The Royal Library at Alexandria, Egypt, was the most famous in the ancient world for nearly a thousand years. It contained half a million volumes – handwritten on parchment. The city was built by the Greek architect Dinocrates (332-331 B.C.), by order of Alexander the Great, immortalizing his name, and spreading Greek culture throughout the known world.
After Alexander’s death at the age of 33, his half-brother, Ptolemy, ruled Egypt, enriched the city, and built the magnificent library as a repository of the world’s greatest literary works.
Ptolemy determined to collect copies of all the books in the world. Many of the scrolls housed there were originals. He would borrow the originals, copy them, and then return the copies and deep the originals!
It is said that Ptolemy borrowed the city of Athen’s official scrolls, containing the works of the foremost Greek scholars and authors. He left a large deposit as security, but, instead of returning the scrolls, the king simply forfeited the deposit, and sent back copies to the furious Athenians.
By the time Julius Caesar conquered Egypt in the middle of the first century B.C., the collection of volumes at the Royal Library numbered between 300,000 and 500,000 scrolls.
Scholars at the Library copied the world’s most revered works from Europe, India, Persia and Africa. It is said that in A.D. 1450, before the invention of movable type, Europe possessed only a tenth as many books as had been housed in the Alexandria Royal Library.
Alexandria quickly flourished into a prominent cultural, intellectual, political, and economic metropolis, the remains of which are still evident to this day.
The library held the masterpieces of science and literature, the sole copies of works now vanished from the earth. It was the jewel of Ptolemy’s grand goal. It was attached to a research institute – called the Museum, after the Muses, the nine Greek goddesses of the arts and sciences.
An estimated 14,000 students studied physics, engineering, astronomy, medicine, mathematics, geography, biology, philosophy and literature under the world’s best teachers.
If an ancient original manuscript is missing, it probably was housed at Alexandria. In the third century B.C., seventy-two Jewish scholars were commissioned to translate the Hebrew Bible into the Greek language.
Ptolemy wrote to the chief priest, Eleazar, in Jerusalem, and arranged for six translators from each of the twelve tribes of Israel.
The seventy-two scholars (altered in a few later versions to seventy or seventy-five) arrived in Egypt to the Ptolemy’s hospitality, and translated the Torah (or Pentateuch: the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures) in seventy-two days.
Although opinions as to when this occurred differ, scholars find 282 B.C. an attractive date. It became known as the Septuagint – derived from the Latin word for “seventy.”
I would not be a bit surprised if the original manuscripts of both the Old and New Testaments were eventually housed there.
In A.D. 48, Mark Anthony brought 200,000 scrolls from the library at Pergamos as a gift to Cleopatra.
Among the famous scrolls were the works of:
Euclid (fourth-century B.C.), a Greek mathematician, whose Elements of Geometry were used as a textbook for more than 2,000 years. It was one of the most important books in Western thought and education.
Apollonius of Perga (third century B.C.), a mathematician who first demonstrated elliptic, parabolic and hyperbolic curves.
Archimedes of Syracuse (third century B.C.), a mathematician, physicist, engineer and inventor, He is credited with having invented the Archimedes screw, a kind of pump, and other mechanical devices.
Aristarchus of Samos (third century B.C.), an astronomer who discovered that the earth moves around the sun. Some 1,700 years before Copernicus, Aristarchus argued that day and night are the result of the earth turning on its axis.
Herophilus of Thrace (around 300 B.C.), remembered as “the father of scientific anatomy.” He was the first scientist to prove that the brain, not the heart, was the organ of thought.
The works of the world’s greatest minds were collected and housed in the Royal Library of Alexandria. However, in A.D. 640, Islamic Arab legions swept through Egypt on their mission to conquer the world for Islam. It is said that the Arab military governor, baffled by the dusty scrolls in the library, asked Mecca what to do with them.
“Burn them,” he was told, for “either the manuscripts contain what is in the Koran, in which case we do not have to read them, or they contain what is contrary to the Koran in which case we must not read them.”
The scrolls were used as fuel for Alexandria’s 4,000 public baths. There were evidently enough to heat bath water for several months. The last of the treasures of antiquity blazed brightly and were gone – some forever – thanks to Islam!