By V.W.Fra Tony Osborne IV°
A paper delivered to Charles Darwin College No. 73,
Province of Western Counties and North Wales,
SRIA - Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia -19th October 2019
"Like the Tower of Babel, Atlantis or the Holy Grail, the Library at Alexandria is one of the great archetypes of our civilisation. Since antiquity legions of scholars, novelists, poets, philosophers, artists or mere dreamers have fantasised about a blessed place where all human knowledge, all the books of the world, had been collated…" (Berti & Costa)
"The ways in which our bodies of knowledge are built up ordered and classified, not only help the scholars of the day but also tell us something about the particular world view that underpins that knowledge…" (O.U. Classical Studies Course)
I'm guessing that we have all heard something about the Library at Alexandria? So what do we really know about it?
It was a Library much like we understand Libraries today.
It contained a vast number of books.
It was burned to the ground by Julius Caesar in a tragic accident.
All of its works were lost to science and humanity.
It was the only Library of its sort at the time.
Is that about right?
Well actually you'd probably be wrong on all of those accounts, I say ‘probably' because the Library is an enigma that had more written about it after its demise than during its actual lifetime. So, let's begin to unravel some of the threads and more importantly to look at its connections for us as Rosicrucian’s, let's begin a ‘search for the truth…'
2) Starting where we are:
Let's begin with Christian Rozenkreutz, according to the Confessio he was born in 1378 and studied at Damakar where he learned: Arabic, Physics, and Mathematics and where he was introduced to the book'. Later travelling to Egypt to study Botany, Zoology, the Qabalah and Magic at Fez in Morocco. This education resulted in him being equipped to teach the learned people of Europe how to, "Order all their studies on those sure and solid foundations…" (The Confessio).
Where did the ‘sound foundations' of that knowledge come from? Is it likely that they were collected from antiquity and finally found their way into the Library at Alexandria?
What we know about antiquity is always influenced by translation and the preservation or loss of historical records or the personal, political or religious agendas of writers or scholars. All of these perspectives complicate our access to, and understanding of the ancient world and any attempts to trace our Rosicrucian history, to begin the search for our truth, falls prey to this historical obscurity.
Although the Library is a famous ancient icon there are surprisingly large holes in our knowledge about it. How do we sift the facts from the multi-layered stories and ideas that have been created about it since antiquity, and what impact does that have in our attempts to search for any Rosicrucian ‘truths'? Let's take a look at what we know, or have been told about the famous Library at Alexandria.
3) The Political Context:
Alexander the Great made a flying visit to Egypt in 330-331BC and founded the city of Alexandria which he named after himself. He died in 323BC and was survived by his three Generals who quickly carved up his empire. The Antigonids controlling Greece; the Seculids controlling Asia Minor, Syria and Mesopotamia and the Ptolemies in Egypt. Despite his death, Alexander changed the world for all time by spreading Greek culture across the globe which endured for the next eight hundred years as the language of the elite became entirely Greek.
After his death, Ptolemy stole Alexander's body on the pretext that he who held it would be seen as his legitimate successor and true heir. Initially, he buried the body at Memphis but later moved it to Alexandria which, within fifty years was said to have become the biggest city in the known world at that time. To rule Egypt legitimately, the Ptolemies needed to establish or ‘invent' a culture, imposing a new Government, religion, and language and to effectively combine both Greek and Egyptian society in a way that would firmly establish Greek culture in a foreign land. It is said that the Library served part of that purpose in creating a new focus for the Ptolemies' followers far from their Greek homeland. This led to a new ruling of elite Greeks in a city with a variety of nationalities and languages including Jews, Syrians and Africans who all followed the Greek leadership. This was especially important at a time of political competition between the three successors who were all claiming Alexander's ‘crown' and who were continually at war with each other.
So in an expression of what we would see today as ‘soft power' the Library came into existence some time at the beginning of the third century, after Alexander's death. It was created to contain: "All the knowledge of the world…" contained on Egyptian papyri. To this day its legend influences things we know and the way we know them, from its earliest known reference in 100BC in a letter by the Jew Aristaeus (the content of which has been widely challenged by historians).
4) Where was it located?
