Who Destroyed the Library of Alexandria?

Apr 13, 2024

 The Library of Alexandria was built on the democratic teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Aristotle was Alexander the Great's personal tutor and instructor. Naturally, then, Aristotelean teachings influenced Alexander's plans for Alexandria. Why was the Library of Alexandria so important, and what happened to all the wisdom it held?

Once located in Northern Egypt, this grand warehouse of knowledge is popularly believed to have been the largest library in the ancient world, containing works by the greatest philosophers, religious scholars, and scientists in antiquity. The library included the works of Plato, Homer, Socrates, Herophilus of Chalcedon, Aristarchus of Samos, Hypatia, and numerous others. This symbol of the classical era is also believed to have been burned to the ground approximately 2000 years ago, destroying all of the scrolls and major works of knowledge from the Western world. But who burned the library and why?

Historians have debated this question as far back as one hundred years after the destruction of the library. The answer appears to be determined to a certain extent by the historians' religious or cultural sympathies. Some say the Christians burned down the library, some say Muslims, and others say Julius Caesar is to blame. The list of guilty parties is extensive.

A Short Historiography

The Library of Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in approximately 330 BCE and established by Ptolemy II after his death in 323 BCE. It was more likely several buildings acting as museums, libraries, living quarters, and lecture halls. It even included a medical school where human autopsies could be performed. The books said to have been housed in the library range from an estimated forty thousand volumes to a million. This discrepancy is indicative of the general lack of consensus among scholars on details surrounding the library.
It is widely believed that Alexander conceived the library, founded it, and built it. However, it took the efforts of many to make Alexander's vision a reality. During the reign of Ptolemy II, the collection of books at the library became so vast that a daughter library, or Serapeum, was built in the southeastern part of the city. This is where the history of the library starts to become convoluted.

There is very little if any, objective archaeological evidence to clarify any of the questions surrounding the library, let alone its destruction. The entirety of the library's vast collection of valuable contents was lost when it was destroyed. The only evidence that remains is volumes of texts and secondary sources, merely giving clues to details such as the building's appearance, contents, public perception, and ultimate destruction. This mystique and controversy have likely contributed to the library becoming a symbol of ancient wisdom and the end of the Classical era.

According to past historians, the most commonly accepted explanation for the destruction of the library was that Julius Caesar set fire to the enemy naval fleets in the Alexandrian Harbor when he invaded in 47 BCE. From this point, the fire may have spread into the city, destroying the entire library. This explanation was the consensus until Edward Parsons analyzed this theory in his book, The Alexandrian Library, in 1952.

In Parson's analysis, he concluded that out of the sixteen main historical sources known, only one specifies the events and final destruction of the library. He first addressed Seneca's writings. He is the first writer that speaks of the library. Almost one hundred years after the event in 49 CE. Seneca recounts that 40,000 total books were burned.

"The Burning of the Library at Alexandria in 391 AD" by Ambrose Dudley, (fl. 1920s)- The Bridgeman Art Library.

In about, 235 CE, Dio Cassius wrote that storehouses at the harbor containing grain and books of great number and excellence were burned. Next, in 117 CE, Plutarch asserts that a fire destroyed the library. Then, Aulus Gellius, in approximately 169 CE, claims that 700,000 books were burned during the sack of Alexandria. Ammianus Marcellinus in 390 CE, agrees with Aulus Gellius saying that 70,000 books were burned in the sacking of the city of Alexandria. The final writer addressed by Parson is Orosius in approximately 415 CE. He appears to confirm Seneca's account at least in terms of the number of books destroyed as 40,000 in total.

Anti-Caesar Propoganda?

Plutarch is the only ancient writer known to have explicitly referred to the destruction of the library and made a direct reference to Caesar. During a visit to the city of Alexandria, Plutarch wrote that Julius Caesar had accidentally burned the library down when he set fire to ships at the harbor. Luciano Canfora, a professor at the University of Bari (Italy) and an expert in ancient literature, compares a number of historical accounts of what happened to the Library of Alexandria. He attempts to answer some of the most fundamental questions about the library and its fate in his work. His interpretation of the ancient accounts is that there was a definite destruction of books but that the books destroyed were not in the library as part of an active collection. They were different; even special.

