This week, a review in the Telegraph caught my eye. It was of The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History edited by Alice Crawford.
At once, the subject intrigued me – for what writer and bibliophile isn’t also a firm believer in the vision of Jorge Luis Borges: ‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library’? The book looks to be a fascinated exploration of the history of the library, but what stood out most to me in the review was the nod to the Alexandrian Library: perhaps the most famous library of all time, and one that has profoundly shaped the writer and reader I am today.
Growing up in my family, books were of the utmost importance. They were a source of comfort, of escapism, of education; a common language through which my large family communicated. Books were in our blood: my father published a history of my family; my grandmother, a famous Egyptian feminist, published poetry. My house was part home, part library. We could never have enough books. When the political situation became difficult in Egypt and families were forced to emigrate, my father would come home with boxes full of abandoned books: like lost children, we took them under our wing.
Books mattered to us, and so too did our heritage: our roots in the country. For those who live in ancient, historic cities like Alexandria, the past is never far away. Thus I grew up in a city that will ever be a beating heart for those who treasure books: the site of one the most significant libraries in the history of humanity.
The Ancient Library of Alexandria was founded by Ptolemy I Soter (c.367–c.283 BC), successor of Alexander the Great, to collect all the world’s knowledge (yes, all!). As Edith Hall argues inThe Meaning of the Library, it ‘was designed to preserve intact the memory of humankind’.
The library comprised a reading room, a dining room, meeting rooms, lecture halls, gardens and, of course, halls containing scroll after scroll after scroll (the books of the day). The exact number of books held at the library by the end of its days is unknown, but is estimated by historians to be as many as 400,000. These scrolls were laboriously copied by scribes from originals, in the relentless drive to fill the library with every single book in existence.
The library created the model by which all modern universities were built: indeed, it was more than an archive, a place to catalogue and safeguard all writing; it was a place of learning for scholars. As part of the wider ‘Musaeum of Alexandria’, the mothers and fathers of all scholarly disciplines trod the halls of the library, from Euclid and Archimedes to Herophilus and Erasistratus. Many scholars lived at the library with their families.
Over time, the Library of Alexandria became a vast, influential library that pharaohs were proud of show off. Then came the Roman conquest of Egypt. So goes the story, when Julius Caesar was besieged at Alexandria in 48 BC, he set his own ships on fire, and the flames spread to the library and destroyed it. Whether the fire completely or only partially destroyed the library is a fact lost in the annals of history. Certainly, though, the damage was extensive enough to create the long-lasting symbolism of fire at the library as the ultimate destruction of knowledge and culture.
Above the shelves in the library which bore the scrolls was inscribed: The place of the cure of the soul. When such a place is destroyed, then, there is doubtlessly an impact on the soul. And that impact echoes to this day.
In 2002, a vast new library was built in Alexandria near the site of the ancient one, to be a centre of cultural excellence. It does not attempt to collect every work every published, but it does hold so many works that it is already one of the largest libraries in the world, with shelf space for eight million books donated from collections around the world. Its design is quite beautiful, made of Aswan granite and inscribed with characters from 120 different human scripts.
When I return to Alexandria to visit family, I go to the library. I sit by the Mediterranean and gaze up at the modern edifice, and I think about what was once there. Sitting in that place, I feel so proud and inspired, and I understand why it is that I love books – why books are so important to me and my family; why I never go anywhere without a book in my handbag; why from such an early age my dream was to be an author and create these magical, transformational, wonderful items that are so treasured. The Ancient Library of Alexandria: gone, but never forgotten.