In Search of the GREAT LIBRARY of ALEXANDRIA
For regular videos on ancient cultures and forgotten civilizations. please subscribe. When traveling the world, it’s nice to get some perspective, and one great way of achieving that is with a globe. Globes provide an enhanced sense of context, and geographical literacy, which is beneficial to have whether you are a traveler or not.
And I especially like MOVA globes, the sponsor of today’s video. You may have noticed that I promoted them before, and I am back with some news. As part of their seasonal promotion, MOVA is going to be giving away one of their globes to a World of Antiquity viewer. What’s so great about MOVA globes? They rotate.
By themselves. Without a cord. Without batteries. What’s the trick? It turns when it is exposed to ambient light. Hidden magnets inside provide the movement. This is first of its kind technology.
I got one with an antique map - but they have more than 40 other designs as well. They even have an outer space collection featuring graphics by NASA and JPL. You can browse what you like at movaglobes.com This will look great in your office, living room, or bedroom. It tells people you are a world traveler, if not literally, at least in the heart. And what better way to irritate the flat earthers.
You can enter now to win a 4.5” MOVA Globe of your choice at the link I will provide under the video. The giveaway ends Nov. 22nd, so best to do it now before you forget. The winner will be notified via email. Now back to the show. Alexandria.
It’s a city that often is overlooked by tour groups visiting Egypt. It’s true there are no pyramids here, but Alexandria is rich in history - it was at one time the capital of Egypt, after all, and the ancient history lover will find some fascinating ruins and artifacts to drool over. The city from which Cleopatra once ruled, and which famous Romans like Julius Caesar and Marc Antony visited, was home to the Great Lighthouse, to a University at which notable scholars of the ancient world worked and taught, and the Library of Alexandria, where thousands of ancient books were held, a vast repository of knowledge in its day. One of the reasons I and fellow historian Natalie Hilder visited here was to learn more about this library and its secrets.
Who built it and why? What books did it hold? What happened to it? We’re going to find out. Did you know that part of it still exists? Oh yeah. We’re going to show it to you. So come with us on our search to find the Great Library of Alexandria. Welcome to the Antiquities Travel Guide, a helping hand for visiting historic places.
Follow us to different countries as we search for ancient artifacts. If you too wish to explore the ancient past through travel, we'll help you plan where to go, what to see, and how best to enjoy what you encounter. In this series of the ATG, you can accompany Natalie and me on our trek through Egypt, homeland of the ancient Egyptians, Kushites, Libyans, Asiatics, and Greeks.
Come on, let's go! We started our inquiry into the mysteries of the Library of Alexandria by looking into some of the historical background of the city, and in particular its heyday in the days of the Ptolemies, the Macedonian dynasty that ruled Egypt from 305 to 30 BCE. So we headed over to the Alexandria National Museum in the heart of town. Housed in a renovated Italianate mansion and built around a beautiful garden, the museum holds about 1,800 artifacts from the city’s ancient past. The cost is 100 Egyptian pounds, which is about $3.25 US. Near the entrance are fabulous objects that were retrieved from under the sea by underwater archaeologists. Artifacts not only from Alexandria, but also the nearby sites of Herakleion and Canopus.
As you may know, Alexandria and other coastal cities are now partly underwater. Each floor is dedicated to a different era in Egypt’s history. The main floor exhibits artifacts from the Hellenistic and Roman periods.
This wonderfully-preserved stela is the Decree of Nectanebo I, Egyptian name Nakht-nebef, who reigned from 358 to 340, during the 30th dynasty, shortly before Alexander the Great’s conquest of the country. The stela was part of a temple in Herakleion, and it had a twin in a temple in Naukratis, which was found in the late 1800s. The contents are about tax money being given to the priests.
Alexandria was different from the rest of Egypt because its population was primarily Greek and Macedonian. Alexandria is the quintessential Hellenistic creation, because it was built as a Greek city. Though perhaps dreamed up by Alexander the Great and named after him, most of what was built here was from the time of the Ptolemies. Ptolemy I had been one of Alexander’s generals, but he founded a dynasty that would last until the Roman conquest. There’s the Roman emperor Caracalla in pharaoh’s garb. There’s Berenike III, wife of king Ptolemy X.