Alexandria was located on a spit of land between the Mediterranean to the North and a lagoon. On the seaward side was the small town of Pharos (famous for its Lighthouse). The city itself was divided by two major thoroughfares, the Canoptic way which ran east to west from the gate of the sun through a colonnade of pillars. The street of Soma bisected this at the city centre. The Library was said to have been contained within the Palace Quarter which was constructed in the North-East corner of the city making up about a third of the metropolitan area.
The city itself was located near numerous marshy reed beds which supplied the papyrus. There is a story that the Ptolemies embargoed the export of papyrus to try to stop the growth of a rival library at Pergamum, however this simply resulted in an interesting unintended consequence (remember the last lecture on Systems Thinking!) the invention of parchment and then to folios or books, which eventually replaced the Egyptian papyrus and resulted in the books we know today.
Despite numerous archaeological attempts to find its remains, the Palace District is now said to be beneath the encroaching sea due to seismic activity over many centuries, but it was thought that it had been located close to the Egyptian kings in the Palace District as a symbol of their power and legitimacy.
5) How big was it?
There were actually three buildings of note which have been conflated into a single ‘Library'. The first being a Museum (or Mouseion or Temple of the Muses) which contained various exhibits including animals and today we would recognise this as a cross between a typical museum and a Safari Park.
The origin of the Museum is controversial, being attributed to both Ptolemy I and his successor Ptolemy II. Of its scholars it was said that "Men of learning who share the Museum, hold property in common but also have a priest in charge of the building…" much like a monastic society, we might recognise today. It appears that the Library was reserved for scholars working at the museum just as many research libraries today are closed to people who are not affiliated to a scientific or academic institution. The Library and the Museum were said to have been closely connected to each other.
The Museum and Library spawned a daughter Library which was much smaller and known as the Serapeum or Daughter Library. Serapis the God was an invention of the Ptolemies who sought to join both Greek and Egyptian religions by combining the notions of Zeus and Orsis to further establish their claim to rule. The Daughter Library was open to the public and was said to have been located in the south-eastern quarter of Alexandria. As well as collecting scrolls the Library also collected or attracted people, intellectuals, doctors, scientist, poets' and grammarians who interacted in a hybrid environment of intellectual exchange and cross-pollination of ideas and thinking. The Museum made the Library a working resource, close to the Royal Palace it was a community with lecture halls and a series of covered walkways or colonnades with various rooms off these spaces.
No Library buildings of any description survive from this age, so much of what is thought about the layout of the Library is educated guesswork but it is said that each room in the Library had a raised podium about one meter high set back slightly from the walls of the building, on which stood a series of wooden cases to house the scrolls. It was in these cases that various estimates of papyri roles existed including: ‘One million ‘books' by the time of Jesus' stored in various rooms all categorised by subject or possibly alphabetically. It was the style, scale; scope, ambition and systematic categorisation, which made the library, stand out against those that existed after it.
At the outset of the Library, books had not been created so all of the materials would have been held on papyrus scrolls and the estimates vary across the centuries as to exactly how many scrolls were stored at Alexandria. From conservative estimates of 200,000 to upper estimates of 700,000 scrolls, however, none of these sources can be seen to be reliable. Estimates suggest that each scroll could hold up to 2000 words which might be equivalent to one to two books of today's writing. A historian named Bagnal wrote a paper in 2002 trying to take a fresh approach to this question and he estimated how many authors actually existed in the Hellenistic period, allied to this he estimated that the Library may have actually contained about 31,250 scrolls. (Or the equivalent of about 60,000 books).
However many scrolls were held there, we will never know, but the Library would have been the biggest in existence, being at least twice the size of the greatest libraries of the Roman Empire and its rival library at Pergamum, which was also said to have been constructed in the third century in what is now Turkey. It was said to have held 200,000 scrolls housed in a temple complex dedicated to Athena the goddess of wisdom.
6) What was in it?
It is said that Demetrius (A pupil of Aristotle) moved to Alexandria in disgrace and was part of the founding of the early Library, helping both acquire and organise some of its early works. He is likely to have introduced the system of classification practised by Aristotle in his own private library, which could be seen to be the first systematically organised library in the world. The Ptolemies entrusted the libraries various librarians with the mission of exploring every field of human knowledge.
