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The Library of Alexandria - limits of knowledge

Following his conquest of Egypt in 332 BC, Alexander the Great founded a new city, Alexandria, on the shore of the Mediterranean. It had both a major sea port, and a still larger river harbour on the inland side, connecting the interior of Egypt with the trade-routes to the northern Mediterranean to an unprecedented degree. When his general Ptolemy subsequently became king of Egypt in 305 BC, Alexandria became the royal Residence and place of burial for both the new Ptolemaic dynasty and for Alexander himself. In the third century BC either Ptolemy I or Ptolemy II created a Museum 'temple for the Muses' and a library, as a resource for the Museum scholars in their endeavour to acquire and establish best possible editions of all the writings of the Greek-speaking world.

The library has become a myth in Western literature by its sheer scale. However, this myth has overshadowed reality, making it hard to answer any of the following questions:

  1. In the reign of which king was the Library of Alexandria created?
  2. What were the terms of access?
  3. What was the scope of its contents - did it include works in languages other than Greek, or were translations commissioned?
  4. What was the commissioning policy - how many other written traditions were targeted? and, in each case, was a written tradition represented by a commissioned project like the Septuagint, Greek edition of Hebrew Scripture, or more by summaries like the Aegyptiaca of Manetho?
  5. What was the acquisition policy - everything that could be acquired pragmatically, or ideally all creative and scientific writing in Greek?
  6. How did the contents differ from one generation to the next?
    What part did the Library play in intellectual and literary life in each century?
    What was the relation between the original Library of Alexandria, and the library of the Serapis temple often cited in Roman Period records?
  7. What effect did political history have on the life of the library, especially in the fire during the wars under Julius Caesar, and in the conquest of Byzantine Alexandria by the Arab general Amr?

Answers to all these questions are required in the task of reconstructing the practice of library life as an active institutional element in each century from the 3rd century BC to the 7th century AD and beyond.


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