The hybrid Greek-Egyptian god Serapis. I talked about him in our episode on the Serapeum. One of the things you’ll notice about statues of the Ptolemies and their depictions in reliefs is that they are often dressed as pharaohs. This was to appeal to the Egyptian population. There also was a Greek population in Egypt, especially here in the capital city. They didn’t recognize the Ptolemies as pharaohs.
They were simply kings. So the government had to appeal to two different crowds, and this gave it kind of a split personality. The first floor is dedicated to the dynastic period. The Ptolemies generally looked down on the Egyptians, especially the peasants who couldn’t speak Greek and therefore were considered barbarians.
Down below is a recreated funerary chamber with artifacts typical of Egyptian tombs. The museum is not very big, but the collection is impressive, so if you are an ancient history enthusiast in Alexandria, I recommend it. After that, we met up with Ehab, the guide who has been with us this whole trip. His scheduled time with us was complete, but he enjoyed our company so much, he decided to hang out with us today too. We picked up some street food on the way to our next destination. The Greeks and Macedonians were the elites in Ptolemaic society.
But the Ptolemies did want to be considered legitimate rulers to the Egyptians, so they participated in Egyptian ceremonies and rituals and gave money to the temples. Some kings even went so far as marrying their sisters - Ptolemy II was the first to do so, marrying his sister Arsinoe II - because this had been a custom in Egypt. But I should add that Greek gods also had incestuous relationships, and the Ptolemies were trying to imitate divinities, so that may be part of it too Foreigners lived in Egypt under the Ptolemies too, and some of them, those that were fully Hellenized, would even serve in the court. One large community of foreigners that lived here in the city was the Jewish people, who resided in the northeastern quarter.
And what was the next destination? The Library of Alexandria. But not the ancient one. I am talking about the new Library of Alexandria, commonly known by its Greek name, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. No, I didn’t trick you. We still are going to the ancient site of the library.
But I want to show you the new library, because, well, it’s amazing. Our friend, marine archaeologist Alicia Johnson, joined us. The admission price is 150 Egyptian pounds, but I recommend the all-inclusive ticket which gets you into the museums too for 300 Egyptian pounds, that’s just under 10 dollars US.
The feeling that you get from this place is probably very similar to the feeling ancient scholars and students got when they visited the original Library. Besides the Main Library, there are six specialized libraries also here. But this place is more than a library. There’s an arts center, art galleries, a planetarium, an exploratorium for kids, VISTA, a virtual reality environment used to examine objects in 3D, and much more.
There are also four museums. The Manuscripts Museum holds many valuable ancient and medieval manuscripts. What manuscripts did the original Great Library have? A wide variety of texts. The scholars, poets, and scientists, who were invited by Ptolemy II to come and work and teach in Alexandria, toiled to preserve great books of the past and to produce new ones.
They obtained the best copies of the works of Homer, for example, and works of the earlier philosophers, and they engaged in textual analysis, and studied the philology, etymology and grammar of these books. They also wrote new books of poetry, science, philosophy, and even epic. And there also is an Antiquities Museum, which holds ancient artifacts that were recovered right in the vicinity of the library, on land and underwater.
Some people wonder whether the original Great Library might have preserved Egyptian texts from earlier times. There is no explicit mention of this in any surviving documents, and it seems clear that most of the books of the library were in Greek, but it is possible, as we know that Egyptian temples did house scrolls, specifically those related to worship and ritual. Maybe some of them made their way into the Great Library.
I should add that the Library seems to have been modeled after an Egyptian temple, specifically the funerary temple of Ramesses II at Thebes, known more commonly as the Ramesseum. Descriptions of the Library seem to match the layout of Ramesses’ temple, and we know that at the back of Ramesses’ temple were rooms that held scrolls. That being said, we have found no evidence of significant works of Egyptian philosophy written before Hellenistic times. If you are wondering about the supposed Egyptian philosopher Hermes Trismegistus, you can see my video on the subject. Long story short, he is likely a fictional character. It is surmised that, just as the Ramesseum was a memorial temple for Ramesses, perhaps in a symbolic way, the Library was a memorial temple for Alexander, and maybe Alexander’s tomb was adjacent to the Library.
It’s just an educated guess. I can’t recommend a visit to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina enough. It will impress you. The library gets about 1.5 million visitors each year and hosts a number of academic organizations and projects. From what I understand, they are digitizing more manuscripts than any other library on the planet.
