Library of Alexandria
Library of Alexandria

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Library of Alexandria

4 Reimagining the library

The very few facts that we have about the library’s life and death only get us so far, as you have seen. But I like to think that our approach to antiquity is about much more than cold, hard facts. The way in which we deal with our uncertainties about the past is interesting in its own right, and should be studied with an open, enquiring mind. Even when common sense tells us one thing – that the library may have been gigantic, but not universal, and that it may have been abandoned and neglected rather than wantonly destroyed – our ideological, not to say emotional, approach to the past may lead us in another direction. The final section of this free course therefore asks you to spend a little time thinking about why these ideological and emotional interpretations of past events are valuable – both for their own sake, and because they so clearly inform many people’s assumptions about what did actually happen.

This sort of approach to antiquity falls under the broad umbrella of ‘classical reception studies’. In simple terms, a reception of antiquity is any act of engagement with the ancient past: this could be a Hollywood film of a historical event, a piece of art that imitates a classical model, or a piece of scholarship that seeks to explain an ancient text – the possibilities are endless. What is important is that we recognise how, through these encounters with the past, we are always looking at antiquity from the perspective of the present. The baggage that we carry with us in our present necessarily affects what we do with that past, whether we’re restaging an ancient play, or ‘simply’ interpreting an historical event. We ‘receive’ and interpret the ancient past according to our own agendas, as do the translators, editors and scholars you inevitably rely on for information about, and interpretations of, the classical world. Let’s think about how this might work in the context of the library of Alexandria.

Activity 5

As the previous section suggested, the various accounts of the library’s destruction might not stand up to much historical scrutiny, and there most likely was no single cataclysmic destruction of a universal library in Alexandria. But these stories have been repeated often enough over the centuries in order for them to take on a life of their own. Look back at those different versions of the library’s destruction – at the hands of Romans, Christians or Muslims – and note down your thoughts on how these different versions might have been ideologically motivated, and why they might remain powerful even when they’ve been discredited. What is the consequence of assigning responsibility for the ‘destruction’ to one group of people or another?


The first thing that you might have noted is that the accounts of Caesar’s fire in 48/47 BCE (the extracts from Plutarch, Dio Cassius and Ammianus Marcellinus) don’t specifically blame Caesar for the library’s apparent destruction, but rather suggest that it was an unintended consequence of the fire that was directed at Ptolemy’s fleet. The brief description of what happened to the library is relatively neutral, ideologically speaking (though of course it is easy to imagine that other, perhaps lost, accounts of Caesar’s fire might have presented him in a more negative light – ancient attitudes towards Caesar were hardly uniformly neutral, after all). The accounts of the Christian and Arab destructions (provided by Gibbon and Hebraeus, respectively) are much more loaded, in that they make the destruction an intentional act; in both cases, broadly speaking, the library is destroyed because it is a symbol of a pagan worldview, one that is unacceptable to the new ruling powers, whether Christian or Muslim. This interpretation might be familiar if you have seen Agora, a 2009 film (directed by Alejandro Amenábar) which told the story of the female scholar Hypatia, who worked in Alexandria at the time of the sack of the Serapeum. This event becomes the centrepiece of the film, and though it is acknowledged that it is the daughter library in the Serapeum, rather than the original main library, that was destroyed, still its destruction is presented as a violent desecration of a large (if not universal) body of knowledge, perpetrated by the brutally misogynistic and bigoted Christian rulers of Alexandria who cannot abide the open-minded, enquiring spirit of the pagans as symbolised by Hypatia. Consequently, the film attracted a good deal of controversy for its supposed anti-Christian agenda, and, although the film-makers vehemently denied this, it’s not hard to see why it met with such an intense reaction. The image of books being destroyed remains a powerful symbol of brutality and totalitarianism in the modern world, perhaps best exemplified by the public burning of ‘un-German’ books under the Nazi regime in 1933.

This is not to say that we can label these sources as themselves anti-Christian or anti-Muslim propaganda – but once these stories of wanton destruction by specific groups gain currency, they are free to be repeated, embellished, or rejected, in order to suit any number of different purposes.

Different accounts of the Library’s destruction can bear considerable political significance right up to the present day, as the recent foundation of a new Alexandrian library – the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, in 2002 – demonstrates. As Susan Stephens (2010) has explained in a recent article, the new Library is profoundly shaped by contemporary ideas about the old one, and its fate, and responds particularly to the widespread popular belief in a Muslim destruction of the library. Instead of a narrative in which Muslims are destroyers of the world’s knowledge, the revived library seeks to ‘recuperate’ their image in the eyes of the west, and to position modern Egypt as the heir to ancient Alexandrians’ crowning achievement, in the universal library. Stephens also points out how, just as with the Ptolemies, the symbolism of a great Library was harnessed by Hosni Mubarak and the ruling elite of Egypt in order to boost their national identity and their prestige in the eyes of others. This must give us cause to reflect on how modern political contexts can overtake scholarship, for only shortly after Stephens’s article was published, Mubarak’s regime was overthrown by the Egyptian revolution in the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011. The new Library survives, but news reports at the time told of how the building had to be protected from the ‘lawless bands of thugs’ who were looting many properties, and who might have targeted the Bibliotheca Alexandrina as a symbol of Mubarak’s regime (see, for example, this report in The Guardian [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] newspaper). The actual facts of what happened are not so important – the Library itself was not directly targeted, and certainly not looted – but what is clear is the speed with which, once again, it becomes a symbol of something much greater than just a collection of books.

Described image
Figure 3 Interior of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, University of Alexandria, Egypt. Photo: Getty.

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