Alexandrias's Beacon against the Dark

By I. M. Oderberg

One of the 'Seven Wonders' of the ancient world was the Pharos of Alexandria, the remarkable lighthouse of many stories built in 279 B.C. on a foundation of solid blocks of glass, on Pharos Island at the harbor entrance. Its ingenuity embodied scientific purpose and architectural beauty. The architect Sostratus chose glass above all other materials because tests indicated that the sea did not corrode it. The Pharos was planned to endure, warning and guiding ships far into the future; also providing a fort and accommodation for garrisons to protect the city. What the natural elements did not destroy, man's greed and rapacity succeeded in accomplishing. In 700 A.D. the threat of war and a zealous search for Alexander's treasure rumored beneath the Pharos, led to the demolition of the upper stories which fell into the sea, together with the scientific instruments kept there. The truncated remains now house what is called the Castle, and a mosque. However, the real beacon of Alexandria was not the Pharos, sending its beam far out to sea, but rather the great library which shed a pervading light over Europe for more than eight centuries.

In the latter part of the fourth century B.C. the Athenian culture seemed to be in decay, when Alexander of Macedon propelled himself like a meteor across Greece and into Asia. After numerous victories in war he became known as Alexander the Great, but his most magnificent work was not the conquest, it was the reopening of the traffic of ideas from the orient to the west, and the creation of a new city destined to play an important role in this process. Alexandria was built upon a sandbank in the Nile, and lifted high the Hellenic glory achieved in science, art, speculative thought; enduring through the Roman occupation of Egypt, it influenced the civilizations of Europe and Asia Minor.

When Alexander died in 323 B.C., his battle-won empire was divided among his generals as satraps. Ptolemy, his close friend and possibly half-brother, received Egypt and Libya over which he ruled more like a king than a governor. He assumed the royal title in 305 B.C. and began the Macedonian or XXXIst Dynasty, the last to reign over an independent Egypt. He was a successful general in subsequent campaigns in Syria and Cyrenaica, and for preserving the nation from invaders he was surnamed Soter. But he is entitled to our respect for more than his prowess in war and astuteness as an administrator. We remember him for raising Alexandria into pre-eminence as Europe's center of learning, through the library and museum he founded.

Ptolemy I Soter invited leading Hellenic philosophers, scientists and literary figures of the day to come to his city. Among them was Demetrios of Phaleron, a famous Greek statesman and litterateur who suggested the establishment of the library and himself assembled the first collection for it, donating many of the scrolls he possessed. Ptolemy took personal interest in the enterprise, which soon grew into a vast treasurehouse of the Greek inheritance. In the process it also became a center of the inherited knowledge and wisdom in general, responsible for translating into the Greek tongue many important writings of other peoples, especially of India. However, it was more than a mere repository of learning, for it not only attracted scholars and editors of texts capable of deciding upon the authenticity of received versions of Homer, Hesiod and other authors, but it also provided laboratories, gardens and a small zoo for research. Beyond this, it became the living heart from which flowed an influence such as that of Eleusis and Samothrace in earlier times, and we may assume it had connections with similar centers located in Egypt from time immemorial.

The post of chief librarian carried court dignity and the prestige of association with a number of very distinguished scholars, such as Eratosthenes, the mathematician and astronomer who was also eminent in other fields. Aristarchos of Samothrace, believed to be the first archaeologist of language, Apollonius of Rhodes, whose Argonautica with its Orphic overtones still survives, and Theocritus the poet, are a few of them. The library and museum established by Ptolemy I Soter and by Demetrios were housed in a complex of buildings modeled on the Museion of Athens and given the same name, but it was very much more extensive in scope and size. The prototype in Athens once held the considerable library of Aristotle that passed to his pupil and heir Theophrastus, and a large portion of this collection was purchased by Soter's son Ptolemy II Philadelphus and located in Alexandria.

