The Rise and Fall of the Great Library of Alexandria: An Animated Introduction

The demise of the Library of Alexandria has for centuries been cast as one of history’s greatest tragedies, an incalculable and senseless loss of ancient knowledge in an act of war. “Once the largest library in the ancient world,” writes Brian Haughton at Ancient History Encyclopedia, “containing works by the greatest thinkers and writers of antiquity, including Homer, Plato, Socrates and many more, the Library of Alexandria, northern Egypt, is popularly believed to have been destroyed in a huge fire around 2000 years ago and its voluminous works lost.”

Ancient accounts, including those of Julius Caesar himself, that detail the multiple burnings of Alexandria seem to support this story. But in truth, the Library's disappearance has been a historical mystery, “perpetuated by the fact that no architectural remains or archaeological finds that can definitely be attributed to the ancient Library have ever been recovered.” The TED-Ed lesson above tells the story of the Library’s rise and fall, which is, as history tends to be, “much more complex.”




Built 2300 years ago by Alexander the Great’s successor, Ptolemy I, the Library was intended to rival any scholarly institution in Athens, and by all accounts, it did. Alexandria’s rulers attempted to collect a copy of every manuscript in the world. Any ship that docked in the city had to “turn over its books for copying.” Book hunters were sent all over the Mediterranean. The Library was in fact, notes Haughton, “two or more libraries,” one of them named the “Temple of the Muses,” or “the Musaeum,” (Greek, Mouseion), from which the modern word “museum” derives.

As a cultural center, it was unusually democratic. “Unlike the many private libraries that existed in the palaces of the wealthy in the ancient world,” writes Annalee Newitz at io9, “the library at Alexandria was open to anyone who could prove themselves a worthy scholar.” Among them were Callimachus of Cyrene, who created the first library catalog to help navigate the vast collection, and Eratosthenes, one of the Library’s directors, who calculated the Earth’s circumference and diameter (and knew that it was round) within only a few miles of their actual size.

The Library thrived for around 300 years before it went into a very long period of decline. Though Julius Caesar’s siege of Alexandria in 45 BCE has been blamed for its destruction, and may have decimated part of its collection, we know that it survived and that scholars continued to visit it for several hundred more years. Its last recorded director was scholar and mathematician Theon, father of famed female philosopher Hypatia, who was murdered by a Christian mob in 415 CE. As the city became ruled by a succession of empires—Greek, Roman, Christian, and Muslim—the Library seemed increasingly to pose a threat to its rulers.

The TED-Ed video implicates the ravages of time and the fear of knowledge as historical culprits in the Library’s demise. Newitz points to a much more mundane cause, budget cuts. She quotes library historian Heather Phillips’ explanation of its downfall as “gradual, often bureaucratic, and by comparison to our cultural imaginings, somewhat petty.” The causes of its fall included abolishing stipends and expelling foreign scholars. While we have imagined the Library burning down or torn to pieces by religious fanatics, the truth may be that it slowly fell victim to other ancient ills: institutionalized greed, short-sightedness, bigotry, and ignorance.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking with His New Online Masterclass

FYI: If you sign up for a MasterClass course by clicking on the affiliate links in this post, Open Culture will receive a small fee that helps support our operation.

The historian Stephen Ambrose once said that “more Americans get their history from Ken Burns than from any other source.” That quote sounds plausible enough, and Burns' company Florentine Films certainly hasn't hesitated to put it to promotional use. For almost four decades now, Burns has indeed demonstrated not just his skill at crafting long-form documentaries about American history — most famously, 11 hours on the Civil War, 18 hours on baseball, and 19 hours on jazz — but his skill at placing his work, and that of his collaborators, centrally in the culture as well. What can we learn from his career in documentary filmmaking, with its seeming infinitude of both historical material and critical acclaim? Masterclass now offers one set of answers to that question with the online course "Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking."

Priced at $90, the course covers every step of the documentary-filmmaking process, from writing a script to finding source materials to interviewing subjects to designing sounds and recording voiceovers. Most of this has, in a technical sense, become vastly easier since Burns began his career in the late 1970s, and iMovie has made his signature pans across still photos effortlessly implementable with the "Ken Burns Effect" option. But it takes much more than pans across photographs to make the kind of impact Burns does with his documentaries, and the most valuable insight provided by a course like this one is the insight into how its teacher sees the world.

