Ancient Library of Alexandria

The most celebrated library of the ancient world was established in Alexandria, Egypt, in the first half of the third century BC, during the reigns of Ptolemy I Soter and Ptolemy II Philadelphus, king of Egypt 322-246 BC. The library was part o a museum, which included a garden, a common dining room, a reading room, lecture theaters and meeting rooms, creating a model for the modern university campus. Attempt were made to gather together all the knowledge of the known world. Messengers were sent to buy items at the book fairs of Rhodes and Athens. International scholars came on funded visits. According to Galen, all ships visiting Alexandria were obliged to surrender their books for immediate copying – the owners received a copy, but the pharaohs kept the originals in their museum. The Alexandria library collection included the best available texts of Greek authors and also of non-Greek works, such as the Hebrew Old Testament. In this way, the museum asserted the power of the Ptolemaic kings over both the Greek and non-Hellenic worlds.

At its height, the library of Alexandria was said to posses nearly half a million scrolls- In the mid-third century BC, the poet Callimachus was employed there, and created the first ever alphabetically arranged library catalogue. Ptolemy II Philadelphus even set up an offshoot library, the Serapeum, which was more of a public library, whereas the main library was designed for scholars.

Collecting Greek books in imitation of Alexandria became a sign of cultural status, and the library at Pergamum was established in the second half of third century BC. in direct competition with Alexandria. Greek scholarship enjoyed enormous prestige. The study of Homer, for example, was considered essential for an educated man. Many papyrus fragments of Homer were found in Egypt. Euripides (480-406 BC.) and Demosthenes (384-322 BC.) were also part of the curriculum in Hellenized Mediterranean cities such as Oxyrhynchus, Ephesus, Pergamum, and Corinth.

According to a spurious legend, the library of Alexandria burned down in 48 BCE. when Julius Caesar set fire to the Egyptian navy, and the flames accidentally spread to the onshore port installations. Althought Caesar’s fire may have destroyed a book depot, the library was not situated near the port. In fact, Greek scholars reported working in the library twenty years later. It was probably destroyed when Alexandria was captured by the Roman emperor Aurelianus in 273 AD. In 2002 the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a major library and museum complex supported by Alexandria University, UNESCO and the Egyptian government, was established close to the site of the ancient library, with the aim of re-establishing Alexandria as one of the great intellectual and cultural centers of the twenty-first century.

In the new Biobliotheca Alexandrina, the main reading room is located beneath a 32-metre (104 foot) glass-paneled roof which is tilted out towards the sea like a sundial and measures 160 meters (524 feet) in diameter. The walls are made of grey granite from Upper Egypt and engraved with characters from 120 different scripts.

Source: Martyn Lyons, Books- A Living History, 2011