Monday, June 21, 2010

The Library of Alexandria

I've been away both mentally and physically the last couple of days, but I am back. 

I was at the Library of Alexandria... No, I didn't go there. If I had a time machine and had a mastery of ancient Greek this would be a place that I would most certainly visit. I don't officially have a top ten list of places that I would visit. The creation of such a list though could grant me a day of diversion figuring all that out. I did wish to speak on that a bit.

When one looks at history long enough it becomes easier to see the threads which tie the events of the past together. The world is a big place. There are a great number of people in it. Changes in history can bubble up from that great mass of humanity. That very fact has made our modern times a much more humane place to live. Anything that has a 'mass' as a preceding word or prefix essentially has the implied consent or at the least a vigorous debate before taking control or moving in a general direction. I am speaking of mass media, democracy, vox pop, memes... etc.

However, back in Classical times such movements certainly did not start with the people. While today, individuals of intelligence, strength and skill still can push the world it was far easier back then. The striated social structure of the competing cultures essentially made it necessary to have connections. The unfortunate fact of that situation lead the world to remain in darkness and stagnation as those in power were quite content to remain in power. They could care less about the people they saw as theirs. The usual methodology of civic problem solving for those ancient rulers was provide just enough social services to keep your city from dying and keep the barbarians at bay. Yes, there were varying degrees in the different city-states and you were not required to live in a city. If you wanted to rough it and had the skills the world was your oyster. However, most people were satisfied with the status quo knowing nothing more. Heck, when reading a book is seen as a magical act you really don't know all that much of the world. Worse off if you were a slave and had no choice.

Then something magical did happen. I will not say that the idea of enlightened civilization started with the Greeks. There were lights such as Hammurabi who existed beforehand and made their mark, but the reverberations of the great experiment of Athenian democracy is still being felt today. The great philosophical movement which spawned Socrates and the general idea to question the basis of what was taken for granted culminated and coalesced to form the greatest center of learning the that the world had ever known. I am speaking of the Great Royal Library at Alexandria.

Such a grandiose plan had to start with one who had such a world shaking vision. That man was Alexander III of Macedon otherwise known as Alexander the Great. King Philip II of Macedon lived at a time when the first outward sparks of Hellenism were being felt by the Classical world. That power was there building in a thriving Greek/Macedonian kingdom with a flourishing cultural life. King Phillip wished for Alexander to be a philosopher-king in the vein of Solon who strove to save Athens from moral decline a few centuries earlier. Alexander would have tutor. That tutor who was chosen over the leaders of the Academy was Aristotle. Aristotle - a student of Plato who himself learned under Socrates. Aristotle who would later found his own center of learning called The Lyceum. King Phillip II gave them the Temple of the Nymphs to study in the boarding school-like town of Mieza where he did along with a few other notables including possibly two of the inheritors of his empire Cassander and Ptolemy Soter.

Well, as we all know Alexander was a rather successful king and conqueror. However, his desire for conquest was not contained to the political borders of the day. He wished for his mantle of both king and scholar. He wished to embody the Greek ideal of the perfection of mind and body. The glorious choice which he chose was not to simply perfect himself, but to leave and indelible lasting mark on the world. He would erect the foundation and building of the greatest center of learning the world would ever see for quite a long time. While the idea of collections of books was not unique; there were royal, religious and personal collections for some time. The academies certainly had their collections. Nowhere in the world though had there been anything set to the scope of what the Great Library would become.

After Alexander's conquest of Egypt and his subsequent implanting of himself as pharaoh he saw the perfect place to build a city. In that city he would bring to life his vision of a center of learning so massive it would house a half-million scrolls. The small pharaonic town of Rhakotis near the Island of Pharos (famous itself for the Great Lighthouse built a half-century later.) would be the site for this new city. It was founded in 331 and the library started construction probably a decade after the infrastructure of the city was established. That city would soon become one of most influential in the Classical world.

After Alexander's death (probably helped along by others) the ancient Kingdom of Egypt fell into the hands of Ptolemy Soter(I). It was his continuance of Alexander's dream which allowed the Great Library to reach its true potential. It is strongly suggested that Ptolemy Soter was one of the Companions who studied with Alexander in the Temple of the Nymphs under the tutelage of Aristotle. I have to agree as well because whatever drive Aristotle instilled in Alexander he also instilled in Ptolemy Soter. As grand as Alexander's dream for the library was Ptolemy Soter and his dynasty made it happen.

