What really happened to the library of Alexandria?

Originally published at: What really happened to the library of Alexandria? | Boing Boing


So essential the same thing killing modern libraries; death by a thousand budget cuts.


Or was it Muslim hoards?

The Caliphate certainly was known for gathering knowledge.


The same ones who went a built the cultural center of learning in Baghdad? Those “hoards”? I’d suggest that they probably preserved a great deal of the knowledge from Alexandria, and much more would have been lost without the Arab expansion after the founding of Islam…

Jinx, @anon33932455

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Yours was more erudite. I was only thinking of a horde/hoard pun.


Pun life matters, too…


You can be sura-f it.


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Slow or fast, the same forces of thuggish anti-intellectualism and bigotry did it in.


We know that the final destruction of the library was ordered by one of the Popes of Alexandria as part of a pogrom against pagans in the city, but recent works do seem to have almost a desperation about them to de-emphasise the symbolic impact of this decree.


I really like how she brings it around to our modern “Alexandria” the internet and its very real limitations/problems, as well as modern attempts to suppress knowledge…

Watch the video… she they covers that and the problems with the theory.


IANAHistorian but I’ve always suspected the contents of the library at its peak were probably exaggerated also. People love a good tragic story, and the better the library allegedly was, the more of a tragedy its loss is. I’ve heard versions of that story where people claim we’d all be living in moon bases right now if it hadn’t been lost because of how far back “all of civilization” was set. I find that a little hard to believe.


“Puhtolemies” :grimacing:

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As a historian can I say to such thinking…

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I’m not a fan of teleology in general, but THIS kind really irritates me. I know that people find “what ifs” fun as an intellectual exercise, but the whole idea of a grand narrative, that we are all on a particular track with a particular end point, has just been incredibly dangerous. It’s probably one of my biggest beefs with Marx (though I like lots of what he has to say about history), as his stages of history are pretty teleological. There are no stages in history, there is just what was, why it was, and other possibilities of what could have been (contingency).

But there is no “meant to be” there. It’s just what actually happened! That is, honestly, one of the hardest concepts to get across to students - this idea that what happened in the past happened, not because it was “meant” to happen, but because of choices (lots of) people made at particular points in time. It’s true they could have made other choices, but they didn’t. They made the ones they made, and those are what we are studying in history… I mean, we didn’t even have to choose to try and leave the planet. Lots of us decided that that was a good idea to try (many who were influenced by sci-fi) and then after a lot of hard work by thousands of people… And then “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” It didn’t happen because it was “supposed to” happen… it happened because some people wanted it to happen and undertook the work to…

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If you can wrap your head around that idea, then you can see how history can be a powerful tool for positive social change. Because if other ordinary people shaped history in one way or another (honestly, I don’t even know if I like the term “change the course of history” anymore, because it plays into the idea of “destiny” a bit too much), then so can we!

TLDR… teleology is bad and hinders a proper understanding of history and how we can all make great, wonderful, positive things happen if we work together!



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I didn’t choose the pun life; the pun life chose me.


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Strong agree! There’s that famous quote that “the arc of history bends toward progress”. I hate that quote. That really isn’t true! History is messy and full of back and forth in all different cultures at the same time. And progress is by no means guaranteed. What we have, we have because good people fought for it, tooth and nail.

Such notions are inevitably western-biased as well. Like, those people talking about how great Alexandria was never seem to wonder what was going on in China or Persia at the time. They were doin’ stuff too, it turns out. They weren’t just waiting around to be footnotes in white peoples’ wars.


I get why you’d say that, but some context might help. It’s an MLK quote, who is using that in a theological sense. I’m sure he was well aware that progress does not just happen, but that people have to make it happen, but was appealing to the religious side of white America, to help them understand the need for progressive change… He was, after all, a preacher in one of the most progressive church traditions in America (the Black church). And I sometimes say it, but qualified - that the arc of history must BE bent to justice.

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Very true.

Lots of people are deeply invested in connecting the classical world with modern Europe, which was certainly a major part of the project of the rise of the modern European university system (which of course, both American and Canadian systems are modeled on). The Romans and the Greeks would not have thought of themselves as Europeans in the modern sense, but most certainly would have been orienting themselves towards the Mediterranean, because that’s where civilization was - Europeans were merely barbarians to be conquered.

Many modern historians have certainly made the argument that the most “advanced” civilization for much of history was China (scholars in China, of course, make this argument, but western historians, too). But then again, there is that teleologial language creeping in again… “advanced”…