The Great Library of Alexandria: The Untold Story Explained

There is the myth of the Library of Alexandria and its destruction by fire. And the reality, that it completely disappeared and only exists in ancient texts. What happened?

Nov 9, 2020By Guillaume Deprez, Art Historian; Graduate of the Louvre School in Paris
Scholars in the Library of Alexandria
Imagining scholars at work in the Great Library of Alexandria. Images Roman sarcophagus, Pompeii painting and illustration of the Museum.


Taking a hard look at the facts about the Library of Alexandria, there is much we do not know. What it looked like, its exact location, precisely how many books it held, if it burnt, and who destroyed it. We don’t even know if the Library of Alexandria was destroyed at all, due to contradictory texts and the absence of archaeological remains. It isn’t the only wonder to have vanished, as both the tombs of Alexander the Great and Cleopatra were also lost. This is the untold story of the Library of Alexandria.


The Library Of Alexandria: Known Facts

Celsus’ library building
To best-preserved library building of the ancient world. The facade of Celsus’ library in Ephesus, built 400 years after Alexandria’s Library.


Since there are no archaeological remains left, we only have ancient texts to try and rebuild its history.


What Did The Library Of Alexandria Look Like?


There is only a single description, of all ancient texts that survive, as to what the library might have looked like. Here it is, written nearly 300 years after its creation:

“The Museum is a part of the palaces. It has a public walk and a place furnished with seats, and a large hall, in which the men of learning, who belong to the Museum, take their common meal. This community possesses also property in common; and a priest, formerly appointed by the kings, but at present by Cæsar, presides over the Museum.”

Source: The Alexandrian Library


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Disappointingly, this is no actual description of a grand building, only that scholars lived in a place where they could stroll and take their meals together in a large hall. Also, note that there isn’t a single mention of a library or books. The building, part of the Royal Quarter of palaces, was instead called the Museum.


Was It A Museum Or A Library?

Scholars discussing in the Mouseion
Pompeii mosaic depicting a group of philosophers, probably Plato in the center, via Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.


Although no ancient source clearly states that the Museum and the Library were the same thing, we assume that they must have been related. Either there was a library inside the Museum or a library building near it.


Why call it a Museum? Because it was a shrine to the Muses, called a Mouseion in Greek and a Museum in Latin.


The Muses were the goddesses of music and poetry. This meant that the Museum was a religious institution and was the reason why its director was a priest. Its members were men of letters, enjoying a generous allowance and free lodging.


One needs to think of a well-funded scientific institute, concentrating the best scholars of the day. Scholars need books. Since the Museum was funded by Kings, its library was one of the most important in the ancient world.


When Was The Library Created?

Marble portrait of Ptolemy I Egypt Pharaoh
Ptolemy I, successor of Alexander the Great. The Museum – Library of Alexandria was likely created during his reign, or his successor Ptolemy II.


We do not know the exact date of its creation, but it would have been around 300 BC, ordered by either Ptolemy I or Ptolemy II. They were the successors of Alexander the Great, who had invaded Egypt, becoming Pharaoh. They ruled the country from the new capital, Alexandria. This is why, for three centuries, the Pharaohs of Egypt were Greek and why the language written in the Library was Greek.


This brings us to the main sources about the books in the Library. The oldest is a text written sometime in the 2d century BC. It states:


“Demetrius of Phalerum, the president of the King’s library, received vast sums of money for the purpose of collecting together, as far as he possibly could, all the books in the world. By means of purchase and transcription, he carried out, to the best of his ability, the purpose of the king.

 “He was asked, ‘How many thousands of books are there in the library?’

 “And he replied: ‘More than two hundred thousand, O king, and I shall make an endeavor in the immediate future to gather together the remainder also, so that the total of five hundred thousand may be reached.’”


The second explained how books were acquired:


“Ptolemy, the king of Egypt, was so eager to collect books, that he ordered the books of everyone who sailed there to be brought to him. The books were then copied into new manuscripts. He gave the new copy to the owners, whose books had been brought to him after they sailed there, but he put the original copy in the library.


How Many Books Were Held In The Library?

Painted mummy shroud Egyptian man with papyrus roll
Egyptian holding a papyrus roll, surrounded by Osiris and Anubis, via Pushkin Museum. The Library held between 40,000 and 700,000 papyrus rolls, written in Greek.


Ancient authors give us vastly different estimates of the number of books the library held. If we order by size what they tell us, the number of books was either 40,000; 54,800; 70,000; 200,000; 400,000; 490,000 or 700,000 books.


And by book, one needs to understand it as a papyrus roll. Now, what do ancient texts tell us about the destruction of the Library of Alexandria?


The Burning Of The Library: The Evidence

Burning of books woodcut
Burning of books, in a 15th century illustration. In Alexandria it was papyrus rolls rather than books that were supposedly burnt.


The myth is that the Library was intentionally burnt. Julius Caesar did indeed attack the port of Alexandria. At the time a text tells us that “he burnt all those ships and the rest that were in the docks.”  This means the wooden boats tied together in the harbor burnt one after the other and that the wind spread the flames to buildings on the seafront.


