Who Done It? Who Burned the Great Library of Alexandria?

Depiction of the Burning of the Great Library of Alexandria
Depiction of the Burning of the Great Library of Alexandria

The Great Library of Alexandria, on the coast of northern  Egypt was once the largest of the ancient world, containing the works of Homer, Plato, Euclid, Socrates, Aristotle and hundreds more. Close to one million books and scrolls from across Greece, Assyria, Egypt, Persia and India filled its vast shelves.  It’s believed to have been completely destroyed in a devastating fire about 2000 years ago and its thousands of priceless works burnt to ashes.  Its loss has haunted historians and scholars for centuries.  But exactly How, When and Who is responsible remains a perplexing mystery.  One that’s deepened by the fact that NO archaeological remains of the great library have ever been found in modern times!

The Mediterranean seaport of Alexandria was founded by ALEXANDER THE GREAT around 332 BC after the Greek conquest of Egypt.  Upon seeing the ancient library of Ashurbanipal in Ninevah, Alexander desired to have his own, even grander Library to promote Hellenistic culture.  He chose Alexandria as the site and assigned that responsibility to his Macedonian general Ptolemy.

Alexander III died in Babylon at only 32 in 323 BC, likely having been poisoned.  He left no heir, and the Greek Empire was divided amongst his 3 top generals.  Ptolemy I took North Africa and Egypt, proclaiming himself pharaoh, and making Alexandria his capital. Formerly just a small fishing village on the Nile delta, Alexandria became the seat of Egyptian rule, replacing Memphis.

The Greek scholar Demetrius, convinced Ptolemy to establish a Library that would house a copy of every book in the world, rivaling even Athens. Together they built the Musaeum, “Temple of the Muses” (where the word museum comes from) and the adjoining Library in 283 BC.  It was a place of study, modeled on the Lyceum of Aristotle in Athens, which included the library, lecture areas, laboratories, shrines, gardens, even a zoo!

The Musaeum and Library were located on the grounds of the Royal Palace and a priest was chosen by Ptolemy I to become the first Librarian.

His successor and son, pharaoh Ptolemy II, formally established the ‘Royal Library‘ envisioned up by Alexander and his father.  More than 100 Greek scholars lived in the Musaeum to research, lecture, publish, translate, and collect original manuscripts from the known world of Greece, Assyria, Persia, and India, including Buddhist and Hebrew texts.

At its peak, over 700,000 books and papyrus scrolls filled its teaming shelves.  During the reign of Ptolemy II, the Royal Library became so huge that a second library was established at the Temple of Serapis. The famous Lighthouse of Alexandria was also built at this time.  His successor and son, Ptolemy III, hungered for even more knowledge.  He ordered all ships docking at the port of Alexandria to surrender their manuscripts to the growing library!

Over the next few centuries, the Library of Alexandria became the largest and most significant in the ancient world. The great scholars of the age, scientists, mathematicians, poets, philosophers from both western and eastern civilizations came to roam its many halls and freely exchange ideas.  The world has not seen the same since.

It’s not known when the Library was destroyed as there are unfortunately no eyewitness accounts to its demise.  Archaeologists aren’t even sure in which century it occurred AND don’t know exactly where the library sat in the city.  The infamous destruction of the Library of Alexandria has been debated for centuries.  So what are the best theories?  Whodunit?

Suspect #1: Julius Caesar

Yes, the prime suspect is none other than the great Julius Caesar. Some believe that during the Roman occupation of Alexandria in 48 BC, Caesar found himself in the Royal Palace, cut off by the Egyptian fleet in the harbor.  Greatly outnumbered, he ordered his men to set fire to the blockade of Egyptian ships.  But the fire got out of control and spread to the city.  Roman philosopher Seneca, says that at least 40,000 scrolls were destroyed in a single library warehouse near the harbor.

So does this mean the great Library burnt down as well? The Musaeum, which was right next door was apparently unharmed, as it was mentioned by the geographer Strabo 30 years later.  Strabo doesn’t mention the Library though, so maybe Caesar WAS responsible for burning it down.  Caesar wrote of starting the fire in the harbor, but never mentions the burning of the Library.  So while its colorful to say the famous Julius Caesar did it, the facts don’t fully support this theory.

