The Library of Alexandria has been physically gone for about eighteen centuries now, but the institution endures as a powerful symbol. Today we have the internet, which none can deny is at least well on its way to becoming a digital store of all human knowledge. But despite having emerged from an ever more enormously complex technological infrastructure, the internet is difficult to capture in a legible mental picture. The Library of Alexandria, by contrast, actually stood in Egypt for some 300 years after its commissioning by Ptolemy I and II, and early in the second century B.C. it bid fair to hold practically all written knowledge in existence within its walls (and those of its “daughter library” the Serapeum, constructed when the main building ran out of space).
Interesting enough as a lost work of ancient architecture, the Library of Alexandria is remembered for its contents — not that history has been able to remember in much detail what those contents actually were. “Some ancient authors claimed that it contained 700,000 books,” says ancient-history scholar Garret Ryan in the video above.
“Books, in this context, meaning papyrus scrolls,” and their actual number was almost certainly smaller. By the time the Library itself — or at least part of it — was burned down by Julius Caesar in 48 B.C., it had been falling into disuse for quite some time. “It is sometimes said that the destruction of the Library of Alexandria set civilization back by centuries,” Ryan tells us. “This is a wild exaggeration.”
The Library of Alexandria might have been the most impressive intellectual repository in the ancient world, but it was hardly the only one. Most of the works in its collection, Ryan explains, would also have been held by other libraries, though they would also decline along with the general interest in classical culture. “Although there were certainly many works of mathematics and physics, the most important of these were widely disseminated elsewhere. What perished with the Library were, overwhelmingly, lesser-known works of literature and philosophy, commentaries and monographs: all the residue and introspection of an extremely sophisticated literary culture.” To scholars of ancient literature, of course, such a loss is incalculable. And in our own culture today, we’ll still do well to hold up the Library of Alexandria as an image of what it is to amass human knowledge — as well as what it is to let that knowledge decay.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.