The Great Library itself was designed by Demetrius of Phaleron. Unfortunately, no records exist of what the Great Library looked like. The building itself no longer exists. Only a small portion of the Serapeum. Its design was based on the musaeums and gymnasiums of the day. Its scope, though, far surpassed anything conceived or built as an institution of learning. It contained a peripatos walkway, lecture halls, dining areas, gardens, meeting rooms, storehouses, official staff rooms, etc. The Great Library is said to be the basis for the layout of colleges and universities.

To call it a library is a bit of a misnomer, however the main task of the institution was the acquisition of books which were scroll-based at the time. The actual estimate of the amount is not known but the general consensus has it at about 700,000 scrolls. There are various methods of acquisition which were employed. Most were gathered through purchase and donation. Some people due state that people visiting Alexandria in possession of books not in the Library were 'encouraged' to let the library have it with compensation given. That may or may not be true.

Alexandria grew into a thriving. prosperous port with a strong economy. The rich Nile River valley was connected to the Mediterranean world essentially through Alexandria. Today it is still Egypt's second largest city and was the capital until the Muslim conquest a thousand years after its creation. This prosperous city drew the most sought after minds to Alexandria to study at the Great Library. Dissection of the human body which was forbidden in Greece was allowed in Egypt. This allowed for medical discoveries to happen. Astronomy was a major school driven at the library. They got it pretty much wrong, but they tried. (The Ptolemaic "Earth-Centered" universe though was the lasting model until Newton.) Aristarchus who studied there did get it right with his heliocentric theory, but nobody would listen. Eratosthenes, one the founders of modern geometry, studied there. He was the first to measure the circumference of the Earth (and did remarkably well in his estimates). Archimedes may or may not have studied there, but he certainly would have corresponded with his contemporaries at Alexandria. Euclid studied there and gave his famous quotation to King Ptolemy Soter (I) "There is no royal road to Geometry". Hypatia, the female female (to be widely acclaimed) philosopher / mathematician / astronomer was a teacher there.

The quest for knowledge which was the mission of the Great Library was not contained to the Greek world. Anything written down be it Greek, Persian, Buddhist, Roman, etc. was welcome material at the library. A thriving Jewish community lived in Alexandria. The Jews who lived there became so Hellenized that they no longer understood Hebrew so they needed a Greek translation of the Pentateuch and other important books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus with the support of Ptolemy and the library 72 Jewish scholars were brought to Alexandria and The Septuagint was born. Those of you into religious studies know the importance of that cross-cultural exchange.

Unfortunately, like all things in life, good things do come to an end. There are arguments back and forth who is to blame. Some say that Bishop Theophilus in his support of Christian Rome attacked the pagan holdouts in Alexandria by ordering the destruction of pagan temples. The Serapeum being dedicated as a temple in antiquity to the god Serapis. However, there is no proof that any actual books were destroyed, only pagan symbology. It is also speculated that during the Muslim conquest of Egypt the Great Library faced its end when all books in the library which contradict the Koran were deemed heretical and the books which supported the Koran were deemed superfluous. Then again, that may have just been made up over the years but started with a grain of truth when the Sultan of Egypt went after the Fatamid's caliphates collection of heretical texts stored in the library. And yes, Julius Caesar may have accidentally burned down one of storehouses when he set fire to those ships, but that was only a small portion of the reserve stacks.

I feel though that the true end came when Rome got entangled in the sultry grasp of Cleopatra in her struggle to retain her thrown in that great Ptolemaic and later Roman civil war. The rule of the Ptolemies ended as the bite of the asp sunk deep into her breast. The end of that sponsorship started the drip of a thousand deaths for the Great Royal Library of Alexandria. Yet, I don't see the scholars of the day allowing all that knowledge to perish. I am sure that caches of those books were copied, or otherwise made its way into newer works which ended right back in other universities, personal and royal collections. So no, we would not be firing laser beams if not for the destruction of the Great Library. Even though the physical building may be sitting beneath the sea somewhere the mark of that four or five centuries of solid scholarly pursuit for the pure sake of the furthering of knowledge had a mark which did push humanity forward in a great leap.

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