The Library of Alexandria
by: Ti. Dionysius Draco
The Founding of the Museum and the Library

The Museum was founded by Demetrius Phalerus, under the patronage of Ptolemy I, Ptolemy Soter. The establishment of the Library was handed down to Ptolemy II, Ptolemy Philadelphus, in 283 B.C., and it was during his reign that the monarch began the practice of attracting scholars, housing and funding them in the Museum, and collecting the vast Library. The idea of a formal institution for scholars of all kinds, complete with a library, was a new one, and the Museum was modelled on the Lyceum of Aristotle in Athens; Demetrius himself, an exiled tyrant of Athens, was one of Aristotle's followers.

A second "daughter" library, the Serapeion, was soon established in the temple of Serapis, a popular god invented by the Ptolemies as a synthesis of Zeus, Pluto, Osiris, and the Apis bull. This library, found in the Rhakotis or Egyptian sector, was open to all, not just to royally pensioned scholars, and had copies of many of the Museum's scrolls.

The Function of the Museum and the Library

The Museum was a shrine built for the glorification of the Muses, and from the outset contained lecture halls, laboratories, observatories, living quarters, colonnades for ambulatory discussions, a dining hall, a garden, a zoo, the shrine itself, and, presumably, the Library, which most archaeologists and scholars conclude was housed within the shrine and not in a separate building. An estimated 30-50 scholars were probably permanently housed there, probably fed and funded first by the royal family, and later, according to an early Roman papyrus, by public money. The administrator of the Museum was a priest, appointed by the Pharaoh and was ,together with a separate Librarian, responsible for the whole collection.

The Gathering of Knowledge

Ptolemy III wrote a letter "to all the world's sovereigns" asking to borrow their books and when Athens lent him the texts to Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, he had them copied, returned the copies, and kept the originals. Supposedly, all ships that stopped in the port of Alexandria were searched for books which were given them same treatment. Being a center of trade, ships from many cultures docked at the ports of Alexandria, and in doing so, their knowledge was brought to the Library to be discussed, improved and copied.

Alexandria was a prosperous trade center between east and west, linked to the Mediterranean and, not far to the east, to the Red Sea and Indian traderoutes via a canal. This cosmopolitan city drew Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, and Jews into a unique and not entirely harmonious coexistence. The Alexandrian Museum and Library, then, was an ideal place for scholars from these different cultures to meet and exchange learning, and was a repository for the literature and accounts of the Alexandrian intelligensia and the Roman Empire in general.

All documents were carefully stored and the most valuable documents were put in linen or leather jackets. In Roman times, manuscripts started to be written in codex (book) form, and began to be stored in wooden chests called armaria.

Scholars and their Discoveries

The location of Alexandria as a center of trade, and in particular as the major exporter of writing material, offered vast opportunities for the amassing of information from different cultures and schools of thought. Its scholars' deliberate efforts to compile and critically analyze the knowledge of their day allowed for the first systematic, long-term research by dedicated specialists in the new fields of science suggested by Aristotle and Callimachus. Whole new disciplines, such as grammar, manuscript preservation, and trigonometry were established.


Mathematics was one of the favorite disciplines of most scholars. One of the most famous mathematician is Euclid who lived there developed his theories, and wrote Elements at the Mouseion. In his Elements, Euclid provided a comprehensive analysis of geometry, proportions, and theory of numbers. His other notable contribution, Optics, is a treatise of geometrical optics.

The successors of Euclid, notably Apollonius of the second century B.C.E., carried on his research in conics, as did Hipparchus in the second century A.D. Archimedes is credited with the discovery of pi.

In the Mouseion, the first studies of conic sections (Ellipse, Parabola, and Hyperbola) were carried out by Conon of Samos and Appolonius. Later, Pappus wrote his Collection, Menelaus studied spherical triangles, and Sporus, Heron, Diophantus, Theon, and his daughter Hypatia, taught mathematics.


The movements of the stars and sun were essential for determining terrestrial positions, since they provided universal points of reference. In Egypt, this was particularly vital for property rights, because the yearly inundation often altered physical landmarks and boundaries between fields. For Alexandria, whose lifeblood was export of grain and papyrus to the rest of the Mediterranean, developments in astronomy allowed sailors to do away with consultation of oracles, and to risk year-round navigation out of sight of the coast. Earlier Greek astronomers had concentrated on theoretical models of the universe; Alexandrians now took up the task of detailed observations and mathematical systems to develop and buttress existing ideas.

Eratosthenes was born in Cyrene in 276 BC, and became the third librarian of the Mouseion. His measurement of the Earth diameter was the most exciting of his achievements, although not the only one. He believed the Earth is round, and knew that shadows cast by the sun in Alexandria and Aswan (Syene) were unequal. He took measurements inside a deep well in Syene and along an obelisk in Alexandria a year apart, on the same day of the year. Knowing the distance between both cities, and using simple calculations, he estimated the Earth diameter at 7,850 miles. Today, we know that Eratosthenes' estimate was only about 0.5% off.

