Tag Archives: ancient history

Alexandria, its ancient library, and losing knowledge

24 Nov
A 19th century illustration of the burning of the Library of Alexandria.
A 19th century illustration of the burning of the Library of Alexandria.
 Heritage Images/Getty Images

The opening episode of Carl Sagan’s TV series Cosmos, first shown in 1980, lamented the most famous burning of books in history—the conflagration that destroyed the Library of Alexandria. “If I could travel back into time,” Sagan told his viewers, it would be to the Library of Alexandria, because “all the knowledge in the ancient world was within those marble walls.” The destruction of the library was, he said, a warning to us 1,600 years later: “we must never let it happen again.”

Sagan stood in a line of writers who, for the last two or three hundred years, have made the word Alexandria conjure up not a place—a city in Egypt—but an image of a burning library. The term Alexandria has become shorthand for the triumph of ignorance over the very essence of civilization. From the French Revolution, through the early history of the United States of America, from the First World War to the conflicts in the Balkans in the late 20th century, the word Alexandria has been a reference point for the subsequent destruction of libraries and archives. The greatest library ever assembled by the great civilizations of the ancient world—containing a vast ocean of knowledge now lost to us forever—was incinerated on a great pyre of papyrus.

The story of Alexandria is a myth—in fact a collection of myths and legends, sometimes competing with each other—to which the popular imagination continues to cling. The idea of a truly universal library, a single place where the entire knowledge of the world was stored, has inspired writers as well as librarians throughout history. Our knowledge of the real ancient Library of Alexandria is to say the least patchy, the primary sources being few, and mostly repeating other sources, now lost, or too distant to be able to be sure of. If we are going to heed Sagan’s warning, however, we must be sure of the true reason for the library’s demise.

There were in fact two libraries in ancient Alexandria, The Mouseion and the Serapeum, or the Inner and Outer Libraries. One of our sources about the Alexandrian Library is the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who, in his History (written around AD 380-390) also brings together the two key facts: that there was a massive library, and that it was destroyed.

But while the fact that the library failed to exist beyond the classical period is unquestioned, exactly why is less clear.

So begins historian Richard Ovenden’s concise consideration of the destruction of the famous ancient library of Alexandria. You may read his entire Time story here.

World’s Oldest Smiley Face May Decorate a Hittite Jug

24 Jul

We seem to have the Hittites to thank for the original emoji. Read about it here at the Smithsonian: World’s Oldest Smiley Face May Decorate a Hittite Jug | Smart News | Smithsonian

How to Decode an Ancient Roman’s Handwriting

2 May

Roger Tomlin has made a name for himself deciphering Latin texts that were never meant for posterity. Read Charlotte Higgin’s fascinating New Yorker story of paleographer Tomlin here: How to Decode an Ancient Roman’s Handwriting – The New Yorker

Carson’s Claims About Pyramids Storing Grain Dismissed

11 Nov

Presidential candidate Ben Carson has made some unsupportable historical claims based on his religious convictions. Ginger Perales at NewHistorian offer a concise summary of the situation here: Carson’s Claims About Pyramids Storing Grain Dismissed

An Ancient Civics Lesson

19 Mar

The ancient Greeks and Romans; for most of us, I’d guess that they don’t seem all that relevant to our daily lives.

However, Melissa Lane, professor of politics at Princeton, suggests they are more relevant than we might think in regards to what to do about the contemporary gap between the wealthy and the poor. You can find her op-ed at the New York Times here: An Ancient Civics Lesson – NYTimes.com.

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