A month ago I wrote about a selection of Seven Wonders of Fictional Worlds and concluded with the fantasy of time travel to visit the traditional Wonders of classical antiquity. One of them, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, is seen in the background of this imagined hall of the Great Library in that same city.
In 1980 Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage reinforced a story I’d learned in school. About 20% of both the first and last episodes of that documentary miniseries recount the importance and grandeur and then the tragic loss of the Great Library of Alexandria. The account makes it seem like a seven-century run that came to an end on one disastrous day. The last librarian, Hypatia, was murdered by a mob of zealots and the scrolls were burned.
Historians and scholars, along with both fans and authors of science fiction, hold onto the fantasy of time travel to before that terrible day. What books would you save if you had the chance? Dr. Sagan is not immune here:
“If I could travel back into time, this is the place I would visit. The Library of Alexandria, at its height, two thousand years ago.”
The story of the apparently sudden disaster portrays the mob as ignorant acting in defense of its ignorance. The loss to knowledge remains incalculable and is, probably rightfully, regarded as a one or two thousand-year setback to nearly all fields of study. Dr. Sagan provided a sense of perspective on this loss:
“We do know that of the 123 plays of Sophocles in the Library, only seven survived. One of those seven is Oedipus Rex. Similar numbers apply to the works of Aeschylus and Euripides. It is a little as if the only surviving works of a man named William Shakespeare were Coriolanus and A Winter’s Tale, but we had heard that he had written certain other plays, unknown to us but apparently prized in his time, works entitled Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet.”
There are nine missing books of the poetry of Sappho and none of the works of Pythagoras survive. A full inventory of what was lost is also lost!
In the 2009 film, Agora, Hypatia is the hero and acts out our fantasy of salvage.
Hypatia was not merely the last librarian. In an age when women were still widely regarded as little more than property she was among the world’s leading mathematicians and astronomers. Further, she was a philosopher and teacher.
The mob that killed her and destroyed the Library is painted as acting out of fear but it seems more likely they were motivated by anger. In addition to the roles mentioned above, Hypatia was also not afraid to express political views. She is believed to have been a supported of Orestes, the governor of Alexandria; this made her an opponent of Cyril, that city’s bishop and successor to Theophilus.
But it didn’t happen quite that way.
As presented, the tale of the final moments of Hypatia and the Library is often a summary of at least four events and a compression of almost 400 years. The impression that there was just one very bad day at the Library is a false one. Julius Caesar did damage in 48 ʙᴄ and more may have happened toward the end of the reign of Aurelian (c. 275 ᴀᴅ).
There were at least two other libraries in Alexandria and – in summary – they may all have been conflated into one. One of these other libraries was part of the Serapeum Temple, which was ordered destroyed by the Bishop of Alexandria – Theophilus – in 391 ᴀᴅ.
This means Hypatia was more likely the victim of an assassination rather than a martyr of scholarship and/or science. The manner of death was particularly brutal to be sure but it cannot have been part of the attacks by Caesar or Aurelian; she wouldn’t have been born yet. She doesn’t seem to have come to prominence in Alexandria until nine years after the destruction of the Serapeum and its own library. The murder took place fifteen years later still.
“The books were distributed to the public baths of Alexandria, where they were used to feed the stoves which kept the baths so comfortably warm. Ibn al-Kifti writes that ‘the number of baths was well known, but I have forgotten it’ (we have Eutychius‘ word that there were in fact four thousand). ‘They say,’ continues Ibn al-Kifti, ‘that it took six months to burn all that mass of material.’”
— Luciano Canfora, The Vanished Library (University of California Press; 1st edition (Aug. 29, 1990))
The Library of Alexandria is said to have held between Eutychius’ estimate and one million scrolls. Many of these were the result of the “books of the ships” policy. All ships entering the harbor of Alexandria were inspected. Any books found aboard were seized and a copy was made. The originals are said to have been kept for the library, the original owner of the books got the copies.
In addition to the time travel fantasy: What answers and inspirations would you save of you could? – we should also ask: Were the scrolls and books in the library during its destructions the last copies in existence? What’s easier – inventing time travel or holding out hope while in diligent search for missing copies?
Note: The title of this post is a quote from Nova: Season 8, Episode 12. “It’s About Time” (Dec. 30, 1980).
You are invited to rampantly speculate and muse in answer to these questions via comment on this post. Given that this blog is [Thankfully] visited by people from 78 nations and counting, the perspectives are sure to be fascinating.