Alexander conquered the world and the library was designed to conquer the world of knowledge. We think that it was likely to have contained the works of Homer, Plato, Socrates, Sophocles, Euripides, Archimedes, Galen and Euclid – There are a few names on that list that would certainly interest us! It was said that at this time Alexandria resembled Athens in its golden age, it was the place to be if you wanted to be at the ‘cutting edge' of discussion, debate and access to important information. Galen is said to have been able to access over 1800 years of anatomical writings, all organised in a way that had never been done before. It's also said that Strabo, Euclid and Archimedes all studied at Alexandria at the time the library was in existence. Hero designed his steam engine there and it is said that the library also held Antikythera Mechanism an extremely complex navigational device built between 150 -100 BC as well as knowledge relating to the construction of the pyramids. Besides the bulk of Greek literature the library may have also held the written works of other nations like Buddhist writings, the first Greek translation of part of our Bible (the Pentateuch) being the first five books of the Hebrew Bible translated for the first time into Greek by the Alexandrian Jewish community.
It is said that the Library staff often went down to the harbour to talk to passing sailors and to take or confiscate the books they carried, copy them and return them. Galen said, that some of the items in the Library were marked, "From the ships" reflecting their heritage. The Librarians were obsessive about seeking out primary texts that had not been copied so that errors may have crept into the more recent texts could be rectified. This was essential for medical texts as well as alchemical ones.
This obsession led to something called the ‘Acquisition Scandals' as the Librarians sought to get hold of the books they wanted by hook or by crook. An example of this was that in Athens, authorised texts by Sophocles and Euripides were known to exist and were guarded under lock and key. The Ptolemies negotiated a huge cash deposit in silver to examine the texts, when they arrived in Alexandria they were copied, the copies were then returned to Athens (not the originals) and the Ptolemies were happy to sacrifice their deposit for such a great prize!
7) So what really happened to the Library?
"The mystery exists not for the lack of suspects but from an excess of them…" (Cheser)
There are several ‘suspects' who have been investigated as the perpetrators responsible for the destruction of the Library at Alexandria, these are:
- a) Suspect One - Julius Caesar:
The most well-known account of the Libraries destruction by fire, concerns Julius Caesar in 47 - 48 BC. during the battle of Pharsalus. Caesar had tracked down his enemy Pompey to Alexandria only to find he had died. Caesar then became embroiled in a local accession dispute and found himself in a hostile city with a very small retinue. Whilst he was holed up in the harbour area with Cleopatra he became surrounded by the large city army and decided to fight his way out. This resulted in a decision to ‘fire' a fleet of ships in the harbour, which is said then spread to the surrounding warehouses and the Library itself.
Whilst this is the most popular story, it's interesting to note that this version emerged nearly one hundred years after Caesar's death and it is unclear whether it was merely the warehouses on the wharf that burned or whether the fire did indeed spread to the actual Library itself. Whatever actually occurred some of the buildings must have survived this incident as they feature in subsequent stories about the Library.
- b) Suspect Two – Aurelian
Aurelian is said to have attacked the city in 270 / 271 AD to suppress a revolt by Queen Zenobia of Palmyra (who always sounds like she should be a character in the Men in Black Movie to me) who ruled Egypt between 269 and 274 AD. Stories tell that the city was sacked and that the Royal Quarter that contained the Library was completely destroyed as well. However, some reports suggest that many of the books that survived this incident were carried off to Constantinople.
- c) Suspect Three – The Christians:
By about 391 AD Christianity had become the dominant religion led by the Coptic Christian pope Theodosius. As the predominant thinking shifted from classical thinking to Christianity (which had become the Imperial Religion) this meant that the ‘old Gods' were no longer accepted and the Libraries, seen as ‘pagan' icons soon became a target for attack.
During this time there were many riots in Alexandria, which had always had a reputation for being a violent and unpredictable place at the best of times. These riots were led by Christian Monks and Bishops, who were fundamentally inspired individuals, largely uneducated and unpleasant, aggressive and with both anti-female and anti-intellectual ideals. They were determined to destroy what they saw as a remaining ‘signs of paganism'.
