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The New Library in Alexandria: Tourist attraction, cultural statement or political declaration?

According to Fredrico Mayor, the original Library of Alexandria was “A symbol” and “… a beacon, marking a stage on the highway of human enlightenment”

It is certainly true that the ancient Library certainly captured the imagination of much of the ancient world (quotes?). But most of the ancientworld has now disappeared or is left in ruins. Only in Hollywood do we see it re-created in the form of epics such as Ben-Hur, or Gladiator. So why after so many years have the Egyptian Government, backed by Unesco, chosen to build a major new library at Alexandria? In the preface to Mostafa El-Abbadi’s study of the ancient Library, Fredrico Mayor goes on to state: “The Project… is rooted aboveall in the symbol. This is not some antiquarian attempt to reconstitute a vanished monument; the intention is rather to commemorate the Library of Alexandria in the only manner appropriate – by restating its universal legacy in modern terms”. But how has this been done?

The original ancient Library was effectively the Mouseion within the palace complex which was expanded during the 3rd centuryBCE by Ptolmy I as part of his re-development of Alexandria it quickly gained a reputation beyond Egypt.

In one of Herodas’ mimes an Alexandria is depicted where there is to be found: ‘wealth, palaestrae, power, prosperity, glory, shows, philosophers, gold, youth, the temple of the Adelphoi, the generous King, Mouseion, wine, all the good things you may desire, and women more numerous thanheavenly stars who would compete in beauty with the goddesses who sought the judgement of Paris’”.

In his book on the Library of Alexandria El-Abbadi discusses various 3rd century BCE histories. He points to opposing views between the Greeks and Egyptians over their respective importance in the development of science and culture. His sympathies certainly seem to lie with the pro-Egyptianfraction claiming Xenon’s pro-Greek account to be motivated by “patriotism”. But whatever the ancient writer’s political leanings, El-Abbadi concludes that for these cultural and nationalistic debates, “… the material available in the Library was an indispensable requirement”. Thus the Ancient Library of Alexandria (Alexandrina?) was not only established as a repository of knowledge, but a tool ofacademic debate and a source for spreading intellectual and nationalist propaganda.

Widely regarded as the most important centre of knowledge and intellectual activity of the ancient world, it’s disappearance has caused controversy. The various villains of the stories seem to have been Julius Ceasar, the Christian Emperor Theodosius, and the Arabs.

El-Abbadi seems very keen to let the Arabs offthe hook and goes to great lengths to lay the blame firmly at the feet of Julius Ceasar.

According to El-Abbadi, despite Julius Ceasar’s account of his attack on Alexandria which claims that the fire he used to destroy the Egyptian fleet didn’t affect any other part of the city, “Seneca … is more informative. In a matter-of-fact manner, he states that 40,000 books were burnt in Alexandriaduring Ceasar’s war. By the end of the first century, Plutarch felt more at liberty in writing his biography of Ceasar and could therefore be more explicit. ‘When the enemy tried to cut off his fleet, Ceasar was forced to repel the danger by using fire, which spread from the dockyards and destroyed the “Great Library” [magale bibliotheke]”.

As later accounts but the destruction at 700,000 it wouldbe fair to assume that the Library (or Libraries) of Alexandria contained vastly more that 40,000 books and that if any destruction did take place at this time is was not substantial.

El-Abbadi concedes that there were several stores of books in Alexandria, but quotes Dio Cassius writing early in the third century to argue that when he refers to the destruction of the “arsenal [neorion], the...
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