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The Great Library of Alexandria – Historical Fact or Just a Beautiful Legend?



Imagine the halls, the vast places and the greatest scholars learning together. You can smell the scrolls and you can barely hear the voices of the lecturers and students in the lecture rooms on the other side of the building. Outside there is the garden and a little zoo. This is the perfect place for many people. However, is it something factual hidden in history or just a beautiful legend?

The ancient library of Alexandria definitely exists in the historical sources. Many scholars and historians were inspired to write about the greatest library of all time. The idea of universal centre of knowledge sounds unreachable for us, but in the BC 295, someone tried to make this real. Ptolemy I Soter was the emperor who established the famous library of Alexandria. Nevertheless, Demetrus of Phalerum convinced Ptolemy I to contruct the Temple of the Muses, or the Museum, not a library. This Museum was supposed to be the universal centre for learning. The Temple had lecture rooms, halls, laboratories and gardens. The scholar and philosopher Strabo, who was working in Alexandria in 20 BC, in his writings, Strabo mentions a Museum, not a library. There is no definite prove that there existed a great library. If a building of that greatness existed, wouldn’t we find it by now? In 2004 the archeologist claimed to have found a part of a building, which may be the Museum. The team excavated 13 “lecture halls” which could have placed 5000 students, but there are no traces of a library.

Many believe that the Temple of Muses was just the first part of the library. Ptolemy II Philadelphus is said to have built the library next to the Museum. According to the historical sources, there existed a great library and a smaller one, the Temple of Serapeum, because there was no place for the great amount of scrolls in the original building. The daughter library was allegedly destroyed in AD 391 by the Emperor Theodosius. Historians believe that he could have destroyed the great library as well. However, it hasn’t been confirmed that the great library existed in that time. The destruction of the library is one of the most debated historical subjects of the modern age. Seneca quoted Livy’s History of Rome when he wrote about 40,000 scrolls that were destroyed in the fire started by Caesar in 48 BC. Historians Plutarch and Dio Cassius wrote about the destruction of a great library by fire around 100-250 AD. However, if the library was attached next to the Museum, as it is believed, it is probable that the Temple would have been destroyed as well, but Strabo was there in 20 BC, thus Caesar didn’t destroyed it. The library could have been destroyed in a slow and continuous pace through many smaller or bigger attacks and accidents. The city of Alexandria wasn’t recovered from the Romans until AD 270-71. In this period the place of the library was ‘made into a desert’.

Nobody knows the truth about the existence of the library of Alexandria and its possible destruction. Almost all the written records for this great centre of learning date from centuries after the real events. Just as Homer was writing fascinating stories about the Trojans centuries after they lived, someone else may as well have written just a beautiful story we all want to believe in.



Upton, Emily. (2008). The Mysterious Fate of the Library of Alexandria. Today I Found Out. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/06/the-mysterious-fate-of-the-library-of-alexandria/

Alexandria’s Famous Library. The Living Moon. http://www.thelivingmoon.com/43ancients/02files/Library_Alexandria.html

Haughton, Brian. (2011). What Happened to the Great Library at Alexandria. Ancient. http://www.ancient.eu.com/article/207/

Photo: Beautiful Libraries.com



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