"People are realizing that there's as much drama in what is and what was as anything that the human imagination dreams of," says Burns in the course's trailer, "and you have the added advantage of it being true." But at the same time, Burns also believes that "there's no objective truth. This is human experience. We see things from different perspectives. And that's okay." This brings to mind a line from Burns' Jazz, originally spoken by Wynton Marsalis but quoted by Burns in a New Yorker profile last year: "Sometimes a thing and the opposite of a thing are true at the same time." A tolerance for contradiction, in Burns' book, makes you a better documentarian, but it may also make you a sharper observer of the world around you. Now, in what Burns calls "one of the most challenging moments in the history of the United States," the world needs the sharpest observers it can get.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear Singers from the Metropolitan Opera Record Their Voices on Traditional Wax Cylinders

Vinyl is back in a big way.

Music lovers who booted their record collections during the compact disc’s approximately 15 year reign are scrambling to replace their old favorites, even in the age of streaming. They can’t get enough of that warm analog sound.

Can a wax cylinder revival be far behind?

A recent wax cylinder experiment by Metropolitan Opera soprano Susanna Phillips and tenor Piotr Beczala, above, suggests no. This early 20th-century technology is no more due for a comeback than the zoetrope or the steam powered vibrator.




Beczala initiated the project, curious to know how his voice would sound when captured by a Thomas Edison-era device. If it yielded a faithful reproduction, we can assume that the voice modern listeners accept as that of a great such as Enrico Caruso, whose output predated the advent of the electrical recording process, is fairly identical to the one experienced by his live audiences.

Working together with the New York Public Library’s Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound and the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, the Met was able to set up a session to find out.

The result is not without a certain ghostly appeal, but the facsimile is far from reasonable.

As Beczala told The New York Times, the technological limitations undermined his intonation, diction, or performance of the quieter passages of his selection from Verdi's Luisa Miller. In a field where craft and technique are under constant scrutiny, the existence of such a recording could be a liability, were it not intended as a curiosity from the get go.

Phillips, ear turned to the horn for playback, insisted that she wouldn't have recognized this recording of "Per Pieta" from Mozart's Così fan tutte as her own.

Learn more about wax cylinder recording technology and preservation here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

See Ancient Greek Music Accurately Reconstructed for the First Time

Imagine trying to reconstruct the music of the Beatles 2,500 years from now, if nothing survived but a few fragments of the lyrics. Or the operas of Mozart and Verdi if all we had were pieces of the librettos. In a 2013 BBC article, musician and classics professor at Oxford Armand D’Angour used these comparisons to illustrate the difficulty of reconstructing ancient Greek song, a task to which he has set himself for the past five years.

The comparison is not entirely apt. Scholars have long had clues to help them interpret the ancient songs that served as vehicles for Homeric and Sapphic verse or the later drama of Aeschylus, almost all of which was sung with musical accompaniment. In a recent article at The Conversation, D’Angour points out that many literary texts of antiquity “provide abundant and highly specific details about the notes, scales, effects, and instruments used,” the latter including the lyre and the aulos, “two double-reed pipes played simultaneously by a single performer.”




But these musical instructions have proved elusive; “the terms and notations found in ancient sources—mode, enharmonic, diesis, and so on—are complicated and unfamiliar,” D’Angour writes. Nonetheless, using recreations of ancient instruments, close analysis of poetic meter, and careful interpretation of ancient texts that discuss melody and harmony, he claims to have accurately deciphered the sound of ancient Greek music.

D’Angour has worked to turn the “new revelations about ancient Greek music” that he wrote of five years ago into performances that reconstruct the sound of Euripides and other ancient literary artists. In the video at the top, see a choral and aulos performance of Athanaeus’ “Paean” from 127 BC and Euripides Orestes chorus from 408 BC. D’Angour and his colleagues break in periodically to talk about their methodology.

In the 2017 interview above from the Greek television channel ERT1, D’Angour discusses his research into the music of ancient Greek verse, from epic, to lyric, to tragedy, to comedy, “all of which,” he says, “was sung music, either entirely or partly.” Central to the insights scholars have gained in the past five years are “some very well preserved auloi,” he notes, that “have been reconstructed by expert technicians” and which “provide a faithful guide to the pitch range of ancient music, as well as to the instruments’ own pitches, timbres, and tunings.”

