Bibliotheca Alexandria; the Revival of the World's First Universal Library

By Soliman, Lotfallah | UNESCO Courier, November 1988 | Go to article overview

Bibliotheca Alexandria; the Revival of the World's First Universal Library


Soliman, Lotfallah, UNESCO Courier


Alexander the great is said to have been welcomed in Egypt as a liberator. He showed great respect for the people's customs and beliefs, and as a professed defender of religion, won the support of the priests. He openly consulted the Egyptian oracles, particularly that of Amon, to which he journeyed with great ceremony. Moreover, the he very quickly understood the central role which Egypt could play in the expansion of world trade, and he lost no time in lending his support to it.

One of the most far-reaching decicisions that Alexander made in this connection was to found the city of Alexandria. Legend has it that he chose the location himself - a small Mediterranean port whose site had attracted him, as the shelter of the offshore island of Pharos formed two natural harbours, ideal as a Greek naval base. Legend also relates that Alexander personally traced out the boundaries of the new city, construction of which began in 332 BC to the design of the Rhodian architect Dinocrates.

Thanks to its favourable geographical situation and its shrewdly designed port, Alexandria became one of the most renowned commercial and maritime crossroads of Antiquity. Untill it was conquered by the Arabs in 641 AD, the city played a major role in Egypt's history.

When Alexandria was first built its population included, in addition to the indigenous Egyptians, the Macedonian guard, a colony of Greek immigrants and a Jewish minority. The city grew rapidly, and during the rule of King Ptolemy I Soter* it welcomed many scholars and artists, who enjoyed royal protection and patronage. The king closely followed the spirit of the policies instituted by Alexander. Respectful of the local civic and political institutions, creeds and religions, he created a climate of tolerance and security in Egypt that was exceptionally favourable to cultural development. Thanks to him, Alexandria began to approach its founder's dream of an ideal capital city, an illustrious centre of intellectual and artistic influence.

Ptolemy I ordered the construction of the famous Pharos lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and during his reign plans were laid for the most celebrated public library of Antiquity, the Library of Alexandria.

His son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus (308-246 BC), brought the library pro)ect to fruition. At the same time, he made Alexandria the world's leading commercial centre. Greeks, Romans, Ethiopians and Jews came to this cosmopolitan city to conduct their business among copyists, clerks, librarians, interpreters, ambassadors, court officials and public administrators. A patron of the arts and of literature, Ptolemy II surrounded himself with eminent scholars and poets, including Callimachus (died 240 BC), whose name would come to be associated with the expansion of the great Library.

The first known library is thought to have been built at Memphis, where visitors were welcomed by the words "Medicines for the Soul". However,. when Ptolemy I decided to create a library in Alexandria, he chose to model it on that of Aristotle in Athens. He may have even acquired the books from Aristotle's library, one of the richest collections of Antiquity.

Right from the start attempts were made to obtain copies of all the works of Greek literature for the Alexandrian Library. This objective was soon achieved, however, and copies of all works of good quality in other languages were sought. Finally, complete universality became the goal, and the Library tried to obtain copies of all existing manuscripts.

Acquiring these copies became one of the main tasks of the librarians, who arranged for all known works to be sent on loan from Athens in return for a deposit, and to be borrowed long enough to make one, or sometimes several copies. Manuscripts found on ships moored in the harbour were also temporarily"confiscated" and copied.

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