Ptolemy's Museion included museums, lecture theaters, astronomical and other laboratories, study rooms and dining halls; the buildings of white marble and stone were reported as being of harmonious design, and liberally ornamented with sculptures and artifacts of various kinds. We do not know how the library was classified, but many passages that have come down to us state that the Greek section was paramount and disposed through ten large halls, containing all the extant works the Greeks had produced, each hall being devoted to a separate department in accordance with the ten divisions of Hellenic knowledge set out in Callimachus' Catalogue, the famous Pinakes. From scattered references, we are led to believe that the contributions of other peoples radiated out from the Greek theme, so the whole collection might well have been arranged according to countries of origin.

Each faculty was superintended by a priest-president responsible to the king and to the chief librarian who was the foremost official of the entire Museion. At its peak the library housed over 500,000 books and a catalogue of 120. We should remember that all of these were in the form of scrolls, requiring specialized care different from our own books. Each scroll, written by hand, had to be checked with master texts and classified according to source and subject. So the various librarians had to be philologists and editors, as well as skilled in performing the duties usual in our own libraries.

The project grew so rapidly that an annex was established in the temple compound dedicated to Serapis, a somewhat benign Zeus, Egyptian in name (derived from the fusion of Osiris with Apis) but purely Greek in character. These buildings were called the Serapeum.

Not all the rulers between the first Ptolemy and the last were committed to the library; Ptolemies VI, VII and VIII could not have cared less what happened to it. After 150 B.C. it fell into serious neglect. But it was revived during the time of Cleopatra, after the disastrous fire for which Julius Caesar has been unjustly blamed. Plutarch says that Cleopatra was very distressed and ordered the immediate restoration of the library and its satellite institutions in the Serapeum. Mark Anthony endeavored to repair the loss by transferring 100,000 scrolls from the famous Pergamum library. To distinguish between the two Alexandrian institutions, the first library (Soter's) is known as the 'Mother' and the second (Cleopatra's) as the 'Daughter.' The latter is supposed to have been the larger because it contained over 700,000 manuscripts (some authorities say 800,000 and others more: even a million, but the evidence is inconclusive). There must have been a continuity in spirit between the two, as suggested by the fact that Gnosticism was connected with the first library, and both the Christian form of Gnosticism and Neoplatonism with the second.

After the Church was granted official recognition and power, and its teachings made compulsory, the monks thought they were free to attack the worship of Serapis. The library in the Serapeum was particularly detested, because it was the home of philosophy, 'magic,' and learning of various kinds and therefore considered "a citadel of disbelief and immorality." As the power of the Patriarchs of Alexandria and the associated bishops grew, the derided paganism ebbed away, making the library and its museums the last publicly known refuges of the ancient wisdom in Europe.

The monks under the extremely hate-ridden Patriarch Theophilus attacked it in 391, destroying the library and installing a monastery on the ruins. The persecution of the non-Christians continued under the Patriarch's equally fanatic nephew and successor Cyril, who in 415 aroused a mob of monks and sent them on a rampage. The Imperial Prefect was murdered and, as E. M. Forster writes: "Cyril's wild black army filled the streets, human only in their faces, and anxious to perform some act of piety before they retired to their monasteries. In this mood they came upon Hypatia who was driving from a lecture . . . dragged her from the carriage to the Caesareum, and there tore her to pieces with tiles . . . with her the Greece that is a spirit expired -- the Greece that tried to discover truth and create beauty and that had created beauty." Even Socrates, the Church historian, said Hypatia surpassed all contemporary philosophers in character as in learning.

Somehow manuscripts were regathered and the library continued, though much reduced in size and effectiveness, until the seventh century when the Arab Muslims are said to have razed to the ground all that remained of the Serapeum. But the story of this destruction in 645 has never been proved; indeed, it has been questioned, for the Muslims had nothing to fear from the library -- they did not read Greek nor did the rolls have value for them. The late historian, Dr. George Sarton, viewed the collection as having been far more dangerous for the overzealous, bigoted Christians of the day.

