Monday, August 8, 2011

The ancient library of Alexandria made new again

Photo by Bibliotheca Alexandrina: the newest version of the library

During the reign of Ptolemy II in the 3rd century BCE, the Royal Library of Alexandria was set up by Demetrius Phelarius in the Egyptian city. Housing hundreds of thousands of scrolls, this stupendously large library was attached to the Alexandriana Museum, which was itself one of the wonders of the ancient world.

It is said that to help build the new collection quickly, travellers to the city, which was named after Alexander the Great, were required to surrender their scrolls to scribes for copying. The originals then went to the library and copies were returned to the visitors.

The library was divided into halls according to subject area. It also contained lecture rooms, as well as smaller rooms for the use of individual researchers. It was described in a BBC report as "an ancient seat of learning" which contained works by Plato, Socrates, and Ptolemy. At this library "Erastothenes measured the diameter of the earth and Euclid discovered the rules of Geometry." According to an Egyptian expert on antiquities, the university, which could house 5000 students in its great lecture halls, was possibly the oldest in the world.

The destruction of the library by fire is reported by various writers in somewhat contradictory accounts. In 49 CE, Seneca refers to the burning of thousands of its scrolls. Plutarch, writing in 117 CE, says the stone library was destroyed by fire. According to a BBC report, the library was destroyed "possibly by Julius Caesar, in his campaign of conquest."

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak opened the new library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, in October 2002. The idea had been conceived by UNESCO in the 1980s, and many nations contributed to the plan to re-create the new library with the same goals as the ancient one: research, knowledge and open exchange of ideas. (National Geographic News)

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