The new library, Alexandria, Egypt.

Alexandria’s Ancient Arcana

the library then

In its time, Alexandria’s library was the largest and most prestigious in the ancient world, a collaborative hivemind for brilliant individuals, and an invaluable resource for leaders seeking insights on how to rule or negotiate with neighboring nations. It was also a symbol of Egypt’s wealth and influence, because having a repository of knowledge through an extensive collection of manuscripts—possibly more than a half million scrolls—represented a luxury that beckoned to poets, scholars, philosophers and academics.

Drawing of the view into the ancient library and scholars
Sketch of scholars in the ancient library

what happened to the library?

Despite being an early resource of enlightenment, the library remains shrouded in contemporary myths and misunderstandings. The best known myth asserts that the library burned down after Julius Caesar’s forces set fire to the harbor in 48 B.C. The fire spread to coastal buildings, but there is no mention of an inland fire near the library. The burning library notion was popularized in the writings of Seneca the Younger, who mentioned burning scrolls, which were likely records kept near the harbor, not in the library.

While innovators visited Alexandria, they didn’t necessarily make groundbreaking discoveries there. Another popular myth involved Greek engineer and mathematician Archimedes. Some believed that he invented the Archimedes screw after watching the rise and fall of the nearby Nile River. This invention was likely already in use as a bilge pump, and possibly centuries earlier when bronze screws irrigated the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

There was also an assumption that Alexandria’s proximity to papyrus production, the material used to make scrolls, resulted in the building of the library. Egypt was the sole source of ancient world papyrus, but this early paper was exported to academics and libraries throughout the Mediterranean until durable and longer-lasting parchment made from sheep, calves and goats replaced it. The library’s construction had everything to do with Ptolemaic royalty and Egyptian prestige.

Ptolemaic royalty also instigated the gradual decline of the library, which coincided with Egypt’s declining power. Civil unrest brought about the expulsions of Alexandria scholars and intellectuals to distant Mediterranean shores. Loyal political allies replaced leading scholars as librarians.

the library today

Today a substantial modern library enhances Alexandria’s coastline, a cultural center and monument to the original one. Windowed ceilings, angular architecture and countless artistic embellishments surround nearly eight million books. Visitors throughout the world regularly wander between the planetarium, four art galleries, and conference center facilities, all adorned with thematic furnishings that inspire and challenge imaginations of all ages.

The new library today in Alexandria, Egypt.
The new library today in Alexandria, Egypt

You can visit the city of Alexandria on the 10-day Greece, Israel & Egypt: Footsteps of Faith in the Holy Lands voyage. 


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