Suspect #2: The Christians did it

In 391 AD, the Christian Emperor Theodosius issued a decree outlawing all pagan practices in the Roman Empire including the Olympics. He ordered the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria destroyed and a Christian Church built on the site. As this contained the library annex, manuscripts are assumed to have been destroyed as well (it contained about 10% of the Library of Alexandria).  No other sources mention the destruction of the Library itself.  So, there’s no actual evidence that 4 th century Christians destroyed it.

After Theodosius’ death, riots broke out when Orestes, the city Prefect, ordered a Christian monk named Hierax, publicly killed. After this, there was mass havoc as Roman Christians retaliated against both Pagans and Jews.  Orestes was rumored to be under the spell of Hypatia, a female philosopher and daughter of Theon, the last Librarian. Hypatia was then brutally murdered by a Christian mob and dragged naked through the streets in 415 AD.  So it’s been theorized that the Royal Library was also burned to the ground at the same time as all this chaos.

Suspect #3: The Muslims did it

The last suspect is the Muslim Caliph Umar. In 640 CE, the Arabs captured Alexandria after a long and bloody siege. According to this theory, the conquering Muslims heard about the magnificent books and scrolls in the library containing all the knowledge of the world. But the Caliph was unimpressed by this collection of higher learning.  He stated ‘They will either contradict the Quran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.  Destroy them all.’

The precious manuscripts were said to be used as fuel to heat the water for the 4,000 bathhouses in the city. It’s to have taken 6 months to burn them all. However, this particular theory was written 300 years later by Christian Bishop Gregory, who may have simply wanted to tarnish the image of the heathen Muslim invaders.  While the Arabs may have destroyed the library at Alexandria, by the mid 7th century we know the ‘Royal Library’ no longer existed.  There is no mention of any library in Alexandria any longer.  

So which was it – Romans, Christians or Muslims?  I am afraid trying to choose one single culprit is futile. Alexandria was a volatile and violent metropolis back then, especially during the lengthy Roman occupation, during which many parts of Alexandria were routinely devastated by wars.  This means that the ‘catastrophe’ could have occurred gradually over a period of four hundred years.  The Royal Library may not have gone up in flames at all, but rather could have been gradually sacked, destroyed and abandoned over time.

Modern Alexandra and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina
Modern Alexandra and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Today, Alexandria is a modern metropolis, the third largest city in Egypt. A new Bibliotheca Alexandrina was completed in 2002 and can house some 8 million books on its 11 floors. In 2004, Egyptologists claimed to have found its location after unearthing what appear to be 13 lecture halls.  Maybe one day, buried deep beneath the ruins of ancient or modern Alexandria, intrepid archaeologists will discover the chambers, rooms, and maybe even the precious scrolls, of the great Library.  Some believe that the great Library of Alexandria could still be more or less intact, somewhere deep beneath a modern Egyptian city.

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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

5 thoughts on “Who Done It? Who Burned the Great Library of Alexandria?

  1. Well conveniently the #1 Suspect is missing from this article. Where is the “Jews Did It”? They are the Great Destroyers in all of history.

  2. Good article. I enjoyed the read.

    The one thing you might have considered is: the library still existed at the time of Uthman and the library was ‘captured’ by the Muslim army; BUT, they did NOT destroy the contents. Remember, the way Islamic armies worked during this time, they were caravan raiders (still). That meant that the soldiers shared in the booty. The books and scrolls in the library were valuable in both Egypt and Syria. A book/scroll could be sold for a fair amount of money in those day. One book, if well-known, could make a Muslim soldier quite wealthy.
    More to the point, if we look at later Islamic history we find that those in the Arabic world started making great strides in optics, mathematics, astronomy, and other science-related areas. These are the areas in which Aristotle, Archimedes and other great thinkers had left to posterity their discoveries on these topics.

    Regarding Uthman’s general ordering the burning of the library: it was not just a Christian bishop who, years after the fact, related the story. It is also told in Islamic sources (again years after the fact).

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