The Alexandrian Library

The most famous library of antiquity. Located in Alexandria, it was the principal center of Hellenistic culture under the Ptolemies, and contained hundreds of thousands of rolls. Among its earliest librarians were Callimachus and Apollonius of Rhodes. G[eorge] B[ernard] Shaw treats humorously the burning of the library by Julius Caesar. It was burned and partly consumed in 391; in 642, according to a dubious legend, the caliph Omar seized the city and used the library’s books ‘to heat the baths of the city for six months.’ It is said that it contained 700,000 volumes, and the reason given by the Muslim destroyer for the destruction of the library was that the books were unnecessary in any case for all the knowledge that was necessary to man was contained in the Koran and that knowledge that was contained in the library that was not contained in the Koran must be pernicious. Most modern experts, however, agree that the story of the library’s destruction by Omar is probably apocryphal.”

Excerpted from: Murphy, Bruce, ed. Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

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