When was the original Library of Alexandria founded? One old tradition is that it was brought into being by Demetrius of Phalerum in the reign of Ptolemy I. But other sources indicate that Demetrius was not on good terms with Ptolemy I. Whatever the case, the Library appears to have opened officially during the reign of Ptolemy II, who reigned from 283 to 246 BCE. The first head librarian is said to have been a man named Zenodotus of Ephesus, who collected numerous works of Greek poetry. After Zenodotus came Apollonius of Rhodes, who you may have heard of before.
He is the author of the Argonautika, the oldest surviving complete story of Jason and the Argonauts. He was succeeded by Eratosthenes of Cyrene. People used to call him Beta, referring to his being a second-rate scholar. But he certainly wasn’t.
As you may know, he calculated the circumference of the earth fairly accurately. Seeing as there is a modern city sitting on the ancient site, there isn’t much of the ancient city left, but if you know where to go, there are remnants you can find. One of the best spots is Kom el-Deka, which is where we went the next morning. This is a spot that has enabled archaeologists and historians to better understand the urban fabric of the city. The admission price is 80 Egyptian pounds, which is about $2.60 US.
During the first three centuries of the common era, this was a high-end residential area, and there are still remains of some colorful floor mosaics, wall paintings, and sculptures from this time. At the end of the 3rd century, there were rebellions in the city over political issues, which the Roman emperor violently put down. As a result, most of the residences were destroyed.
Some smaller and more modest homes were then built here. Then in the 4th century, something interesting occurred. A new urban project transformed this area into something special. They built numerous public buildings, a complex of large baths in the midst of monumental colonnades, gymnasia and new public latrines.
A new system of furnaces were added to heat the water in the baths. Most interestingly, in the 6th century, a large academic complex was built here, with 22 different auditoriums or lecture halls. That makes this the only ancient university so-far discovered in the Mediterranean. A campus of this size in Alexandria should come as no surprise. Next to Athens and Berytos (Beirut), the city was one of the most important educational centers of Hellenistic and Roman times.
At the same time the Great Library was built, in the Ptolemaic period, a university was built here too, called the Museion. None of that original one remains, but we have this one, its successor, you might say. Since the creation of this site roughly coincides with the closing of the Academy in Athens, we might speculate that there could be some correlation. The Museion and Library were connected with one another and stood within walking distance of the place we just were. Unfortunately, the Museion and Library are completely gone. What is not gone, however, is one of the satellite branches of the Library, and that is where we are headed.
We took an Uber to get there. But before that, we have one more stop to make, which is on the way, and I have to say, if you are going to visit any of the ancient ruins in the city, this should be at the top of your list. I am referring to the Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqafa.
The admission price is 80 Egyptian pounds, or $2.60 US. The catacombs found here were not unique, actually. Alexandria had a large necropolis on the west side of town, but so far none of the rest have turned up. It is very likely they are now destroyed. This one is believed to have been first constructed in the 2nd century CE and was used until about the 4th century. In the court above the catacombs can be found numerous ancient sarcophagi and the remains of some small funerary chapels, most of them from Roman times.
The catacombs themselves were topped with a large funerary chapel. Only remnants remain. From there, a round shaft descends into the ground. It has a stairway going around it.
It is believed that the shaft was used as an easy way to lower bodies down into the catacombs. It would have been a pain carrying them down the stairs. There’s a rotunda room a little ways down. Seats carved into the wall are where visitors to the tombs could rest.
From the rotunda through a hole in the wall is a set of tombs. This area was dubbed the Hall of Caracalla. There were bones of both men and horses found in this section. It is believed that these were the tombs of soldiers and army horses from the time of Caracalla. There’s also a banquet hall on this level called the Triclinium, where families of the deceased could participate in ritual feasts to honor their dead loved ones. Heading down to the middle level is the coolest part of the complex.
In the center is a section designed like a Greek temple. On either side of it is a large complex of tombs. Why was broken pottery found down here? Well, people who came here to visit the tombs of their family members would bring food and drink with them for ritual feasting.
Maybe because they didn’t want to carry the vessels back home with them, they would just smash them and leave them here. Or maybe it was part of the ritual. It’s believed that the tomb was started as a place for a single rich family to bury its dead, but then later it was expanded, and other people, for what reason we don’t know, were allowed to inter their dead here as well. Archaeologists say that in later times the place was likely supported and tended to by a group whose members paid dues for the upkeep. The section here made to look like a temple is fascinating. You don’t often find something like this in catacombs.
