The Library of Alexandria, or How to Recreate a Dream Made of Smoke
With almost a million works in its prime, this lost library remains a humanist ideal worthy of pursuing in the future.
Imagine for a moment that Shakespeare was not the author we know today, and that only two or three of his brilliant plays had survived to this day; imagine we knew of someone called Isaac Newton and his laws of thermodynamics, but that the treatise where he explained them in detail had been lost. What would our culture be like, expanding the latter examples, if we knew Albert Einstein wrote, a theory that explains innumerable phenomena, but whose physical basis and all the evidence of its existence had been lost?
The beginning of the Middle Ages presented this panorama to the world, after several fires, sabotages and all sorts of lootings (and not merely a single devastating fire, like the legend says) the great Library of Alexandria, considered one of the many marvels of the ancient world, was destroyed.
During the first four centuries following the birth of Christ, Alexandria was a city rich in commerce and culture. The library was nurtured bygilmore_library-of-alexandria_detail-100ppi other libraries, bought or made to copy, and every ship that arrived at the port was searched for rolls or papyruses that were not yet included in the rich catalogue: historians have estimated that in its peak, the Library of Alexandria contained almost one million works.
The Egyptian Ptolemy dynasty drove scientific and philosophical studies (although at the time it was simply considered “philosophy” —love for knowledge— encompassing a variety of subjects like ethics, geometry and architecture), which was why the library’s growth remained an invariable premise, despite the political tension between the Egyptians and the Romans.
We now know that Aristarchus of Samos, for example, wrote that Earth was one among many other planets that orbited around a central sun; that Eratosthenes calculate the size of Earth precisely and created rigorously scaled maps; that Hero of Alexandria wrote what we can consider the first robotics book, which detailed the functions of steam machines and gear trains. We also know that Sophocles, one of the most prominent Greek tragedians, wrote 123 dramatic pieces, of which only 7 survive, and that like the aforementioned names, there are many more that have been reduced to fragments or lost forever.
Despite this, the Library of Alexandria favoured and drove the knowledge made by and for the elite: it did not seek a way to abolish slavery, or to integrate women, who were treated as private property into society. There was no such thing as the massive diffusion of art and science, and these were not used to benefit common people. Since then, we have learned that knowledge must be used to make people happier, make life fuller and more enjoyable, as well as to take advantage of techniques that make working liberating, as opposed to alienating.
Despite it all, the knowledge that was lost during the process that destroyed the Library of Alexandria (due to fires and the Egyptian practice of tearing down temples built by rival dynasties to erase them from history) prevented extraordinary advancements made by the ancient world to be employed afterwards; Christianity considered this type of knowledge to be a type of paganism, and beyond the school of translators of Toledo, the classics, or pieces by the magnificent Arab mathematicians and their poetry, were underestimated.
In our days, the Library of Alexandria remains an ideal where all the knowledge of the world is available and at our reach through the internet: this magnificent vault of knowledge, with the possibilities of exchange and communication, must be used to improve our lives and of those of all beings in the world, thus avoiding that the technique and science be used to favour tyranny and ignorance.
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