This explanation aligns with the writings of the philosopher, Strabo, who worked as a scholar in Alexandria, in 20 B.C.E. His manuscripts only mention the museum as being part of the royal palace and make no mention of the existence of the library at all. Strabo provides some better details about the structure and function of the library by describing the covered walks, exedra or portico, and a great hall where members of the museum take their meals in common. This account has given modern scholars reason to doubt Caesar's supposed role in the destruction of the library since if it existed in some form, even if only a museum in 20 BCE, it is logical to surmise that the library had not been burned down by Caesar twenty-eight years previously.

Blaming Julius Caesar is an easy and tempting thing to do when trying to piece together a fragmented history of the library. It is both nostalgic and romantic to use Caesar as a scapegoat due to the inherently political nature of his legacy. Still, there is clearly not enough evidence to conclude that he is to blame for the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. Another clue is that even the historians who were politically opposed to Caesar never mentioned his responsibility for destroying the library. So, who are the other suspects historians often cite?

Anti-Islamic Propaganda?


In addition to blaming political figures, historians have blamed Muslims. In the medieval era, Caliph Omar invaded the region in the 7th century under General Amir ibn el-As. It is believed that he ordered the library to be destroyed after hearing about its splendor and prestige of the library and that he wanted to destroy its content. Specifically, any of the books in the library that did not support Islam should be burned because they were heretical and any of the books that did support Islam should be burned because they were redundant and, therefore, unnecessary. The legend claims that the books were collected and used for fuel to heat the thousands of Alexandrian bathhouses for at least six months. However, this account was written over 300 years after the supposed event by a thirteenth-century Christian writer, Gregory Bar Hebraeus. This claim can easily be interpreted as a Christian attack on Muslims.

In medieval Christian Europe, people readily believed this to be an accurate account of the destruction of the library. This may have been due to the literature citing perceived ignorance on the parts of Islamic visitors to Egypt in the previous centuries. Ibn Jubayr, secretary to the governor of Granada, visited Egypt in the twelfth century CE. He wrote that the pyramids looked like huge pavilions and wondered if they were the tombs of early Muslim prophets from the Koran. The medieval European Christians also believed that Muslim caliphs established commissions whose sole purposes were to explore and subsequently plunder Egyptian tombs and Christian churches and monasteries.

In the late nineteenth century, historians started to re-examine these theories and sources after learning that Muslims had great respect for science, mathematics, and learning in general, in a period referred to as the Islamic Golden Age. This was the period between the seventh and eleventh centuries when Muslim scholars forged new paths in the fields of science and medicine, giving the world subjects such as algebra. The new thoughts were that early Christian accusations of the lack of regard for the knowledge in the Library of Alexandria were Christian propaganda. The perspective turned to that of the Muslims being the saviors of Classical wisdom and that the Muslim scholars were responsible for the Renaissance.

There are some historians that doubt the validity of the existence of the Islamic Golden Age, citing the lack of archaeological evidence for such claims. Here, we still find no consensus in thought. We start to see a pattern of finger pointing and, arguably, more propaganda perpetuating various political and religious stereotypes. The evidence, or possibly more aptly, lack of evidence, supports the idea that Muslims did not destroy the library. Again, this leaves the question of responsibility outstanding. If Muslims are not responsible for the destruction of the library, then perhaps the Christians are to blame?

Anti-Christian Propoganda?

Christians as the cause of the destruction is also a widely held theory, tied to a romantic story of an almost idyllic historical figure, Hypatia. Hypatia was a Neo-Platonist mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher in Alexandria.

"Hypatia" by Charles William Mitchell (1885).