Did Julius Caesar Burn The Library of Alexandria?


However, the text describing the Museum previously quoted, written 25 years later, doesn’t even mention fire damage. Nor the tragic loss of a library.


Yet one hundred years after the fact, authors start to accuse him. We read that “forty thousand books were burned at Alexandria.” Then, a very clear accusation that Caesar “was forced to repel the danger by using fire, and this spread from the dockyards and destroyed the great library.”


More accusations followed: “The flames spread to part of the city and there burned four hundred thousand books stored in a building which happened to be nearby. So perished that marvelous monument of the literary activity of our ancestors, who had gathered together so many great works of brilliant geniuses.”


Further, “in this were invaluable libraries, and the unanimous testimony of ancient records declares that 700,000 books…were burned in the Alexandrine war when the city was sacked under the dictator Caesar.”


And, “an enormous quantity of books, nearly seven hundred thousand volumes…were all burned during the sack of the city in our first war with Alexandria.”


Four Centuries After Caesar, Texts Still Mention The Library of Alexandria

Detail of the Stella of Tiberius Claudius Balbillus
Stella of Tiberius Claudius Balbillus, prefect of Egypt from 55 to 59 AD. It states that he was “in charge of the temples…that are in Alexandria and in all Egypt and upon the Museum and besides the Alexandrian library.”


This is how already ancient texts bring more confusion than clarity. If the Great Library had been destroyed by fire, why did Emperor Claudius “added to the old Museum at Alexandria a new one called after his name”?


Then, a stone inscription mentions by name a director of the ‘Alexandrina Bybliothece.’ Emperor Domitian relied on the Library to copy texts lost to fire, sending scribes to Alexandria to transcribe and correct them.”


Another author even informs us that Emperor Hadrian actually visited the Museum in 130 AD: “In the Museum at Alexandria, he propounded many questions to the teachers.”


Circa 200 AD, an author mentions a great book collection in the Museum: “Concerning the number of books, the establishing of libraries, and the collection in the Hall of the Muses (Museum), why need I even speak, since they are in all men’s memories?”. While he doesn’t mention any burning, he talks of the Museum book collection as if a thing of the past.


The very last time we find a mention of the Museum or Library is circa 380 AD, that is, more than 400 years after Julius Caesar supposedly destroyed it. The scholar was Theon, “the man from the Mouseion, an Egyptian, a philosopher.”


Alexandria Was Repeatedly Attacked By Roman Emperors


And any of those attacks could have marked the demise of the Library. Emperor Caracalla slaughtered the population of Alexandria. Aurelian destroyed the palace area. Diocletian set fire to the city and burnt it completely.” He also wanted to massacre the inhabitants until their blood reached his horse’s knees.


Beyond the folly of men, nature added to the destruction with a tsunami and numerous earthquakes.


Adding More Confusion: There Were Two Libraries

Ruins of the Serapeum, Alexandria
Ruins of the Serapeum temple, site of the ‘daughter’ library, via the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.


If making sense of Alexandria’s story wasn’t already confounding enough, there were several libraries in Alexandria, two of them ‘great.’ The first was the library that was part of the Museum. The second, also known as the ‘daughter’ library, was a major library part of a temple, the Serapeum.


This is known with the story when Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek. They were “placed in the first library, which was built in the Bruchion (royal quarter). And there arose in addition to this library a second up in the Serapeum, called its daughter.” It contained 42,800 books.


From the late 4th century AD, we have descriptions of the Serapeum. It was so impressive, that aside from the Capitol in Rome, “the whole world beholds nothing more magnificent.” And this time, we do have a description of its library:


“Within the colonnades, enclosures were built, some having become repositories for the books available to the diligent for study, thus spurring on an entire city to a mastery of learning. For colonnades, there is a roof adorned with gold, and the capitals of columns are worked in bronze overlaid with gold. Indeed, the beauty is beyond the power of words.”


Unfortunately, the second library might also have met a tragic end.


Possible Burning Of Books When The Serapeum Was Destroyed

Theophilus standing ruins of the Serapeum
The only known image related to the destruction of the Serapeum temple, Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria, standing upon the sanctuary after its destruction in 391 AD, via Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts.


Following the anti-pagan edicts of 391 AD, the Serapeum temple was destroyed.


“The governor of Alexandria, and the commander-in-chief of the troops in Egypt, assisted Theophilus in demolishing the heathen temples. These were therefore razed to the ground, and the images of their gods molten into pots and other convenient utensils for the use of the Alexandrian church.”


We do not know if the Serapeum library still existed when the temple was destroyed, but two authors do mention the loss of books.


“In some of the temples there remain up to the present time book chests, which we ourselves have seen, and that, as we are told, these were emptied by our own men in our own day when these temples were plundered.”


Written three centuries later, “in those days the orthodox inhabitants of Alexandria were filled with zeal and they collected a large quantity of wood and burned the place of the heathen philosophers.”


Was The Library Burnt During The Arab Invasion?

