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The History of the Library of Alexandria

    Early History

    • Much of what we know about the early history of the ancient Alexandrian library comes from the "Letter of Aristeas" written in the middle of the second century B.C. Unfortunately, parts of it are based on legend, and it is difficult to discern how much is really true. We do know that Ptolemy asked Demetrius of Phaleron, who had been Aristotle's pupil, to set up the library. Callimachus of Cyrene created the first catalogue by subject.


    • The library was also meant to be a place for scholars to work. Some famous people worked in Alexandria including mathematician Euclid, astronomer Aristarchus of Samos, and Apollonius of Rhodes, the author of the "Argonautica." Over seventy rabbis whose task was to translate the Old Testament into Greek also worked there.


    • Like most libraries, the library at Alexandria acquired most of its works through purchase. However, legends exist that suggest the library also used more unusual methods to obtain its materials. For example, all ships that arrived at Alexandria's port had to relinquish any manuscripts they had so library scribes could copy them and then place them in the library. Legend has it that Ptolemy III borrowed from the Athenians original works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides but returned copies of them and kept the originals to put in the library. To be fair, however, Ptolemy allowed the Athenians to keep the silver he handed over to them as collateral.


    • Historians are not certain of the fate of the library. Roman historian Plutarch wrote that Julius Caesar was responsible for the library's destruction when he accidently set fire to it while attempting to burn the ships in Alexandria's harbor. However, this is contradicted by later sources who claim that Cleopatra received scrolls from the library years later after this supposed event. The 18th century historian Edward Gibbon author of "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" blamed Patriarch Theophilus and angry Christian mobs for the destruction of library in the late fourth century. Some medieval historians blamed the Muslim conquerors of the seventh century.

    Bibliotheca Alexandrina

    • In 2003 a new library opened where the ancient library had once stood. Like the ancient library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is much more than a collection of books. It contains research and cultural centers such as Calligraphy and Manuscript Centers. Also, there are several museums on site including the Antiquities Museum and Manuscript Museum. It also has a planetarium.

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