Media History Project

Who Destroyed Alexandria's Famous Library?

Part of a column from a payrus roll containing Aeschines' Against Ctesiphon

Part of a column from a payrus roll containing Aeschines' "Against Ctesiphon"

The Library of Alexandria was one of the best-known of the libraries of the ancient world. One of the interesting facts about the ancient world that seems to be missing from many history books is that there were many great collections of books and literature in ancient times and most were open to any scholar from anywhere in the world.

The library at Alexandria actually competed with that at Pergamum in amassing the most complete collection of books in the world. This went on in the 200's B. C., and it is interesting to note that there were already so many works in existence that obtaining a copy of each would have been an impossible undertaking even then. The destruction of this priceless treasure was a stroke of the most unimaginable bad luck. If Byzantine Egypt had been taken by one of the later Islamic conquerors, this irreplaceable collection would have been counted amongst the finest of the spoils of war to fall into a victor's hands.

Early in the year A. D. 642, Alexandria surrendered to Amrou, the Islamic general leading the armies of Omar, Caliph of Baghdad. Long one of the most important cities of the ancient world and capital of Byzantine Egypt, Alexandria surrendered only after a long siege and attempts to rescue the city by the Byzantines. On the orders of Omar, Caliph of Baghdad, the entire collection of books (except for the works of Aristotle) stored at the Library of Alexandria were removed and used as fuel to heat water for the city's public baths.

This is not the first time the library was damaged or destroyed. Originally built to house the massive collection of books accumulated by the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, the library had been devastated by fire several times. During Julius Caesar's Alexandrian campaign in 47 B. C., Caesar set fire to ships in the port. The fire spread to the library, which was called the Museum at that time.

In A. D. 391, riots instigated by fanatical Christians damaged the collection heavily. During the years between disastrous events, the library collection had been gradually restored. In 641, the Caliph of Baghdad exhibited the same spirit of religious fanaticism in ordering Amrou to burn the books stored there. The loss of the library at Alexandria was a particularly grievous blow because the works of so many Roman scholars. literary geniuses, and historians were destroyed.

- Source: San Jose State University