One of the most famous libraries in history was the immense library in Alexandria, Egypt. Home to countless ancient works, as well as meeting rooms and gardens, it was a centre for learning and excellence, attracting the greatest thinkers of the ancient world, including Archimedes, Herophilus and Saint Catherine. The destruction of the library and its priceless ancient knowledge has gone down in history as a symbol for destruction of cultural knowledge. But what actually led to this tragedy?
It is believed that the library did not suffer from one big, mythical fire, but instead several instances of destruction. The first comes in 48 BCE when Caesar was besieged in the city. The Roman ruler was forced to set fire to his own ships, which then is reported to have spread to the library. This incident is mentioned in numerous ancient texts so seems to be the primary source of destruction, with 40,000 books reported to have been destroyed. However, it is believed some of the library remained to be plundered when the city was taken by Emperor Aurelian. What did remain of the library in the smaller Serapeum was then destroyed in 391 CE, when all the temples of Alexandria were closed by Patriah Theophilus of Alexandria as paganism was made illegal.
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