The Library of Alexandria was not the first library, that honour belongs to those libraries in Iraq and Syria, but it is the first to capture the imagination of historians. One of the largest libraries of the ancient world, it was renowned as a centre of scholarship and part of the Musaeum of Alexandria, home of scholars such as Hero (the father of mechanics), Archimedes (the father of engineering) and Herophilus (the founder of the scientific method). Created by Alexander the Great’s successor Ptolemy I Soter, it is estimated to have held somewhere between 40,000-400,000 scrolls of papyrus at the height of its success.
Built as a shrine to the Muses, the goddesses of the arts, it was conceptualised as a universal library, holding all types of written material. The acquisition of the material has been noted as sometimes unethical. One story had Ptolemy III ask Athenian authorities to borrow original manuscripts of several scholars to make copies of, offering silver as insurance. Once the copies were made, he sent those instead of the originals to Athens, telling them to keep the silver. Acquisitions for the library did not all come through deceit; book fairs in Rhodes and Athens were used with such trips well-funded by the Ptolemaic dynasty.
Demetrius of Phaleron is considered the original organiser of the library, chosen for his breadth of knowledge he had gained as a philosopher and statesman in Athens. It is likely that the entirety of Greek literature at the time was in the library as well as a significant section of Egyptian literature. Egyptian priests were approached to record their history for the library. Literature on Zoroastrianism, Babylonia and Buddhism was also available. Translations from Hebrew to Greek of the Pentateuch and the earliest existing version of the Old Testament (Septuagint) also were held by the library.
While much knowledge of the layout of the library is scarce we do know from the ‘Pinakes’ a bibliographic survey, carried out by Callimachus, on how the materials were catalogued to some degree. Only some fragments survive but we know that materials were organised into criteria such as mathematics, history, law, medicine, rhetoric, lyric poetry, tragedy, comedy, epic and miscellaneous. Callimachus’ work would go on to inspire others such as the Arabic bookseller Ibn al-Nadīm’s index of books the Kitāb al-fihrist.
The ‘burning’ of the library is well known, however, historians believe that there was not a single burning that destroyed the library but a number of fires and other acts of destruction over a number of years. The loss of the Library of Alexandria has often been seen as a loss of scholarship and information. Much of its contents are believed to have survived its destruction by being transferred to other locations across the world; however, none of its contents are thought to survive to the present day.
The historical impact was felt large enough for the Library of Alexandria to be ‘reborn’ in 2002 to honour its namesake. Like the ancient Library, it is a beacon of scholarship and a universal library.