Monday, May 6, 2013

The Lost Treasures of the Library of Alexandria

The Library of Alexandria in Egypt has always been considered as one of the greatest libraries of the ancient world. "Oppression and fear of learning have obliterated almost all memories of ancient Alexandria," writes Carl Sagan in Cosmos. "Yet this place was once the brain and glory of the greatest city on the planet, the first true research institute in the history of the world." (Carl Sagan may be forgiven a lot, including his blindness towards the ancient, advanced civilizations of the East, namely, China and India.)

Scholars of Alexandria explored philosophy, literature, chemistry, biology, medicine, physics, astronomy, geography, mathematics, engineering, and history. "Science and scholarship had come of age [in Alexandria]," writes Sagan. Open-minded pursuit of knowledge for the sake of learning, questioning, refuting or digesting was the order of the day among the diverse peoples of the city. Encouraged by Alexander the Great, his namesake city, Alexandria became the center of learning, culture, and also commerce. The library also served as home to a host of international scholars, who were provided with research, travel, and lodging stipends for themselves and their families.

The Greek kings, who succeeded Alexander, were also serious about learning and research. The library consisted of research halls, a large dining hall, fountains and colonnades, botanical gardens, a zoo, dissecting rooms, an observatory, and meeting rooms where scholars could gather for critical discussion and debate. The library itself is known to have an acquisitions department and a cataloguing department located close to the stacks.

Of course, the heart of the library, as with any library, were the books. The original founders and succeeding directors combed the world's civilizations for books. They bought up libraries, copied books that could not be bought, wrested books from personal libraries, and yes, also stole ones that were otherwise unavailable. The scholars also produced new works that were An estimated half a millions books, in the form of papyrus scrolls, were shelved there.

Thus, the destruction of the Library of Alexandria led to an immeasurable loss of knowledge that affects us to this day. We know some of what we lost—some of it took nearly two thousand years to rediscover—some we don't know how to figure out, and most of it is gone forever. Imagine what we could've known of history, astronomy, biology, and engineering had the texts survived!

[Credit for these images goes to Living Moon.]