Alexandria Library Trial Run: While the world has been distracted with urgent current matters, a quieter, more positive event took place in Alexandria, Egypt, on October 1. The new Great Library of Alexandria, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, finally reopened, if only for a trial run, after 11 years of planning and construction and 1500 years or so of cross-accusations about who burned down the original.
It all starts with Alexander the Great, who died in 323 BC after accumulating more territory than anyone before him. Like Napoleon more than 2000 years later, Alex traveled with an entourage of scholars and historians whose job was to learn and record the history, science and technology of all this new Macedonian turf. Part of their effort was to retrieve books -- actually scrolls -- and arrange for them to be copied and distributed as needed. The army set up repositories along its route and also carried with it a traveling library.
It was in this tradition that, around 300 BC, Ptolemy I Soter authorized the founding and construction of the Alexandria library by Demetrios of Phaleron, a philosopher of the Athenian Peripatic school (and former Athenian politician/con-man). This was the first of the Ptolemys, and he had taken Egypt as his province when Alexander's generals divided Alexander's realm after his death and the deaths of his immediate heirs. The "peripatics" (or "peripatetics") were simply Aristotelian philosophers who thought it was better to teach while pacing up and down on the shady porches of the Athenian Academy with their students rather than while the whole bunch was seated -- movement at least kept the students awake to hear their masters' lectures on steamy Athenian mornings.
Demetrios's project was a great success, and, by the time the Romans started to frequent Alexandria, the library, with its associated temples and "museums" -- places dedicated to the arts patronized by the classical muses -- had been built up by successive Ptolemys and Cleopatras (the family used those names repeatedly) into a world-famous institution, more like a modern university than a library. The Romans were awed by the library and further aggrandized it with public and private contributions of scrolls, works of art, and antiquities. The largest recorded donation was of 200,000 scrolls, which Marc Antony was said to have given to Cleopatra to replace scrolls destroyed by a fire during the conquest of Alexandria by Julius Caesar. (But that whole story may merely have been press-agentry, designed to convince Rome's literate public that Anthony and Cleo were really just studying during all those late-night meetings.)
At its height, the library was said to contain copies of "all the books in the world". They certainly had more than any other library of that epoch. Modern experts think perhaps as many as 700,000 scrolls, the works of all preceding classical Mediterranean authors of any note, were shelved in Alexandria. All contemporary sources (and "contemporary", in this case, meant for at least 500 years) agreed that there was nothing like it in the known world. Partial catalogs and references from other sources indicate that the ancient library had an unsurpassed collection of important original manuscripts and, in many cases, unique volumes by the classical Greats. But that may have been a case of putting all the eggs in one basket -- or at least too many valuable scrolls on a single set of shelves. Eventually, almost everything was lost.
Nobody knows who really destroyed the library. After centuries of blaming "the Roman Empire" -- from Julius Caesar to Aurelian -- scholars over the last hundred years have let the ancient Romans off the hook. In the same hundred years, "politically correct" western academics have taken to blaming the Catholic Church -- always an appetizing target, and especially so after the last 25 years of fading hopes for a liberal papacy. One popularizer of this theory, in recent years, has been mathematician Michael Deakin in his writings about Hypatia, the world's first known top-level female mathematician and the daughter of that last recorded Alexandria librarian, who had the library burned out from under him. This theory, that the Christian mob that killed Hypatia also ended the library's existence, serves three current "politically correct" criteria: it blames "the West" for destroying ancient knowledge; it depicts a brilliant woman being brutally murdered because she was too smart in a male dominated society; and it allows academia (even Catholic academia) to bash its traditional Vatican enemy. Some of Deakin's evidence is at http://www.polyamory.org/~howard/Hypatia/primary-sources.html. (Gibbon, in his "Decline and Fall" lays it on a different Alexandria Bishop, a Byzantine.)
There is also, of course, an liberal/academic Muslim "politically correct" counterpart story that blames the "final destruction" on the first Muslim governor of Alexandria, Amr Ibn al-As, appointed by Caliph Omar, Mohammed's successor, in the first half of the 7th century. This and several other destruction theories are outlined and questioned at http://pages.about.com/excelsior/page05.html. All that can really be said is that there were a series of disasters over several hundred years, starting with the domination of the Romans and ending before the end of the 7th century AD. Despite partial recoveries the library eventually was no more and was even forgotten by the locals. Memories of Alexandria's greatness were preserved in other places, however, and eventually were rekindled in Alexandria in the second half of the 20th century. Egyptian scholars finally convinced their government to rebuild in the 1990s.
The "test run" for the new Alexandria library is expected to last though mid-November, 2001. The technical systems are what are being evaluated. Other aspects of the library's "soft start" should follow and the library should open officially on April 23, 2002, which is "International Book Day". There are still problems to be overcome -- a still small and unconvincingly prioritized collection and no official "Librarian" yet named -- but there is little doubt that, with the local and international support and sponsorships already arrayed on its behalf, the library will eventually be a success.
For info on the (re)opening of the Alexandria library, go to:
Two Government of Egypt official web sites are at:
The UNESCO sponsorship site is at:
PS: The biggest library in the world
today is the Library of Congress in Washington DC. It acquired its 100
millionth item in 1993 and has perhaps twice as many now. Nobody really
knows how to count the new stuff: is a set of CD-Roms containing several
thousand books one item of several thousand? Are Internet accessible "manuscripts"
really "in the library" like the 40 million or so hard-copy manuscripts,
or are they really somewhere else? These questions are so perplexing that
the Library of Congress hasn't issued a new public accounting of its holdings
for years. The most recent report on the Internet, from 1993, is at http://www.loc.gov/acq/devpol/colloverviews/generalstmt.html.
Meanwhile, full texts of hundreds of thousands of books (mostly those out
of copyright) have shown up free on the Internet and can be accessed from
any computer, and some new books can only be purchased by downloading them
from the net -- they'll never see a printing press. So are hard-copy libraries
becoming obsolete? A sampling of the free Internet stuff is at http://www.mmdtkw.org/literature.html
and at http://www.mmdtkw.org/litAncient.html.