It's said that Theophilus, acting on the orders of Emperor Theodosius sanctioned the destruction of all Pagan Temples including the Libraries. It is said that he personally led the attacks even delivering the first blow to the cult statue of Serapis at the daughter Library which by this time was reputed to have contained the works of Plato.
The Christians also had a different way of presenting their knowledge preferring books to scrolls, and so a shift in technology (books) and beliefs (growth of Christian religion) may have been another reason for the libraries ultimate demise.
- d) Suspect Four – The Muslims:
In 641 -642 AD the Muslims conquered Egypt. A resident of Alexandria also a Muslim began talking with the Commander of the Army (Amr ibn Al) about certain philosophical ideas that were unknown to the Muslims at that time. Out of these exchanges, a friendship developed. Eventually, the local man named as ‘Yahya' asked if the books on wisdom and philosophy from the Library could be released to him. The Commander said he could not grant this request himself but would consult the Caliph who is said to have replied: "If those books are in agreement with the Qur'an we have no need of them, and if they are opposed to the Qur'an destroy them…", It is told that upon hearing this the Commander began dismantling the library, distributing all of its scrolls amongst the public baths of Alexandria as fuel for their fires and that the whole library was consumed in this way within six months.
However, an alternative account suggests that the Libraries books were carried off at this time as the intellectual capital shifted to Pergamum, Rome, Byzantium and Milan. The fact that a large percentage of Greek and Arabic translations (Including the works of Plato, Aristotle and Euclid) were ‘discovered' in Muslim libraries during the Crusades seems to add some weight to this view that not all works were destroyed in the bathhouse fires and those that did survive became known again in Europe which gave rise to the Renaissance.
- e) Suspect Five - Wear and tear:
It is important to remember that papyrus scrolls were subject to not only the Mediterranean coastal climate but to mice, insects and human carelessness. It is thought that some of the scrolls were copied into a codex (series of books) by the fourth century AD, but even so, the original scrolls would have been more neglected as a result of this. Therefore this suspect is simply the passage of time and a change of emphasis from ‘pagan' to Christian thought and interests.
The various accounts of the Libraries destruction may not stand up to much historical scrutiny. There was most likely no single cataclysmic event or destruction of the ‘Universal Library' at Alexandria, but these stories have been reported over the centuries for them to take on a life of their own.
"The Library at Alexandria rose like a phoenix from the ashes, wounded, but perhaps it never died…" (J.H. Ellens)
8) What if anything was lost?
It has been argued that a large part of the scientific knowledge of the Hellenistic world was lost, including writings by Hipparchus on astronomy, of Euclid's work we have six but have lost six (50%) of Archimedes we have ten works but have lost about twenty (30%) and of Euripides nineteen plays survive and its estimated about sixty were lost (25%). However, some texts would have been copied and may have survived elsewhere but many are still lost to posterity at this time. Writers suggest that at its ‘destruction' the Library housed history dating back some 5000 years and as our current historical knowledge spans about 3500 years there remains a gap of about 1500 to 2000 years.
Some writers feel that: "There is a reason to suspect that some of the original information still exists but continues to be held in secret…" For example in July 2018 it was announced that finally, a piece of papyrus known as the Basel Papyrus had been translated, it resides in a private collection. It was said that this contained writing by Galen or at the very least a commentary on his work. So some works have survived against the odds and others may re-appear in the future, perhaps we should ask the Pope to open the doors of the Vatican Library!
Other observers suggest that given the extensive accumulation of scientific data collected by the Greeks and Romans and their advanced methods of empirical research, it is surprising that they did not make more breakthroughs in chemistry and physics that could have precipitated an earlier Industrial Revolution, both civilisations understood the power of steam, they had refined the science of optics, geometry and physics and they understood atomic energy, albeit in a rudimentary way.
"They marched right up to the scientific and intellectual threshold for mechanisation and fell back into 1500 years of darkness…" (J.H. Ellens)
We know that enough texts survived to stimulate the Renaissance, without which, we wouldn't have western culture as we know it; more specifically without the Library itself we wouldn't have possibly developed Universities or other scholastic Institutions.