There is reason to assume that not all the scrolls were destroyed, not even after the first fire in Cleopatra's time. The staff was large, numbering possibly as many as 160 experts with assistants of various grades, and an indefinite number of unskilled help. It was the custom for the librarians to take to their quarters rolls for checking, repairs or even reading. (In Isis Unveiled, H. P. Blavatsky relates that a monk in a Greek convent had shown her a scroll attributed to Theodas, a scribe employed in the Museum during Cleopatra's reign.) A major part of the building was undergoing repairs at the time and those manuscripts possessed only in single copies were temporarily stored in the home of one of the senior librarians. When Caesar ordered the firing of the rebel Egyptian fleet, the flames spread inadvertently to the neighboring wharf and from there to the city. The flames and smoke would surely have warned the library staff long before the fire reached the Museion, affording them plenty of time to rescue at least the most treasured material. It is as likely that books were hidden away at the first signs of violence and persecution in the latter half of the fourth century A.D. -- the trend of events had already been evident for some time.

This possibility might explain how a Turkish portolano map of 1513 could have contained parts of a more ancient map, drawn with great skill and knowledge of cartography, evidently projected from a center close by Alexandria. This map was found in dusty archives in Constantinople, formerly Byzantium, the last stronghold of the Hellenic culture. It would have been natural for scholars to have fled there from Alexandria carrying precious manuscripts. Just as greed and hatred destroyed the main part of the Pharos, so fanaticism and hatred despoiled a spiritual center of the ancient wisdom. The latter was not destroyed; through the centuries afterwards there appeared flickers of light as dedicated individuals or groups here and there in Europe seem to show connections with an unseen stream of culture stretching back to an earlier age.

What did the library contain? Of course we can only hazard guesses. We know that Eratosthenes' important researches were carried out in the laboratories of the Museion, and that other scientists also worked there. Astronomers may have had their tables of observations, botanists and zoologists their classifications. But the humanities were richest, especially in literature, for the very masterpieces themselves were there in accredited texts.

All of this pertains to the library's aspect as a university. Beyond this function extended its inner range. In its early days, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, himself a fine scholar, asked for a translation into Greek of the Old Testament, and the chief librarian convened the group of 72 Hebrew specialists who worked independently of each other to produce what is called the Septuagint, or LXX as it is designated in its Latin translation, the Roman Vulgate. Much later, Philo attempted to fuse Greek philosophy with Hebraic theology, and he would surely have worked in the Serapeum consulting its vast resources with its many texts of Plato and other philosophers. Where else in Alexandria could he have had access to these and so much besides, but in the library?

In any event, his efforts flowed into the stream that later took the form of Neoplatonism, leading exponents of which were Ammonius Saccas, who is reputed to have frequented the library, and his greatest pupil, Plotinus. There are many parallels between the text of Plotinus and the Hermetica, and while it has been assumed that this proves the latter are younger than Neoplatonism and so incorporate its concepts, it can also mean that both derive from the same source: that hidden wisdom which was for a time focalized through the inner resources of the Alexandrian institutions in the Serapeum.

We should not, however, think that only Greek and Egyptian systems were studied in the library. The wise men of India were students there under the Hellenic name 'Gymnosophists' -- not merely students but sharing the treasures of their homeland. We know also that many manuscripts were copied from the oldest parchments in the Chaldean, Phoenician, Persian and other languages, including the ancient hieratic script of the Egyptians. The earliest Fathers of the Church, such as Origen and Clement of Alexandria, were students at the Museion, and despite the later proscription against their teachings, not a few of their central ideas, sometimes under other terms, seem to have crept into aspects of Christian mysticism.

Persecution may appear to drive the light and fire of the ancient wisdom-religion out of existence, but it is really only a case of temporary eclipse. The expression of the innermost soul of man cannot be annihilated, although at times its voice may be repressed. So days return when the stream rises to the surface once more and all may drink of its life-giving waters. The Alexandrian library had its day, but the sun will never set upon what it represented. Or we may say that there will be no end to the dawns, for others will come again and again, far into the future.

 (From Sunrise magazine, August-September 1972; copyright © 1972 Theosophical University Press)

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