Monday, February 16, 2009

Ancient Library of Alexandria

The Royal Library of Alexandria or Ancient Library of Alexandria in Alexandria, Egypt, was once the largest library in the ancient world.

Generally thought to have been founded at the beginning of the third century BC, it was conceived and opened during the reign of Ptolemy I Soter, or that of his son Ptolemy II of Egypt. Plutarch (AD 46-120) wrote that Caesar accidentally burned the library down during his visit to Alexandria in 48 BC. However, this version is not confirmed in contemporary accounts of the visit. 

Another version says the Muslim conquerors of Egypt had burnt it since its contents were seen as heretical. It has been reasonably established that the library or parts of the collection were destroyed on several occasions, but to this day the details of these destruction events remain a lively source of controversy based on inconclusive evidence.

The first known library of its kind to gather a serious collection of books from beyond its country's borders, the Library at Alexandria was charged with collecting all the world's knowledge. It did so through an aggressive and well-funded royal mandate involving trips to the book fairs of Rhodes and Athens and a (potentially apocryphal or exaggerated) policy of pulling the books off every ship that came into port, keeping the originals and returning copies to their owners. This detail is informed by the fact that Alexandria, because of its man-made bidirectional port between the mainland and the Pharos island, welcomed trade from the East and West, and soon found itself the international hub for trade, as well as the leading producer of papyrus and, soon enough, books.

Other than collecting works from the past, the library was also home to a host of international scholars, well-patronized by the Ptolemaic dynasty with travel, lodging and stipends for their whole families. As a research institution, the library filled its stacks with new works in mathematics, astronomy, physics, natural sciences and other subjects. It was at the Library of Alexandria that the scientific method was first conceived and put into practice, and its empirical standards applied in one of the first and certainly strongest homes for serious textual criticism. As the same text often existed in several different versions, comparative textual criticism was crucial for ensuring their veracity. Once ascertained, canonical copies would then be made for scholars, royalty and wealthy bibliophiles the world over, this commerce bringing income to the library. The editors at the Library of Alexandria are especially well known for their work on Homeric texts, the more famous editors generally also holding the title of head librarian. These included, among others: Zenodotus (early third century BC), Callimachus, (early third century BC, the first bibliographer and developer of the Pinakes - the first library catalog), Apollonius of Rhodes (mid-third century BC), Eratosthenes (late third century BC), Aristophanes of Byzantium (early second century BC) and Aristarchus of Samothrace (late second century BC).

... fuller text at wikipedia

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