The Royal Library of Alexandria

The Royal Library of Alexandria possessed one of the greatest collections of papyrus scrolls of its time. Destroyed by fire, the history of its demise is surrounded in mystery. But there is still a great deal that historians do know about this ancient center of learning.

The library was built in the third century BCE in Alexandria, Egypt by Ptolemy II. Alexandria was the capital of the last Pharaonic dynasty. It was attached to a temple of the muses known as the Museion in Greek. This was probably a research center that concentrated on editing texts. This was an important work because of the variety of editions of a single text. A smaller library was attached to the main library and known as the Serapeum because of its dedication to the Greek god Serapis.

The Royal Library was situated in what was known as the Bruchion, the palace quarter of the city. Recent excavations undertaken by an Egyptian-Polish team have uncovered extensive sites, thirteen large halls in all, each with a podium in their center and large enough to hold five thousand scholars. This is the first discovery of its kind in the Mediterranean region.

The scrolls, several of which formed one text, numbered in the hundreds of thousands although no one can be completely certain of the actual number. What is certain is that they were destroyed when disaster struck the library and it burned to the ground. How this happened and who was responsible has been the subject of controversy and myth.

The Usual Suspects

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There are three accounts of the destruction of the Royal library and each blames rivals. Politics and religion play the main role in this story. Of the three suspects Julius Caesar is a more likely candidate than either Theophilus, the Bishop of Alexandria during troubled times in 391CE, or the Muslim Caliph Umar in 642 CE. The evidence for all these reports is unsound.

Some hail the Royal Library together with the Museion and the Serapion as the oldest university in the world and the seat of Western science. That may be wishful thinking for, as Wikipedia tells, “Nalanda University, founded in Bihar, India around the fifth century BC conferred academic degree titles to its graduates, while also offering post-graduate courses.” This is just one of many ancient universities where scholars and students have gathered from near and far away for the purpose of study and learning. Today a new library stands in commemoration of the Royal Library. It is the Bibliotheca Alexandrina of the University of Alexandria and has space for eight million books.