Book of Wonders, the Lighthouse of Alexandria
The Lighthouse of Alexandria, as depicted in Kitāb al-Bulhān, the ‘Book of Wonders’, circa 1400, via Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.


In 642, Muslim troops took over Egypt. The conquering general was told by a Christian man of letters of the need to protect books. He explained, “when Ptolemy Philadelphus succeeded to the throne he became a seeker after knowledge and a man of some learning. He searched for books regardless of expense, offering booksellers the very best terms to persuade them to bring their wares here. He achieved his objective: before long, some fifty-four thousand books were acquired.”


The conqueror was impressed but asked the Caliph what to do with those books. The reply was, “if their content is in accordance with the book of Allah, we may do without them, for in that case the book of Allah more than suffices. If, on the other hand, they contain matter not in accordance with the book of Allah, there can be no need to preserve them. Proceed, then, and destroy them.”


The books were sent to Alexandria’s four thousand bathhouses. There, “they say that it took six months to burn all that mass of material.”


This story was written six centuries after the fact. The man who tried to save the books would have been 150 years old. While the general described in detail the city he conquered, there is no mention of a library.


There Is No Archaeological Evidence Left of The Great Library of Alexandria

Ruins underwater, Alexandria, Egypt
Alexandria underwater. Outline of a sphinx, with the statue of a Priest carrying an Osiris-jar. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo: Christoph Gerigk.


Old Alexandria is buried deep under today’s Alexandria. We don’t even know with precision where the Museum was located. Not a single stone of the Library building has been found. Not one of its papyrus rolls survives.


Yet, a few artifacts can be linked to philosophers, therefore potential members of the Museum. A stone inscribed “Dioscorides, 3 volumes.” It is unclear if it was a papyrus box or the base of a statue. And on the base of a statue, a partly erased dedication to a member of the Museum, circa 150-200 AD.


The Library was located inside the Royal Quarter. Among the wonders, there was the tomb of the conqueror that gave his name to the city, Alexander the Great. There was also the tomb of the last Pharaoh of Egypt, Cleopatra.


Even The Tombs Of Alexander The Great And Cleopatra Vanished

Alexander the Great
Mosaic from Pompeii depicting Alexander the Great in battle. Image Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.


Alexandria, one of the greatest cities of the ancient world, was home to one of the seven wonders, the Lighthouse. To the list could be added the Library and the tombs of Alexander and Cleopatra. Here is an ancient description of Alexander’s tomb:


“Ptolemy carried off the body of Alexander and laid it to rest in Alexandria, where it still lies, but not in the same sarcophagus. The present one is made of glass, whereas Ptolemy placed it in one made of gold.”   


Like nearly all Pharaohs, Alexander had to suffer his gold treasure being looted. But from Julius Caesar to Caracalla, prestigious visitors came to visit Alexander’s tomb. The last Pharaoh, Cleopatra, was buried with Antony, “embalmed and buried in the same tomb.”


However, texts from the 4th century AD tell us that the Royal Quarter was destroyed: “The walls were destroyed and the town lost the greatest part of the quarter called Bruccheion.”


Another source talks of the tomb of Alexander as a thing long gone: “Tell me, where is the tomb of Alexander? Show it to me.”


Much of ancient Alexandria is lost. Three wonders, the Library, Alexander, and Cleopatra’s tombs vanished without a trace.


The Library Of Alexandria Reborn As Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Reading room in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina
Inside the reading room of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.


Two millennia after being created, the Library of Alexandria was reborn. First, in the 18th century, when museums became modern successors of the Museum of Alexandria. Then, in 2002, when a new library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, opened as heir to the lost one as “A center of excellence in the production and dissemination of knowledge, as well as a meeting place for the dialogue of peoples and cultures.”


The immense gap between the myth and the reality, that we know so little of, is difficult to fathom. Precisely because the Great Library vanished without a trace, the myth has been magnified over centuries. As a result, the only limit to Alexandria’s wonders is our imagination. Additionally, the lack of clarity as to when the library disappeared and who’s responsible means we blame our chosen villain for its loss.


Will we ever get closure on the fate of the Library of Alexandria? Will we finally know what happened? Unlikely, but under the city, or at the bottom of the bay, there might still be clues. A marble statue, potentially depicting Alexander, was found deep under a public garden in 2009. One day maybe a subway system or underground car park will be built, revealing the ancient city underneath.


In any case, we can still pay homage to the greatest library of the ancient world by making sure humanity never again suffer such a massive loss of knowledge.


Sources: all the ancient texts quoted in italic link to their source.

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By Guillaume DeprezArt Historian; Graduate of the Louvre School in ParisGuillaume Deprez is a contributing writer and art historian, graduate of the Louvre School. Wondering why statues and monuments were destroyed and how many ancient artworks survive, he searched for a book answering that question. As the saying goes, when you want to read a book that has not been written, then you must write it. The result is Lost Treasures, the destruction of works of cultural heritage by intolerance and greed. An accessible and engaging book, a journey of discovery throughout the rise and fall of civilizations.