Library of Alexandria - Unique Places in History

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina was build to commemorate the Ancient Library of Alexandria. Editorial credit: suronin /
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina was build to commemorate the Ancient Library of Alexandria. Editorial credit: suronin /

The Library of Alexandria was one of the most famous and significant libraries of the ancient world. It was located in the Egyptian city of Alexandria and was constructed in the 3rd century BCE. The Library of Alexandria was led under the patronage of Ptolemy during the Ptolemaic dynasty. It was the main center for regional and national scholarship and research. The library existed until 30 BCE when the Romans conquered Egypt. The library is thought to have stored about 400,000-700,000 texts and parchment scrolls at its peak. The destruction and ultimate end of the iconic library remains unknown.

The Creation of the Library

This classical antiquity library was an important center for knowledge and culture and the most important library of the ancient world. It was also the most famous library housing many archives of the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor and Greece. Like most institutions of the time, the primary function of the library was to preserve the local traditions and culture.

Ptolemy, I Soter is credited with the creation of the royal library of Alexandria. He was a Macedonian general who later became the successor of Alexander the Great. Under his patronage, the library’s collections grew tremendously. He had decreed that all visitors to the city surrender their books and writings that they had in possession. These were then taken by the library officials and scribes who copied the writings and gave them to the owners while retaining the originals. This approach helped create a reservoir of books that constituted the library collections. As Alexandria was an emerging city at the time, the growing library increasingly became a vital player.

The idea of a universal library was first conceived by the Greeks who had begun to envisage a larger worldview and were hungry for more knowledge. Demetrius of Phaleron, a former Athenian politician sought refuge at the hands of Ptolemy I Soter and is undoubtedly connected with the founding of the library. His wide and versatile knowledge influenced Ptolemy who charged him with the task of creating the library and the Mouseion.

The Rise and Fall of the Ancient Library of Alexandria

Fabulous tales of how the library was equipped with books exist, ranging from how the Ptolemies (Ptolemy I and Ptolemy III) would resort to extreme measures of confiscating books against their owner’s wishes and searching every ship that passed through the port. Any book that was found in the searches was immediately confiscated and taken to the library where a copy was made. The copy that was made was given as compensation to the owner.

The fate of the royal library remains a mystery and many scholars have had differing opinions as to the fate of the two libraries (the library had two sites). The civil war between Julius Caesar and Egypt’s Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII in 48BCE is thought to have led to the end of the Library of Alexandria. Julius Caesar set the harbor on fire, destroying the enemy’s fleet. Many historians believe that this fire spread to the city and destroyed the library altogether.

The current Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt was built to commemorate the Ancient Library of Alexandria. The library opened on October 16, 2002, however the idea for the library dates back to 1974. The idea behind the library was to bring back some of the knowledge and cultural heritage lost with the ancient library. A spot was chosen near the location of the ancient library. The library can shelve eight million books, and has a trilingual collection of books in Arabic, English, and French donated from all over the world.


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