Determining tempo can be tricky, as it can with any music composed before “the invention of mechanical chronometers,” when “tempo was in any case not fixed, and was bound to vary between performances.” Here, he relies on poetic meter, which gives indications through the patterns of long and short syllables. “It remains for me to realize,” D’Angour writes, “in the next few years, the other few dozen ancient scores that exist, many extremely fragmentary, and to stage a complete drama with historically informed music in an ancient theater such as that of Epidaurus.” We’ll be sure to bring you video of that extraordinary event.

via The Conversation

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Native Lands: An Interactive Map Reveals the Indigenous Lands on Which Modern Nations Were Built

“Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in the all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’”

                     —Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

In his post-WWII historical survey, The Story of Maps, Lloyd A. Brown observes that “the very material used in the making of maps, charts and globes contributed to their destruction.” Paper burns, rots, succumbs to water-damage and insects. Maps and globes made from solid silver, brass, copper, and other metals made too-tempting targets for looters and thieves. In this way, maps serve doubly as symbolic indices of what they represent—lands that, in the very act of mapping them, were often despoiled, overrun, and stolen from their inhabitants.

Moreover, in mapping history, it often happened that “if a map were old and obsolete and parchment was scarce, the old ink and rubrication could be scraped off and the skin used over again. This practice, accounting for the loss of many codices as well as valuable maps and charts, at one time became so pernicious” that the Catholic Church issued decrees to forbid it. What better allegory for conquest, the wiping away of civilizations in order to write new names and borders over them?




The old imperial tropes of “blank spaces” on the map and “dark places of the earth” (like “darkest Africa”), used with such effectiveness in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, hide the plain truth, in the words of Conrad’s Marlow:

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to....

Blank spaces represent those areas that had not yet been forcibly brought into the European economy of property, the sine qua non of Enlightenment humanity. “Once discovered by Europeans,” writes historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot—once classified, mapped, and made subject, “the Other finally enters the human world.” For several decades now, postcolonial projects have engaged in the progressive disenchantment of “the idea,” in the recognition of messy relationships between naming, mapping, and power, and the recovery, to the extent possible, of the names, borders, and identities beneath palimpsest histories.

Such projects proliferate outside academia as technology amplifies previously unheard dissenting voices and perspectives and as, to use an old postcolonial phrase, “the empire writes back”—or, in this case, “maps back.” Such is the intent of the online project Native Land, an interactive website that “does the opposite” of centuries of colonial mapping, writes Atlas Obscura, “by stripping out country and state borders in order to highlight the complex patchwork of historic and present-day Indigenous territories, treaties, and languages that stretch across the United States, Canada," the Canadian Arctic, Greenland, and Australia.

Also a mobile app for Apple and Android, the map allows visitors to enter street addresses or ZIP codes in the search bar, “to discover whose traditional territory their home was built on.”

White House officials will discover that 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is found on the overlapping traditional territories of the Pamunkey and Piscataway tribes. Tourists will learn that the Statue of Liberty was erected on Lenape land, and aspiring lawyers that Harvard was erected in a place first inhabited by the Wamponoag and Massachusett peoples.

The map was created by Canadian activist and programmer Victor Temprano, founder of the company Mapster, which funds the project. Temprano prefaces the Native Land “About” page with a disclaimer: “This is not an academic or professional survey,” he writes, and is “constantly being refined from user input.” He defines his purpose as “helping people get interested and engaged” by asking questions like “who has the right to define where a particular territory ends, and another begins?”

As neo-colonial projects like oil pipelines once again threaten the survival of Indigenous communities, and indigenous people find themselves and their children caged in prisons for crossing militarized national borders, such questions could not be more relevant. Temprano does not make any claims to definitive historical accuracy and points to other, similar projects that supplement the “blank spaces” in his own online map, such as huge areas of South America being re-mapped on the ground by Amazonian tribes entering field data into smart phones, and Aaron Capella’s Tribal Nations Maps, which offers attractive printed products, perfect for use in classrooms.

Temprano quotes Capella in order to illuminate his work: “This map is in honor of all the Indigenous Nations [of colonial states]. It seeks to encourage people—Native and non-Native—to remember that these were once a vast land of autonomous Native peoples, who called the land by many different names according to their languages and geography. The hope is that it instills pride in the descendants of these People, brings an awareness of Indigenous history and remembers the Nations that fought and continue to fight valiantly to preserve their way of life.”

Visit Native Land here and enter an address in North or South America or Australia to learn about previous or concurrent Native inhabitants, their languages, and the historical treaties signed and broken over the centuries. Clicking on the territory of each Indigenous nation brings up links to other informative sites and allows users to submit corrections to help guide this inclusive project toward greater accuracy.

The site also features a Teacher's Guide, Blog by Temprano, and a page on the importance of Territory Acknowledgement, a way for us to "insert an awareness of indigenous presence and land rights in everyday life," and one of many "transformative acts," as Chelsea Vowel, a Métis woman from the Plains Cree writes, "that to some extent undo Indigenous erasure."

