The Great Library of Alexandria


Thought of as the largest and most significant Library of the ancient world, the Ancient Library of Alexandria functioned as a major centre of scholarship under the Ptolemaic Dynasty for some 3oo years; from circa 300BC until the Roman conquest in Egypt in 30BC. There are many myths surrounding its destruction; from Julius Caesar accidentally burning the library down in 48BC, Theophilus ordering its demolition and the burning of its scrolls circa 400AD to the Moslem invasion in 600AD with Caliph Omar destroying the great library.

Whatever its fate, I am interested in the cultural significance this library was believed to have played. It was not a Library as we might know one to be today but combined many purposes with a much higher significance on society. It facilitated not only the archive but also the creation or writing of many scrolls, said to have contained between 300,000 and 500,000 scrolls in its archives. Alexandria was a major trade port at the time and whenever a ship came into port the crew were required to submit an inventory of any scrolls possessed on board to the library. It was then at the Library’s discretion which of these scrolls they would keep, replicate and return, or leave with the ship. A vast workforce was required at the Library duplicating scrolls for its archives. Often whole families would live and work at the library with accommodation and travel also being provided to the families of scholars conducting their own research. The library contained not only archives but accommodation, gardens, rooms for shared dining, reading, meeting rooms, lecture halls and a museum perhaps similar to a large university today. This created a community at the site not only producing new research and scrolls but also duplicating existing scrolls that were both archived within the library and sold or traded to the wider world. This not only brought wealth to the port but created an intentionally significant place of research and study with a vast number of people interacting with one another and researching, developing and disseminating their ideas.

alexandria diagram2
Programmatic diagram of the Great Library of Alexandria.