And the art is an eclectic mix of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman styles. The serpents carved in the wall were meant to guard the tomb. Each is an agathos daimon or good spirit in Greco-Egyptian religion. Notice that they wear the Egyptian double crown. On one side they hold a kerkeion, a winged staff from Roman iconography, and a thyrus, a pinecone staff from Greek iconography. This mixture of styles is even seen in the tombs, as some are made to hold cremated remains according to Greco-Roman practice, and others are meant to hold sarcophagi for mummies according to Egyptian practice.
The catacombs go down another level, but unfortunately the lower section is now under water. But then it was time to go see what is left of the ancient library of Alexandria. In order to do that, we need to find the Serapeum.
You probably have heard of the Serapeum of Saqqara - we did an episode on it. But fewer people have heard of the Serapeum of Alexandria. It’s within walking distance of the Catacombs. As with the last two sites, the price to get in is 80 Egyptian pounds, or $2.60 US. A Serapeum, as you may know, was where the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis was worshiped.
The Serapeum of Alexandria was built in the 3rd century BCE by the architect Parmeniskos under the patronage of Ptolemy III. Well, Ptolemy Euergetes, as he was called, also had a satellite library made here at the Serapeum as an extension of the Great Library. This was when Aristophanes of Byzantium was head librarian. The column is estimated to weigh 285 tons. The fact that it is known to have been added to the Serapeum in Roman times shows very clearly that the Romans were able to move objects this heavy and erect them. We have numerous examples around the Mediterranean.
The name “Pouplios, Eparch of Egypt” appears in an inscription on the base. We know this man was prefect here at some point between 297 and 303. Because the inscription is damaged, someone read “Pompeios” instead of “Pouplios, and that is how the wrong name got attached to it. Two Ptolemaic sphinxes made of granite still sit near the column.
You can see the remains of the Serapeum, but not much is left above ground. Ah, but did you know that there are tunnels and storerooms below ground? Down there is where we believe books of the Great Library were held. Let’s take a look.
We are now in a part of the famed Library of Alexandria. This would have been full of books. When I say books, I mean scrolls.
The codex wasn’t invented yet when this place was built. A statue of the Apis Bull, one of the incarnations of Serapis. In another section, we find underground catacombs where sacred jackals, associated with the cult of Anubis, were interred.
Many people think the Great Library was destroyed in a single catastrophic event, but its downfall was slow. Its decline started in the reign of Ptolemy VIII, when he expelled a large number of scholars from Alexandria because of what they were writing about him. They probably took some of the books with them.
The Ptolemies after him did not give much care or attention to the Museion or Library, and it lost a lot of its prestige. When Julius Caesar brought his fleet here in 48 BCE, Ptolemy XIV had the ships set on fire, and the fire is said to have spread to the docks and then to some houses. Some sources say many scrolls of the Library were destroyed. Whether this was in the Library itself, or a warehouse of scrolls, we are not sure.
But we do know the Library lived on. Marc Antony is said to have donated books to it from the Library of Pergamum. In 270, Zenobia the queen of Palmyra conquered Egypt, and two years later the Roman emperor Aurelian took it back. In the fighting, the section of the city in which the main library stood was destroyed. What survived this event is not known.
But the daughter library here at the Serapeum lasted for a little bit longer. It was here when the column was put up. The Serapeum was finally closed down in the 4th century, for religious reasons. By that time, the Christian emperors were shutting down all temples with pagan services. Around 391, there were riots in the city, and Christians began attacking pagan monuments. Some of the pagans fortified themselves here in the temple and its enclosure to protect it, but a mob of Christians came here, drove out the pagans and sacked this place, destroying much of it.
Later a church was built here, but it eventually fell into ruins, and then a cemetery was put here. Alexandria is rich with ancient history, and I hope you enjoyed seeing what some of it has to offer. That brings our trip through Lower Egypt to an end, and what a trip it has been! But there is one more episode. Natalie and I will sit down to discuss our rankings of the best sites from our trip and compare notes.
Please join us. And if there are some earlier episodes in the series that you missed, check them out. Until next time!