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The “Weird Objects” in the New York Public Library’s Collections: Virginia Woolf’s Cane, Charles Dickens’ Letter Opener, Walt Whitman’s Hair & More

On March 28, 1941, Virginia Woolf took her final walk, into the River Ouse near her home in Sussex. She did it with her trusty cane in hand, the very cane you can see laid out alongside other Woolf-related artifacts in the New Yorker video above. Its five minutes provide a short introduction to the "weird objects" of the New York Public Library's Berg Collection, an archive containing, in the words of the New Yorker's Gareth Smit, "roughly two thousand linear feet of manuscripts and archival materials" donated in 1940 by the brothers Henry W. and Albert A. Berg, doctors who were also "avid collectors of English and American literature — and of literary paraphernalia."

The NYPL labels as "realia" such non-paper items as  Woolf's cane as well as "Charlotte Brontë’s writing desk, with a lock of her hair inside; trinkets belonging to Jack Kerouac, including his harmonicas, and a card upon which he wrote 'blood' in his own blood; typewriters belonging to S. J. Perelman and Paul Metcalf; Mark Twain’s pen and wire-rimmed glasses; Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly drawings; and the death masks of the poets James Merrill and E. E. Cummings." We've previously featured Nabokov-drawn butterflies here on Open Culture, as well the letter opener seen in the video that Charles Dickens had made from the foot of his beloved cat Bob.

All this may sound on the grim side, but these objects bring their beholders that much closer to the long-passed literary figures who once possessed them. "If you are looking at, say, Jack Kerouac's lighter or his boots, you're seeing the man, in a sense," the NYPL's director of exhibitions Declan Kiely says in the video. "What you're trying to get closest to is the creative spirit at work, and I think that's why these objects are so evocative." Though visitors to the Berg Collection can only do so by appointment, the library, as Kiely told Smit, "does intend to have an exhibition to present these and other treasures in the Gottesman Hall by 2020." Something to look forward to for anyone who yearns to approach the creative spirit — and who among us doesn't?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Modern Drummer Plays a Rock Gong, a Percussion Instrument from Prehistoric Times

Rock Gong. It sounds like a B-52s song. But a rock gong is not a New Wave surf-rock party groove. It’s not a neo-synthpop act, hip hop group, or indie band (not yet). It’s a prehistoric instrument—as far away in time as one can get from synthesizers and electric guitars. Rock gongs are ancient, maybe as old as humankind. But they’re still groovy, in their way. As they say, the groove is in the player, not the instrument.

Rock gongs, or “lithophones,” if you want to get technical, have been found all over the African continent, in South America, Australia, Azerbaijan, England, Hawaii, Iceland, India, and everywhere else prehistoric people lived. Not the cultural property of any one group, the rock gong came, rather, from a universal human insight into the natural sonic properties of stone. (One theory even speculates that Stonehenge might have been a massive collection of rock gongs.)




Though some scholars have suggested that the term “rock gong” should be reserved for stationary, rather than portable, rocks that were used as instruments, the British Museum seems untroubled by the distinction. In the video above, archaeologist Cornelia Kleinitz explains the principles of rock gongs found in Sudan to modern rock drummer Liam Williamson of the band Cats on the Beach.

You can hear one of those Nubian rock gongs in its natural habitat, before it was moved to the British Museum, in the clip just above. The rock, the narrator tells us, has been “worn smooth by the action of people playing it more than 7,000 years ago. Long before the Romans, long before the Pharaohs.” Early humans would have searched long and hard for rocks that resonated at particular frequencies, for ringing rocks that could be combined into scales for early xylophones or produce a variety of tones like a steel drum.

Despite their antiquity, the study of rock gongs is a rather recent phenomenon, part of the emerging field of archaeoacoustics. “Methodologically,” write the authors of a 2016 paper on the subject, “this field of research is still  in its infancy,” and there is much researchers do not know about the uses and varieties of rock gongs around the world. As Kleinitz explains to Williamson in the video at the top, archaeologists are trying to understand the context in which the Nubian gongs at the British Museum would have been played, whether as instruments for rituals, signaling, fun, or all of the above.

As for the techniques involved in rock gong playing, we can only guess, but Williamson does his best to adapt his drum chops to the ancient stone kit. One critical difference between our modern human musical instruments and this ancient kind, Kleinitz notes, is that the latter were integrated into the landscape; their distinctive sound depended not only on the rock itself, but on its interaction with the wild and unpredictable environment around it.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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