Egypt, though the descendants of Ptolemy still ruled nominally and were engaged in a succession battle of their own. Caesar decided to make a play for the city of Alexandria to solidify his rule and to one-up Pompey.
But in his haste to carry out his plan, he rushed to the city so hurriedly that he arrived before the bulk of his troops. He was greeted by the Egyptians, who first presented him with the head of Pompey, who had beaten Caesar to the city only to be assassinated.
Then, objecting to the military might displayed by Caesar, the Egyptians rose up against him, too. The Roman ruler laid siege to the city and decided there was only one way to break the stalemate and maintain military control of the harbor — he lit his docked fleet on fire.
The ensuing blaze quickly spread through the city as fires were wont to do in the days of wooden ships and nonexistent fire departments. The flames soon reached the beloved Library of Alexandria. It is believed that nearly 10 percent of the building went up in flames that day, although the specifics of what was burned and the extent of the damage are unknown.
It was the first time the library — a grand church of universal knowledge and scholarship the likes of which the world had never seen — was attacked. It wouldn't be the last.
The Library of Alexandria is so embedded in our cultural canon that it remains a broadly known and admired institution. Its shadow lingers over the world of scholarship, despite the fact that the library was completely destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago leaving no physical trace behind, including, scholars believe, not a single scroll.
It all started in the 4th century B.C. when Alexander the Great was plowing his way through what we now know of as the Middle East. After adding Egypt to the notches of conquest in his sword, he decided to build a great city there.
His intentions were two-fold. On the one hand, he wanted to create a magnificent tribute to his rule by celebrating all things Greek. But he also needed a port on the coast to help service his further military endeavors, and the area that would become Alexandria fit the bill.
Alexander the Great put his newest project in motion, and then continued on his marauding way. He would never see a single building built. He returned to the grand city that had been named in his honor only after his death, when he was carried there wrapped in gold to be laid to rest.
(Although his final resting place in Alexandria was a bit of a debacle. He was originally supposed to be buried in a city near modern-day Cairo, but the High Priest there rejected the honor, saying, according to E.M. Forster in his epic travelogue Alexandria, "Do not settle him here but at the city he has built at Rhakotis, for wherever this body must lie in the city will be uneasy, disturbed with wars and battles." His prophecy would prove true.)
After his death, Alexander's realm was divided between three of his generals, the foremost of whom took over the Egyptian sector including Alexandria. It was under this ruler, Ptolemy, that Alexandria began to become a hub of culture and knowledge.