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.