Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Library at Alexandria

From 7/16/08-The Library of Alexandria

In today's excerpt--the legendary Library of Alexandria, located in Ancient Egypt, which made Alexandria the center of learning and knowledge for the entire Mediterranean world for over 600 years:

"Alexander the Great founded Alexandria in 332 BCE but hung around just long enough to lay out the basic street plan and get construction underway. When he died a few years later, one of his generals, Ptolemy Soter, took control of Egypt and made Alexandria his capital, building great palaces and temples, including a temple to the Muses (or Museum). His son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, started the library, which was based in or next to the Museum, using Aristotle's personal library as its core. Ptolemy III Euergetes continued the work, determined to gather in the library all the knowledge of the world, and he instituted an aggressive policy of collection that involved acquiring scrolls, copying them and then returning the (inferior) copies while retaining the originals. He supposedly had every ship that passed through Alexandria searched for new scrolls and borrowed the entire scroll collection of Athens, willingly forfeiting his massive deposit in order to keep the originals. Eventually the collection [was reputed to have] numbered over 500,000 scrolls--700,000 by some accounts--making it, by a considerable margin, the greatest collection the ancient world had ever known. ...

"Along with the collection of parchment (and later vellum) scrolls, the Ptolemies paid for a permanent faculty of 30-50 scholars to live and work at the library, and over the centuries their number included most of the great names of antiquity, including Euclid (father of geometry), Eratosthenes (who calculated the circumference of the Earth), Archimedes (legendary discoverer of the lever, the screw, and pi) and Galen (the most influential medical writer of the next 1,400 years). ...

"The Library was probably not a big as legend contends. Historian James Hannam has calculated that storing 500,000 scrolls would require 25 miles of shelving, which in turn would mean that the Library must have been a truly monumental building. None of the sources mention such a gargantuan edifice, and since the remains of the library have never fully been excavated its full extent remains a mystery.

"Most telling, however, is the evidence from other ancient libraries that have left remains, which show that even those renowned for their wealth and breadth had collections numbering in the thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands. The finest library in the history of ancient Rome was the Library of Trajan, which probably contained around 20,000 scrolls, while the Library of Pergamon, arch-rival to the Alexandrian library, probably had around 30,000."

Joel Levy, Lost Histories, Barnes & Noble, Copyright 2006 by Joel Levy, pp. 28-30.

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