virus: Alexandrian Virian Memorial

Wade T.Smith (
Mon, 1 Mar 1999 11:29:20 -0500

'91 appears to have been an important anniversary year that we all missed....

But, March is a month completely without interesting holidays.... So, how about the Ides of March?....


The persistent question that is invariably asked when mention is made of 
the Alexandria Library, is how the greatest collection of books in the 
ancient world came to an end.

To cut a long story short, we know that there were two principle centres 
wherein the books were kept: the Royal Library, located close to the 
harbour within the precincts of the royal palaces, and the Daughter 
Library, incorporated in the Sarapeum, south of the city.

The Royal Library 
The Royal Library was an unfortunate casualty of war. In 48 BC., Caesar 
found himself involved in a civil war between Cleopatra and her brother 
Ptolemy XIII. Caesar sided with Cleopatra and was soon besieged by land 
and sea by the Ptolomaic forces. He realised that his only chance lay in 
setting fire to the enemy fleet and it was by this drastic measure that 
he managed to gain the upper hand. But the fire, in the words of 
Plutarch, spread from the dockyards and destroyed the "Great Library" 
(megalé bibliotheke) [ Caes. 49].

The Daughter Library 
As regards the Daughter Library, it continued to function throughout the 
Roman period under the protection of the Sarapeum. Nevertheless, with the 
end of paganism and the ascendancy of Christianity in the fourth century, 
the Sarapeum lost its sanctity. In 391, when the Emperor Theodisius 
ordained the destruction of all pagan temples, contemporary eyewitnesses 
assert that the Sarapeum, together with all its contents, suffered 
complete annihilation. [Rufinus, H.E. 2. 23-30; Eunapius, vit. Aedesii, 
77-8; Socrates, H.E. 5.16.].

The Arab Conquest 
Thus, when the Arabs conquered Egypt in 642, the Alexandria Library no 
longer existed. It is noteworthy that no historians of the conquest, 
whether Byzantine or Arab, ever mention any accident that could have 
occurred to the Library. It was not until six centuries later, during the 
time of the Crusades, when all of a sudden a story emerges, claiming that 
the Arab general Amr Ibn Al-As, had destroyed the books by using them as 
fuel for the baths! [Ibn Al-Quifti 354].

Modern scholarship has proved beyond any doubt that this story was a 
twelfth century fabrication, resulting from war conditions during the 
Crusades. [For a full treatment of the subject, cf. A.J. Butler, The Arab 
Conquest of Egypt, 400 ff.; M. El-Abbadi, Life and Fate of the Ancient 
Library of Alexandria, 136-166].