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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Behold 3,000 Dig­i­tized Man­u­scripts from the Bib­lio­the­ca Palati­na: The Moth­er of All Medieval Libraries Is Get­ting Recon­struct­ed Online

How Ara­bic Trans­la­tors Helped Pre­serve Greek Phi­los­o­phy … and the Clas­si­cal Tra­di­tion

Carl Sagan Explains How the Ancient Greeks, Using Rea­son and Math, Fig­ured Out the Earth Isn’t Flat, Over 2,000 Years Ago

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

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