Destruction of the Library of Alexandria  

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"In AD 642, Alexandria was captured by the Muslim army of 'Amr ibn al-'As. Several later Arabic sources describe the library's destruction by the order of Caliph Omar. Bar-Hebraeus, writing in the 13th century, quotes Omar as saying to Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī: "If those books are in agreement with the Quran, we have no need of them; and if these are opposed to the Quran, destroy them." Later scholars are skeptical of these stories, given the range of time that had passed before they were written down and the political motivations of the various writers."

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Library of Alexandria was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world. Famous for having been burned, thus resulting in the loss of many scrolls and books, it has become a symbol of "knowledge and culture destroyed". Although there is a traditional account of the burning of the Library at Alexandria, the library may have suffered several fires or acts of destruction, of varying degrees, over many years. Different cultures may have blamed each other throughout history, or distanced their ancestors from responsibility, and therefore leaving conflicting and inconclusive fragments from ancient sources on the exact details of the destruction. There is little consensus on when books in the actual library were destroyed. Manuscripts were probably burned in stages over eight centuries.

Ancient and modern sources identify four possible occasions for the partial or complete destruction of the Library of Alexandria: Julius Caesar's fire during his civil war in 48 BC; the attack of Aurelian in AD 270–275; the decree of Coptic Christian pope Theophilus of Alexandria in AD 391; and the Muslim conquest of Egypt in (or after) AD 642.

Decree of Theodosius, Christian destruction of the Serapeum in 391

Paganism was made illegal by an edict of the Emperor Theodosius I in 391. The temples of Alexandria were closed by Patriarch Pope Theophilus of Alexandria in AD 391.

Socrates of Constantinople provides the following account of the destruction of the temples in Alexandria, in the fifth book of his Historia Ecclesiastica, written around 440:

At the solicitation of Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, the emperor issued an order at this time for the demolition of the heathen temples in that city; commanding also that it should be put in execution under the direction of Theophilus. Seizing this opportunity, Theophilus exerted himself to the utmost to expose the pagan mysteries to contempt. And to begin with, he caused the Mithraeum to be cleaned out, and exhibited to public view the tokens of its bloody mysteries. Then he destroyed the Serapeum, and the bloody rites of the Mithreum he publicly caricatured; the Serapeum also he showed full of extravagant superstitions, and he had the phalli of Priapus carried through the midst of the forum. [...] Thus this disturbance having been terminated, the governor of Alexandria, and the commander-in-chief of the troops in Egypt, assisted Theophilus in demolishing the heathen temples.|

The Serapeum had housed part of the Great Library, but it is not known how many, if any, books were contained in it at the time of destruction. Notably, the passage by Socrates makes no clear reference to a library or its contents, only to religious objects. An earlier text by the historian Ammianus Marcellinus indicates that the library was destroyed in the time of Julius Caesar; whatever books might earlier have been housed at the Serapeum were no longer there in the last decade of the 4th century (Historia 22, 16, 12-13). The pagan scholar Eunapius of Sardis, witnessed the demolition, and though he detested Christians, his account of the Serapeum's destruction makes no mention of any library. When Orosius discusses the destruction of the Great Library at the time of Caesar in the sixth book of his History against the Pagans, he writes:

So perished that marvelous monument of the literary activity of our ancestors, who had gathered together so many great works of brilliant geniuses. In regard to this, however true it may be that in some of the temples there remain up to the present time book chests, which we ourselves have seen, and that, as we are told, these were emptied by our own men in our own day when these temples were plundered—this statement is true enough—yet it seems fairer to suppose that other collections had later been formed to rival the ancient love of literature, and not that there had once been another library which had books separate from the four hundred thousand volumes mentioned, and for that reason had escaped destruction.|Orosius, vi.15.32}}

Thus Orosius laments the pillaging of libraries within temples in 'his own time' by 'his own men' and compares it to the destruction of the Great Library destroyed at the time of Julius Caesar. He is certainly referring to the plundering of pagan temples during his lifetime, but this presumably did not include the library of Alexandria, which he assumes was destroyed in Caesar's time. While he admits that the accusations of plundering books are “true enough,” he then suggests that the books in question were not copies of those that had been housed at the Great Library, but rather new books "to rival the ancient love of literature." Orosius does not say where temples' books were taken, whether to Constantinople or to local monastic libraries or elsewhere, and he does not say that the books were destroyed.

As for the Museum, Mostafa El-Abbadi writes in Life and Fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria (1990):

The Mouseion, being at the same time a 'shrine of the Muses', enjoyed a degree of sanctity as long as other pagan temples remained unmolested. Synesius of Cyrene, who studied under Hypatia at the end of the fourth century, saw the Mouseion and described the images of the philosophers in it. We have no later reference to its existence in the fifth century. As Theon, the distinguished mathematician and father of Hypatia, herself a renowned scholar, was the last recorded scholar-member (c. 380), it is likely that the Mouseion did not long survive the promulgation of Theodosius' decree in 391 to destroy all pagan temples in the city.

John Julius Norwich, in his work Byzantium: The Early Centuries, places the destruction of the library's collection during the anti-Arian riots in Alexandria that transpired after the imperial decree of 391 (p. 314). Edward Gibbon claimed that the Library of Alexandria was pillaged or destroyed when Pope Theophilus of Alexandria demolished the Serapeum in 391.

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