Claudius Ptolemy proposed the "Ptolemaic" Theory which states that Universe revolves around the Earth. The theory was adopted by scientists until the sixteenth century.

Aristarchus of Samos, Eratosthenes' co-worker in Alexandria, had suggested in the third century BC the heliocentric hypothesis, which states that the Earth and the planets revolve around the Sun.


The study of anatomy, tracing its roots to Aristotle, was conducted extensively by many Alexandrians, who may have taken advantage both of the zoological gardens for animal specimens, and Egytptian burial practises and craft for human anatomy. One of its first scholars, Herophilus, both collected and compiled the Hippocratic corpus, and embarked on studies of his own. He first distinguished the brain and nervous system as a unit, as well as the function of the heart, the circulation of blood, and probably several other anatomical features. His successor Eristratos concentrated on the digestive system and the effects of nutrition, and postulated that nutrition as well as nerves and brain influenced mental diseases. Although they were groundbreaking in their own field, most of his observations were incorrect or lacked evidence to support their theories. Finally, in the second century A.D., Galen drew upon Alexandria's vast researches and his own investigations to compile fifteen books on anatomy and the art of medicine.


Archimedes was one of the early Alexandria-affiliated scholars to apply geometers' and astronomers' theories of motion to mechanical devices. Among his discoveries were the lever (he moved the heaviest ship of the Syracusan fleet with one hand) and the "Archimedes screw," a handcranked device for lifting water. He also figures in the tale of the scientist arising from his tub with the cry of "Eureka" after discovering that water is displaced by physical objects immersed in it. Hydraulics was an Alexandria-born science which was the principle behind Hero's Pneumatics, a long work detailing many machines and "robots" simulating human actions. The distinction between practical and fanciful probably did not occur to him in his thought-experiments, which included statues that poured libations, mixed drinks, drank, and sang (via compressed air). He also invented a windmill-driven pipe organ, a steam boiler which was later adapted for Roman baths, a self-trimming lamp, and the candelaria, in which the heat of candle-flames caused a hoop from which were suspended small figures to spin.

The Burning of The Library

We can be certain that the library existed, we can also be certain that it doesn't exist anymore. Many sources tell of the bruning of the Library. But it is not certain who is responsible for this. There are two suspects : Julius Caesar and Caliph Omar of Damascus.

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar was attacking Alexandria in pursuit of his archrival Pompey when he found himself about to be cut off by the Egyptian fleet. Realising that this would leave him in a desperate predicament, he took decisive action and sent fire ships into the harbour. His plan was a success and the enemy fleet was quickly aflame. But the fire did not stop these and jumped onto the dockside which was laden with flammable materials ready for export. Next it spread in land and before anyone could stop it, the Great Library itself was blazing brightly as many priceless scrolls were reduced to ashes. As for Caesar himself, did not think it important enough to mention in his memoirs and he (of course) only mentioned his victories, not his defeats or mistakes.

Caliph Omar

The Moslems invaded Egypt during the seventh century as their fanaticism carried them on conquests that would take form an empire stretching from Spain to India. There was not much of a struggle in Egypt and the locals found the rule of the Caliph to be more tolerant than that of the Byzantines before them. However, when a Christian called John informed the local Arab general that there existed in Alexandria a great Library preserving all the knowledge in the world he was perturbed. Eventually he sent word to Damascus where Caliph Omar ordered that all the books in the library should be destroyed because, as he said "they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous." Therefore, the books and scrolls were taken out of the library and distributed as fuel to the many bathhouses of the city. So enormous was the volume of literature that it took six months for it all to be burnt to ashes heating the saunas of the conquerors.

This would mean that the Library was burned down twice, and this would lead us too believe that the Libray was either rebuild or that there was more than one library in Alexandria. However, no evidence can be found about the Library being rebuild, but there are minor references too smaller libraries located elsewhere in the city. But these sources are unclear and obscure at best.

The Resurrection

In 2002, on the 16th of October, the new Library (Bibliotheca Alexandrina) was offically opened. The goal of this new library is the same as the goal of the old one : to contain as much knowledge as possible. An international spirit still reigns at the Bibliotheca. Italians and Egyptians are working together to preserve rare manuscripts. Greeks are helping with antiquities; the French, with a science museum; and Americans, with computer systems. Dozens of countries are sending books.

Today the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina proves that perhaps the most important element of the ancient library persists: its spirit. And this time the building is fireproof. :)


Alexandrian Scholarship - the Perseus Project

History of the Library at Alexandria

The Ptolemaic Legacy in Engineering and the Sciences

What Happened to the Library of Alexandria?

The Guardian: "Old Trouble at the New Library of Alexandria"

National Geographic News: "Egypt Opens New Library of Alexandria"
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