According to the first account of this story by a medieval Christian scholar Socrates Scholasticus, Hypatia was murdered by a Christian mob. The mob captured her as she was on her way to work at the library and took her into the Serapeum. From there, they used broken roof tiles to fillet her and tear her into pieces before burning her as a witch. This event formally extinguished the Classical era and ended Hellenistic Intellectualism, according to modern scholars.

Was this the act of a single radical Christian mob, or was this a sanctioned killing? Emperor Theodosius I officially sanctioned the destruction of the Serapeum in 391 CE in an effort to rid Alexandria of paganism and make way for the building of a new Christian church. However, there are not many more sources to confirm that the killing of Hypatia was the "shot heard 'round the world" with regards to the ultimate demise of the Library of Alexandria. It is a romantic story and one that made for a beautifully dramatic screenplay in the 2009 feature film, Agora.

As has been the case in this mystery, romanticism, nostalgia, and religious, political, and cultural bias fill in the gaps left by a spotty, incomplete historical record of the Library of Alexandria. What does seem clear is that the library existed in some form and was destroyed. However, both ancient and modern historians alike reach no real consensus on the exact chain of events that took place, let alone who is ultimately responsible.

Who Really Happened?

A variety of historians have tackled this issue, each bringing to it their own insights and inherent biases. Still, more historians are beginning to form a consensus around the idea that the library's demise was a combination of factors rather than one single event. It likely suffered from multiple fires, sackings, looting, and destructions on and off, which spanned hundreds of years. Ancient Alexandria was a cosmopolitan port city that captured the military interests of many and was the center of cultural and religious tension.

The library is famous for being seen as a symbol of lost knowledge and destroyed culture. This loss of ancient wisdom was the launchpad of the so-called Dark Ages. It makes it a convenient historical variable for the Western world to assign blame to any religious or political adversaries for their loss of greatness. This narrative has endured for so long because it is adaptable and can fit the agenda of whichever historian or storyteller that may come along. Since there is not enough evidence to fully support an explanation, there is theoretically not enough evidence to deny one either. This was the ultimate conspiracy of classical antiquity.

There will likely never be a consensus among historians as to the true fate of the Library of Alexandria. Too many unreliable sources, biases, legends, fables, and sheer lack of evidence stand in the way of finding a resolution. I suspect that even if new evidence were to be found, it would not squelch the old narratives of anti-Caesar propaganda, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian sentiment, as well as anti-intellectualism.

Hidden Wisdom

The library was one of the greatest warehouses of wisdom the world has ever known. It is here that the earliest written translation of the Bible in Greek was completed in 281 BCE. It is also in Alexandria where neuroscience starts to shed new light on old philosophical theories. Hermeticism, a Hellenistic system of secret teachings, originated and flourished as Gnosticism began to unfold.

It has only been in more recent years that the public has become more familiar with Gnosticism. This is thanks, in part, to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the work of scholars such as Elaine Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University and author of The Gnostic Gospels.
Historians mostly agree that Asoka, the Buddhist emperor of India, sent Buddhist missionaries to Alexandria at the beginning of the Christian Era. There is archaeological evidence that shows that Indians visited Alexandria and had more than communication but also agreements with the Hellenistic world.

This confluence of cultures, philosophies, and wisdom started to raise the consciousness of the inhabitants of classical antiquity. Humanity was on the cusp of another significant turning point, perhaps posing a threat to the establishment. It is no surprise that it was burned to the ground.

The destruction of the Library of Alexandria led the West into an age of darkness, stagnation, and tyranny. It wasn't until the rediscovery of some of these texts, thanks to Muslim scholars, that we were once again able to learn this hidden wisdom. It was a renaissance, from Latin renasci, derived from "re," meaning "again," and nasci meaning to be born. So, literally, "rebirth." Like a phoenix rising from the ashes of the burned Hellenistic Library, man's spirit was reborn during the Renaissance.