"Alexandrian scholars started from scratch, their gift to civilisation is we never had to do this again…" (BBC)
9) Rosicrucianism and the Library of Alexandria, Establishing the ‘Golden Thread'
The Library is likely to have contained some important and relevant esoteric texts in its search for ‘all human knowledge'; it's acknowledged that Neo-Platonism was conceived in Alexandria, the Corpus Hermetica being not only its central text but the core of a whole school of mystical philosophy. Also, it is suggested that Alexandria provided an environment where practical chemistry collided with mystical stands of Greek thought represented by Plato and Pythagoras and it was from this union that Alchemy was born. One of the key texts in this tradition, much plagiarised later by alchemists was the ‘Physica et Mystica' by the Egyptian sage Bolos of Mendez who lived around 200 BC.
Therefore it's safe to assume (!) that there was an interchange of objective knowledge between the wise men of different nations and traditions during the few hundred years before Christ. It's no surprise then that the Ptolemies were said to have invited seventy Jews to Alexandria to translate books that they had heard ‘respectful reports of' and which could now be translated directly into Greek with their help. With them, the Jews most likely bought the Qabalah (an inner exploration of the Bible) and that they may have made connections between this and the ‘inner teachings' of both Greek and Egyptian philosophies and this cross-pollination likely led to more discoveries which were then added to the esoteric traditions we recognise today.
10) Did its ideas endure?
"After 1521 the way led to Alexandria the ‘cradle of Alchemy' here Paracelsus encountered at first hand the mystical traditions that informed his philosophy…"
Elements of Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism survived and thrived; until at least the Sixteenth century, if not beyond this, Paracelsus, makes no record of what he found in Alexandria but wrote of Alexandria's physicians, and said that in Egypt he received "magical Instruction". So long beyond the Library and its demise, its melting pot of ideas continued to exist and to influence those who could be argued form a cadre of Rosicrucian's founding fathers.
These underground streams of ideas would be rediscovered during the Renaissance as Europe turned back to the ancient world in a desire to understand their history and to use this information to help them make better sense of their present. Renaissance book hunters scoured the known world to again bring together initially Roman and then Greek literature and thinking. By 1420 the entire corpus of Plato had arrived in the west for the first time, by the late sixteenth and eighteenth centuries those very works of Neo-Platonism and Hermeticism dating back to the first century AD were translated from the Greek resulting in at least a fashionable interest in astrology.
Whilst scholars had kept alive and studied alchemy and alchemic ideas, initiated in Alexandria throughout the Middle Ages the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Hebrew texts during these times (15th and 16th Centuries) suggested new ways of converting base metals into silver and gold, whilst concerns about this work being seen a witchcraft saw its insights being concealed behind symbols and allegorical descriptions.
From here it was a short step with the addition of religious ideas which may well have been the seedbed of the Rosicrucian Manifestoes of the early 17th Century. I believe that it's possible to trace a Golden Thread from Alexandria and its Library to Germany in the early 1600s and the eventual birth of Rosicrucianism.
11) End thoughts – The Phoenix Rises
A new Library the Bibliotheca Alexandria opened in 2002. The new Library was profoundly shaped by contemporary ideas about the old Library and its fate. Instead of a narrative in which the Muslims are the destroyers (or one of the suspects as we have seen) of world knowledge, the revived Library seeks to ‘recuperate' their image in the eyes of the west and to position modern Egypt as an ‘heir' to the ancient Alexandrian's crowning achievement.
Mubarak's regime was overthrown by the Egyptian revolution in the Arab Spring of 2011. At the time news reports detailed how the building had to be protected from ‘Lawless bands of thugs' (is this history repeating itself?) who were looting many properties. This reveals the enduring power of the Library a symbol of something much greater than just a collection of books. Today it's often considered a model for the emerging cyberinfrastructure in the humanities.
In a report by the BBC in May 2004, it was revealed that an Egyptian – Polish team excavating in what is left of the Palace Quarter discovered what looked like thirteen lecture halls and associated auditoria which could have housed as many as 1500 students. This is the first time such a complex has been discovered across the whole Mediterranean area. So maybe with time and patience, the Library will eventually give up its real secrets and help us to uncover a little more of our own ‘truth'.
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The Tree of Life Z'ev ben Simon Halevi Rider 1972
The Devils Doctor Philip Ball Heinemann 2006
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Rosicrucianism Wikipedia pages Accessed 2018
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