MacLeod explores one of greatest cultural adornments of late ancient world

Arabic News 29 April 2002

The Library of Alexandria explores one of the greatest cultural adornments of the late ancient world. The origins of the ‘vanished library’ of Alexandria lie in distant echoes of the great library of Pisistratus in Athens, an institution which set the tone for establishing a dominant culture and inspired Alexander the Creat to build a library of his own in his empire's most important city.

Thus he expanded his cultural and imperial influence and power throughout the known world The library contained thousands of scrolls of Creek, Hebrew and Mesopotamian literature as well as art and artifacts from Ancient Egypt. Roy MacLeod has here assembled an array of distinguished scholars to bring this great institution—tragically destroyed at the fall of Alexandria in 643—back to life.

They demonstrate how the contemporary reputation of its library helped Alexandria to become a point of convergence for Creek, Roman, Jewish and Syrian culture that drew scholars and statesmen from throughout the ancient world.

The Library of Alexandria explores Alexandria as the largest and the greatest Hellenistic city in the ancient world and its site was, in Alexander the Creat's own words, the very best in which to found a city that would prosper. And not only did it prosper; it became the home of the greatest library in the ancient world. It was the icon and guardian of Creek learning and culture, containing a host of scientific, mathematical and medical literature which would decisively influence the medieval and modern worlds, and a vast collection on philosophy, religion and spirituality including the works of Aristotle, Neo-Platonism, and the writing of the Mystery Schools and the early Christian fathers.

A study of the Library sheds light on the organisation of higher education, and even the book trade, in the ancient world, as well as the connections with the nodal points of Hellenistic culture including Paphos, the Ptolemaic capital of Cyprus. This wide-ranging work which highlights the tragedy of the destruction of Alexandria's ancient and medieval legacy will fascinate both scholars and general readers.

The story of the Arab burning of the Alexandria Library is legend; it may also be history. If true, it would be a tragedy of suitable Greek proportions. It has been suggested that only the Great Library burned in 48 BC, and the Museum and Sarapeion survived until the edict of Theodosius in 391 s.c. By one influential account, the Arabs bear no blame for its destruction at all.

Whatever the case, in the prolonged moment of its loss, which may have lasted four centuries, The Library of Alexandria, edited by Roy MacLeod, locates an important part of the European past.

The vanishing Library spelled the end of one way of learning, and the beginning of the new. In the Library's reconstruction—an act both historical an literary and, in contemporary Alexandria, in actual fact—readers will gain a better understanding of that part of our heritage that is Hellenic, and of other traditions which, blended in the alembic of Alexandria, informed the modern European mind.

Rediscovering some of these for gotten passages, and renewing acquaintance with forgotten legacies, are the goals of is 196-page book.

In Chapter One, Dan T. Potts an archaeologist of the Middle East, reminds us that the Library of Alexandria was neither an isolated manifestation of librarian ship in the ancient world, nor a precocious example of archival praxis.

Archives are found with the first appearance of writing at the site of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia in 3400 BC. The archiving of cuneiform economic texts continued into the Roman/Parthian era, while the scholarly curation of canonical literary texts began by 2500 BC, the book says

Among the most famous libraries of Near Eastern antiquity was that of Assurbanipal al Nineveh, containing thousands of tablets, many of them brought from other sites. Professor Potts essay underlines the historical significance of Alexandria by reviewing the essential points of its ancient Near Eastern antecedents, Potts wrote.

In Chapter Two, linguist and traveller Wendy Brazil explores what it was the library, which drew scholars and statesmen from all parts of the world to Alexandria.

In his essay, which is entitled, Alexandria: The Umbilicus of the Ancient World, Brazil goes in search of the attractions of the city and its famous visitors.

In chapter three, classicist Robert Barnes describes what ancient sources tell us about the library, its books, its librarians, its scholarly work, and its eventual destruction.

Barnes also discusses Luciano Canfora's best-selling book, the vanished library, and considers the author's claim that, as all public libraries in Alexandria were destroyed, we owe the survival of ancient literature entirely to private collectors.

On a different tangent, one requiring the skills of a literary investigator as well as of a classicist, R. Godfrey Tanner, the distinguished Aristotelian scholar unravels the complex history that accompanied the arrival of Aristotle's major scientific works in Alexandria.

In Chapter Four, which is entitled Aristotle's Works: The Possible Origins of the Alexandria Collection, Tanner attempts to solve the puzzle surrounding those works that Ptolemy took, and those that reached the Library around 40 BC, are the stuff of detective drama.

In Chapter Five, John Vallance, a teacher of classics and medieval historian, challenges the received view that Alexandria dominated the medical world of medical scholarship, and suggests there is little evidence that doctors (or medical philosophers) enjoyed royal patronage at Alexandria, or even that medical studies were part of the research programme of the Museum.

In this chapter, which is entitled Doctors in the library: the strange tale of Apollonius the bookworm and other stories, Vallance works through case studies to argue that the existence of the Library enabled earlier work in medical theory to be studied in entirely new ways, but that it also contributed to the rise of one of the most practical and anti-theoretical of all the ancient medical sects.

In Chapter Six, a similar interest in the relationship between theory and practice underlies the essay by Richard Green, ancient historian and theatre historian, who uses his expert knowledge of 4th century Paphos, the Ptolemaic capital of Cyprus, to demonstrate the cultural and stylistic legacy left by Alexandria.

The University of Sydney's excavations at Paphos, now under way for three seasons, are drawn upon to deduce an Alexandrian form, which bears close similarities to the classic Roman theatre.

A set of Hellenistic influences which came to dominate Western life from the first century BC until the end of antiquity are explored for their bearing upon Roman higher education and the book trade by Samuel Lieu, classicist and specialist in the history of Manichaeism.

Towards the end of the seven chapter book, Patricia Johnson, former assistant curator and conservator of the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney, weighs the contribution of Alexandria to the Mystery Schools of the Mediterranean, and in particular, to the rise of Neo-Platonism, with which Alexandria is often associated.

In the concluding chapter, medievalist John 0. Ward looks beyond the flames that consumed the Alexandrian Library, to the monasteries celebrated by Umberto Eco, and explores the significance for medieval Europe of the disappearance of the Alexandrian library, and the fabric of ancient learning.

He considers what of Alexandria's literary legacy survived into Carolingian times, and asks how different the European medieval world might have been had the Library not been destroyed.

As it was, only one medieval library approached Alexandria in nature and scope, and that was the library which forms the subject of Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose. Yet, this Library never existed and is fundamentally different from all medieval libraries for which we have evidence.

Dr Ward takes up this paradox in a survey of the scope and function of the medieval library, and concludes by exploring why Eco should have chosen to invent a medieval library that more resembled the Alexandrian Library, than the actual library of the period he set out to portray.

Taken together, these essays comprise a fresh work along a wide spectrum of literary and historical scholarship, much of it stimulated by what can be called an Alexandrian impulse.

The chapters represent a confluence of research in archaeology, linguistics, the history of philosophy, the history of medicine, and the history of travel, within a tradition that refuses to accept that Alexandria must forever remain lost beyond retrieval, in legend and myth.

The ancient Library may have vanished, but its critical spirit endures.