What was the Alexandria Library

Alexandria New Library

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Alexandria New Library

On October 16, 2002, the new Alexandria Library opened in Egypt. It was built based on the ancient Alexandrian library in Alexandria, Egypt, built 2000 years ago. In that library all the knowledge of that time was kept in the form of scrolls. Unfortunately, most of it was destroyed in wars.

The Alexandrian Library was the most famous library of the ancient world. It was located in Alexandria, Egypt, at that time the capital of the Ptolemaic Empire near the mouth of the Nile. According to the medieval scholar Johannes Tzetzes (approx. 1110-1180), the library had a book inventory of around 490,000 rolls before it was destroyed. This corresponds to about 80,000 to 100,000 modern volumes of medium size. However, there is different information about the book inventory.


Athens as a role model


The library was part of the associated university, the Museion. The then King Ptolemy I Soter (305-283 BC, see picture) had these set up based on the model of the philosophy schools in Athens. The management of the library was entrusted to eminent scholars and writers who also taught at the Museion. The first director and important co-founder of the library was Demetrios von Phaleron, a friend and student of Aristotle. However, he fell out of favor with the successor of Ptolemy I, Ptolemy II, and was banished because he made himself suspicious by political writings. Eight more leaders followed in the coming decades.


At the Museion, all areas of knowledge of the ancient world were researched and then numerous scrolls were created and kept in the library. The scholars occupied themselves most intensively with mathematics, zoology, botany, physics, astronomy, medicine and especially with literature.


Knowledge at any cost


The library's collection area encompassed literature from all peoples and times. Foreign language literature was translated into Greek. Famous writers and philosophers of the time lent their writings to the library for a deposit of 15 silver talents, which corresponded to around 400 kg of silver for copying. However, the library kept the originals and only returned the copies. In doing so, she decided not to return the money. Ships in the port of Alexandria were also searched for interesting books and only copies were given to the owners.


Archive of world literature


The scholars who took care of the completion of the scriptures were appointed by the king, had no taxes to pay, and were allowed to live in the Museion for free. For this they had a demanding task: To complete the world literature of that time, they had to check the numerous texts that had survived, sort them out and assign them to the respective epoch. It was important to know where the fonts came from in order to be able to distinguish between different handwritings of the same texts.


Fatal consequences of a fire


Several versions exist beyond the end of the library. It is very likely that it fell victim to the flames in AD 272, i.e. 1735 years ago. At that time, the palace district in Alexandria and thus inevitably also the library were destroyed during fights between the emperor Aurelian and Zenobia, the ruler of Palmyra (now Syria).


The library of Alexandria contained all the knowledge of the ancient world. Due to their destruction, an important treasure trove of ancient knowledge was lost forever. In 1989 the Egyptian state announced an architectural competition for the design of a new, large library in Alexandria. Out of 650 teams of architects, a small Norwegian company called Snøhetta won the competition.


The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina


The new library was designed for a maximum of 8 million books; in 2004 there were already 200,000 books. The Alexandria Library also has a backup copy of the data from the Internet archive, which has been taking snapshots of many websites since 1996. This prevents important information from being lost. The archive is estimated to be three petabytes (PB) in size. That's three billion megabytes (MB). For comparison: 1 MB of an MP3 file corresponds to about a minute of music. Three PB equals three billion MB, i.e. three billion minutes of music - that's 5707 years of music!


Text: Luisa Blendinger 10/10/2007 Images: PD, Neue Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Old Egyptian Papyrus: Hajor; Papyrus section: Shizhao; Today's Alexandria, library back: Nomo; Library of Celsus in Ephesus: Vanessal

Note: All images and links have been removed from the archive