Libraries of History and Myth

Libraries being subject to destruction, many have not survived to the present. There exist photographs or illustrations of some of these, still-standing ruins of others; but some are documented only in historical written sources – although that has not stopped artists from using their imaginations to conjure compelling visions of what these libraries might have looked like.



The Library of Alexandria

The most famous library in history (and possibly myth) is, of course, the Ancient Library of Alexandria. It was built sometime between 300 and 250 B.C., by either of Ptolemy I Soter or his son Ptolemy II. It was likely organized by a student of Aristotle, Demetrius of Phaleron.

The main axis of streets in ancient Alexandria, as drawn by an artist.


Built in the Royal Quarter next to the Museion, the Royal Library comprised a Peripatos walk, gardens, a room for shared dining, a reading room, lecture halls and meeting rooms. The library had an acquisitions department (perhaps near the harbor), and a cataloguing department. A hall contained shelves for the collections of papyrus scrolls – legend has it that there was an inscription above the shelves that read: "The place of the cure of the soul." However, the exact layout of the Library is not known.

A completely imaginary re-creation of the library.

The interior re-created.


Nor is the number of scrolls that the Library contained known, although it must have been a fairly large number, as it was government policy to seize and copy all books found on ships entering Alexandria, which was a central Mediterranean trading port. There are references to Mark Antony having given Cleopatra 200,000 scrolls from the seized library at Pergamum as a gift and it is reputed that the Ptolomies had an ambition when establishing the Library of obtaining 500,000 scrolls for it, although it seems unlikely that this was ever attained. Also there are references to the destruction of 40,000 scrolls by Julius Caesar in 48 B.C.

An imagined rendering of scholars in the Library.


The city of Alexandria and the Library were a major center of learning in ancient times, regarded by some as the birthplace of western science. For instance, it was at the library that Archimedes invented the screw-shaped water pump that is still in use today. At Alexandria Eratosthenes measured the diameter of the Earth, and Euclid discovered the rules of geometry. And at Alexandria, Ptolemy wrote the Almagest, the most influential scientific book about the nature of the Universe for 1,500 years.

Renaissance depiction of scientists.


There is still debate concerning the destruction of the Library. Many believe that it was destroyed by Julius Caesar in 48 B.C. when he set fire to Egyptian ships in the harbor. However, some think that the books he destroyed near the harbor were those in the acquisitions department near the harbor, not those of the library itself, which might have continued to exist for another century or longer. It is more than possible that the Library was destroyed by Roman emperor Aurelian when he put down a rebellion by Queen Zenobia of Palmyra in 274 A.D. Additionally, several Arab sources claim that Muslim invading forces destroyed the Library around 642 A.D., but the reliability of these claims is not known.

The burning of the Library in the film "Caesar and Cleopatra"


At any rate, the destruction of the library did not end Alexandria's prominence as an intellectual center. There were also at least two other libraries in Alexandria: those at the Serapeum Temple and the Caesarion Temple, which were more accessible to the public than the Royal Library, which was for members of the royal family and for appointed scholars only.

Students and scholars in the imagined library.


In 2004, Polish archeologists announced that they have excavated parts of the Royal Quarter area of Alexandria and discovered what look like lecture halls or auditoria. The 13 lecture halls uncovered could house as many as 5,000 students in total, and each contained a central elevated podium for the lecturer to stand on.

One of the excavated lecture halls at the Alexandria Museion.


The Library of Alexandria has captured the imagination of many scholars, historians, artists and students for centuries, and much hypothesis has been made concerning the Library's appearance, layout, contents and ultimate end. Our imaginations might well be even better than the original ever was.

O. Von Corven's rendition of the Great Library of Alexandria.


Jean Baptiste Champaigne's Ptolome II, 1672, Versailles: An historical rendering of Ptolemy II Philadelphus talking with some of the 72 Jewish savants who translated the Bible for the great library of Alexandria.


"Scholars Using the Great Library of Alexandria, Egypt, c.300-200 Bc," unknown artist, probably c. 1900.


A scene from the movie "Agora," with Rachel Weisz playing the 4th-century scholar, Hypatia. This is supposed to take place in the Serapeum, not the Royal Library, but the scholarly traditions would have been similar.