Surprisingly, Renaissance scholars had access to very few actual Gnostic texts. It was deemed heretical by the Catholic Church, even though many of the Gnostic texts were written by Jewish and Christian writers in Alexandria, which is one reason it was heretical to read Gnostic literature. During the second century CE, early Christians followed Gnostic ideas from many different sources. This posed its own set of problems, in that a culture that is not easily homogenized is not easily controlled.

The philosopher Plotinus, from the third century CE, had a great body of work that touched upon Platonic principles, personal mystical experience, and individual spirituality. His teachings were suppressed by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. Therefore, only scraps of texts survive. Soon, the Cathars would begin to flourish in southern France. This Christian group was inspired by Gnostic ideology. The Catholic Church led a twenty-year crusade, initiated by Pope Innocent III, to eliminate the Cathars. Although most died, there were individuals who were able to protect their secret doctrine and pass it throughout initiation-based social systems such as the Knights Templar. Later, in the seventeenth century, we see these teachings reappear in an organization called the Rosicrucians, or "Rosy Cross."

In the centuries leading up to what scholars refer to as the Italian Renaissance, there were secret groups of initiated individuals who were the custodians of this heretical knowledge. They had to work in secrecy because what they were studying and teaching was a set of ancient beliefs and practices that could undermine their present world order.

These Renaissance philosophers recovered many ancient texts, which they considered to be far more enlightening since they were considered older than Christianity, with the most important being Corpus Hermeticum or collection of Hermetic writings. This collection was a set of Alexandrian documents from the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE from a teacher known as Hermes Trismegistus (thrice-greatest Hermes) discussing nature, spirituality, the cosmos, and similar topics. As was the tendency in Alexandria, Egyptian deities merged with Greek deities, creating a syncretism. In this case, it was the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth who became one.

'Engraving of Mercurius Trismegistus from Pierre Mussard, Historia Deorum fatidicorum, Venice, 1675.' 

Arab scholar Al-Ṣābiʾ Thābit ibn Qurra al- Ḥarrānī (836-911) presided over a pagan Hermetic school in Baghdad. He was a mathematician, astronomer, physician, and philosopher. You can thank him for the invention of statistics! He, along with other Muslim scholars, preserved many of the ancient Greek texts which held secret knowledge of a divine nature. His work, in the form of some of these Greek texts, was purchased by the Duke of Florence and great patron of the Renaissance, Cosimo di Medici, in 1460 CE.

Medici had just founded the Florentine Platonic Academy in that same year. He hired Masilio Ficino, a scholar and Greek translator, to decipher Platonic texts and translate them from Greek into Latin. Masilio Ficino translated the Corpus Hermeticum into Latin, making it available to Western European scholars. Cosimo and Ficino became very excited, as they were convinced that they had discovered a divinely revealed document, older than the Torah. They would not be the only ones excited over this new knowledge. Soon, word started to spread in elite circles that there was a vast world of spiritual ideas apart from the established Christian worldview.

This occult movement has been repeated at various points in history. As we have seen before, it is no grand conspiracy nor surprise that when “the powers that be” gain what they believe to be powerful knowledge, they keep it secret, usually through the manipulation of symbols and social hierarchical systems of initiation. The Library of Alexandria held secrets no one can ever really know. It may come as a surprise that there are many more lost libraries of the ancient world. In fact, there are at least 36 ancient libraries from all over the world that once held secret knowledge and lost wisdom.

It is so important to remember the tragic loss of human intellectual achievement, now more than ever. We are living in an age of censorship where books are banned as well as our speech. Knowledge is more than just power, it’s freedom. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Knowledge is the antidote to fear.” We also know that a fearful public is easier to control. Thus, we must earn our freedom through knowledge. This is, after all, the very definition of the liberal arts, but that’s a post for another time.


To learn more about lost wisdom, Check out my Kindle Short Read on Amazon. This concise, 45-page journey explores the heart-wrenching tales of lost knowledge, focusing on the tragic burning of Brazil's National Museum, the Library of Alexandria, and the ancient Library of Ashurbanipal. 

Lost Wisdom: The Secrets of Ancient Libraries

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