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The Library of Alexandria (Egypt)

Alexander the Great's World Collection of Science and Literature

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Kom El Dikka - Ruins of the Library of Alexandria

The ruins of Kom el Dikka are a complex of rooms and auditoria, part of the Library of Alexandria's university campus in Egypt.

Roland Unger
Mosaic Restoration at the New Alexandria Library

Mosaic Restoration at the New Alexandria Library

(c) Norbert Schiller / Getty Images
Mosaic of Alexander Defeating King Darius, House of the Faun, Pompeii

Mosaic of Alexander Defeating King Darius, House of the Faun, Pompeii

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The Library of Alexandria is probably the element of the ancient city which is most widely known, and wistfully spoken of as a great loss to humanity today, two millennia later. The Internet, with all its flaws and eccentricities, is the closest we humans have come to recreating what may have been Alexander the Great's most scholarly idea: an accessible library of the world's science and literature.

The notion of a world library was dreamed up by Alexander the Great himself, who after seeing the Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, decided that his new city on the Nile Delta should include a larger, more extensive library. Alexander intended his librarians to go out and gather all the written works of the various nations he had and would conquer, translate them into Greek and keep them for scholarly research. Alexander died before the library was begun, but his general, who as Ptolemy I became the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasties of Egypt, began it during his reign. At its peak, the various repositories held an estimated 400,000-700,000 scrolls, perhaps as many as 900,000. Prominent among the documents which were eventually gathered for the collection were some of the private holdings of Aristotle.

Buildings of the Library

Alexander's "library" was more of a college campus, rather than a single building storing documents. Buildings included rooms storing tens of thousands of scrolls, as well as classrooms, lecture halls and study areas. Although modern construction within the city has all but erased the various buildings, archaeologists have manage to identify fragments of some of these structures.

One important piece was the Mouseion Academy, a center of focus for the city of Alexandria, and part of the palace complex, taking up up to a third of the city center. Sometimes called the Museum, the Mouseion (meaning something like "of the Muses") contained some of the scrolls of the library and acted as a cultural center dedicated to the nine Greek muses, thus combining both religious and intellectual pursuits. It offered resident scholars free board, lodging, servants, tax exemptions and salaries: among the scholars and writers enticed to the library were the geographer Strabo, the playwright Aristophanes, the doctor Herophilus, the philosopher Philo (the Jew) and the mathematicians Euclid and Archimedes.

By the time of Ptolemy III ("Euergetes", ruled 246-221 BC), a second "daughter" library was housed in the building called the Serapeum. Some 42,000 scrolls were kept at the Serapeum, and these were said to have contained literary documents for general use, rather than the scholarly documents held for study by scholars at the Mouseion.

Kom el-Dikka is the name of a complex of small auditoriums with banks of seating on three sides. There seem to have been about 20 rooms at Kom el-Dikka, each with a teacher's seat at the head; and they probably represent the classrooms of the "University of Alexandria" era, begun in late antiquity, and only taking final shape in the late 6th, early 7th centuries AD. Kom el-Dikka had baths, Early Roman villas and a theatre. The villas include five richly decorated houses with pseudo-peristyle courtyard plans and elaborate triclinea; the best preserved of these is called the Villa of the Birds.

The Contemplative Life

It's important to remember the philosophical underpinnings of Alexander's library, even though that a hard thing to establish archaeologically. Alexander's notion was to bring all the manuscripts of the world and set scholars working on them: one example of the result of this was Philo's investigation of philosophy. At Alexandria's library he was able to study and compare Greek, Persian and Indian religious manuscripts and identify what he considered truly just and good people throughout the known world. (See Taylor and Davies for more on Philo).

The End of the Library

The library lasted well into the 5th and 6th centuries AD, but like many universities today, its political, religious and gender equality (one of its last leaders was the mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria) made it the target of conservative religious elements. Many of the scholars were killed in a series of attacks, and the buildings burned or destroyed, so that by the mid-seventh century, there was only the memory of the idea.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Ptolemaic Period, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Abbas AM, Khalil MA, Massoud U, Santos FM, Mesbah HA, Lethy A, Soliman M, and Ragab ESA. In press. The implementation of multi-task geophysical survey to locate Cleopatra Tomb at Tap-Osiris Magna, Borg El-Arab, Alexandria, Egypt “Phase II”. NRIAG Journal of Astronomy and Geophysics(in press).

Bacon SL. 2012. Alexandria and the Construction of Urban Experience [Open Access Senior Thesis]: Scripps University.

Bagnall RS. 2001. Archaeological work on Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, 1995-2000. American Journal of Archaeology 105(2):227-243.

Bagnall RS, and Davoli P. 2011. Archaeological Work on Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, 2000-2009. American Journal of Archaeology 115(1):103-157.

Ferro L, and Magli G. 2012. The astronomical orientation of the urban plan of Alexandria. Oxford Journal Of Archaeology 31(4):381-389.

Hemeda S, and Pitilakis K. 2010. Serapeum temple and the ancient annex daughter library in Alexandria, Egypt: Geotechnical–geophysical investigations and stability analysis under static and seismic conditions. Engineering Geology 113(1–4):33-43.

Philips H. 2010. The great library of Alexandria? Library Philosophy and Practice. Lincoln: University of Nebraska. Open Access.

Taylor JE, and Davies PR. 1998. The so-called therapeutae of "De Vita Contemplativa": Identity and character. The Harvard Theological Review 91(1):3-24.

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