Wherein the Library of Alexandria is torched again and again because a burned book is an (allegedly) dead idea.
Libraries and schools in the United States recently observed Banned Books Week, described as “an annual event celebrating the freedom to read.” Unfortunately, this list of most challenged books shows a wide array of books being challenged by groups across the socio-political spectrum. This time I don’t have my usual sarcastic or absurd comments to make: as Ray Bradbury makes clear in his superb Fahrenheit 451, “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches…every (special interest group) feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse.”
The classic historical example of this is the burning(s) of the great Library of Alexandria. And, what is more, the specific destruction upon which a person focuses more often-than-not demonstrates not a support for learning and tolerance, but instead that individual’s particular school of ideological axe-grinding.
Burning Down the House
In 331 BCE Alexander the Great claimed to be visited in his sleep by Homer, who told him of an Egyptian island called Pharos where Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s successors, subsequently built a city named Alexandria (to prove he was the real successor to the Great one). James Crawford tells us the most unique thing about the city:
Alexandria was built around a simple yet staggeringly ambitious idea: that of holding in one place all of the knowledge ever accumulated by man. A Great Library was established there to become the memory bank of the ancient world, filled with papyrus and parchment scrolls containing everything from poetry, drama and literature, to advanced treatises on mathematics, anatomy, geography, physics and astronomy.
Creating such a library from scratch was a massive undertaking, as was recounted by the 2nd-3rd century BCE Jewish scholar Aristeas:
(Demetrius, the institution’s first librarian) was assigned large sums of money with a view to collecting, if possible, all the books in the world; and by arranging purchases and transcriptions he carried the king’s design to completion as far as he was able. When he was asked, in my presence, about how many thousands of books were already collected, he replied: ‘above two hundred thousand my king; and in a short while I shall exert every effort for the remainder, to round out the number of half a million.’
Of course, as we learned in an earlier article, much of this collection was accumulated simply by refusing to return works Ptolemy III had borrowed from others (he did at least lose his borrower’s deposit).
This gargantuan library would have been almost unusable—for example, how could a scholar locate from among hundreds of thousands of works Aristotle’s claims that women are “deformed” and “monstrous”?—without a system developed by Callimachus of Cyrene. The Pinakes, or “Tables,” organized texts by subjects and authors, as well as providing basic information about each work. Callimachus’ system provides the basis for the essential catalogues and bibliographies used by libraries and researchers today.
Unfortunately, as useful for humanity as such a relatively accessible collection of knowledge could be, it also proved to be a threat to various leaders over the centuries. Crawford notes, “The tenet ‘knowledge is power’ was its founding creed; yet if knowledge is power, it can also be threat, temptation, corruption and heresy…(the library) was claimed neither by cataclysm nor by catastrophe, but by man.”
Julius Caesar’s troops, desperately fighting off Ptolemy XIII’s troops in 48 BCE, set fire to ships in the Alexandrian harbor; the fire accidentally spread to nearby buildings, including the library. According to Seneca, 40,000 works were burned (some say this is a mistranslation, and the number was actually 400,000); Aulus Gellius claimed nearly 700,000 books were lost in the flames. More documents were lost in the 4th–5th centuries CE as Christian power solidified in the region. The Temple of Serapis (which also served as a “branch” of the nearby Alexandrian library) was converted into a Christian church in 391, possibly resulting in the destruction of ten percent of the Alexandrian library holdings; this event is frequently conflated with the murder of the philosopher Hypatia in 415, with many people following Edward Gibbon’s lead in believing the entire library was destroyed at this time (as can be seen in the 2009 movie Agora). A final burning is said to have occurred in 640, when the caliph Omar ibn Al-Khattab supposedly ordered the library destroyed because its works contradicted the Qu’ran; the 12-century Muslim historian Ibn Al-Qifti said 54,000 books were lost, while the 13th-century Syrian bishop Gregory Bar Hebræus claimed it took six months for the library to burn.
Reading all this, we can ask with Preston Chesser,
So who did burn the Library of Alexandria? Unfortunately most of the writers from Plutarch (who apparently blamed Caesar) to Edward Gibbons (a staunch atheist or deist who liked very much to blame Christians and blamed Theophilus) to Bishop Gregory (who was particularly anti-Moslem, blamed Omar) all had an axe to grind and consequently must be seen as biased. Probably everyone mentioned above had some hand in destroying some part of the Library’s holdings. The collection may have ebbed and flowed as some documents were destroyed and others were added.
Light My Fire
Sadly, book burning remains a highly effective weapon of ideological control used by groups from almost all religious and political perspectives. The 20th and 21st centuries are rife with book burnings to control rival groups and destroy their ideas. As Rebecca Knuth says, books “are the embodiment of ideas and if you hold extreme beliefs you cannot tolerate anything that contradicts those beliefs or is in competition with them.” She adds, “When you destroy a book you are destroying your enemy and your enemy’s beliefs.”
Lorraine Boissoneault points out that, even when books are not actively destroyed by extremist forces, technology itself provides a threat to maintaining information. Archivists must continually make sure that older material—both printed and digital—is accessible to modern technology (thereby avoiding situations where digital files created in a specific app are no longer readable when the app becomes obsolete and disappears).
This generally joke-free article revolves around a simple, albeit sadly controversial, point: it is vital for human flourishing to have knowledge—including arguments both benign and controversial—be accessible. As Barbara Tuchman wonderfully puts it,
Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change, windows on the world, and (as a poet has said) ‘lighthouses erected in the sea of time.’ They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.
Image: The ruins of the Serapeum in Alexandria (Source).