Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

Edna St. Vincent Millay, “A Few Figs from Thistles”

With the death of Hypatia, her city also began to die. Philosophers were still to be found in the city’s streets, and the “Alexandrian school” continued quietly—ever more quietly—to refine pagan Neoplatonism. Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus were still read and talked of, but in truth the whole complexion of the city had changed.

In the streets violent religious extremism and an associated rise in ethnic tensions were fanning the flames of nationalism. Customs were changing, shunning the “foreign” Greek influence of Hypatia’s Hellenism, despite the fact it had been the cornerstone, indeed the very raison d’être, of the city. Even the language was slowly transforming, still written in a Greek alphabet but with the addition of six hieroglyphic characters, its structure now more influenced by ancient Egyptian. This new, hybrid language would eventually emerge as Coptic, the language of the Christians of Egypt.

After Theon we no longer hear of the work of the museum, if indeed it survived the antipagan policies of the emperors and patriarchs. It was, after all, a temple to the Muses, and as such ripe for suppression. As mystical religion had taken hold in the city, as control of the government had slipped from Alexandrian to Roman hands, so the whole nature of academic life in the city had slowly been changing. Academics were now obsessed with compiling and editing older works, not creating new thoughts and new books. The creators had been replaced by the codifiers and critics, who, in the manner of their theological counterparts who pored over the holy books in which they said all answers lay, searched for truth in old ideas rather than seeking out new ones. The spirit of adventure had left the halls of the museum; the minds which once reached beyond its colonnades to the ends of the earth and beyond, far into space, were gone.

And what of the books? The fate of the libraries of Alexandria is one of the greatest mysteries of the ancient world. It would still be tragic, but at least convenient, if a single moment for their destruction could be found, a moment at which the curtain came down on the classical world and a new and darker age commenced. But it is not that simple. We know from the scholarly references which fill Synesius’s letters that he gained access to a large number of classical texts during his time in Alexandria, although he probably did not get these from one great central library. That institution had died, not with a bang but a whimper. It may well be that the majority of the ancient collection of the Ptolemies was destroyed when Julius Caesar burned the Egyptian fleet in the Great Harbor and the flames carried over the roofs of the old city. Livy tells us there were four hundred thousand scrolls in the collection at that time, and their loss might have inspired Mark Antony to present the library of Pergamum to Cleopatra as a lover’s gift.

Of course books were still created and collected after this date, although they may have been stored separately in either a library attached directly to the museum or in the daughter library in the Serapeum. It was perhaps from those shelves that Synesius took the works of Homer and Plato from which he so often quoted. But other books were probably even then missing, even then forgotten. Were Varro’s forty-two lost books of Antiquities still there? Were the “lost decades” of Livy’s Roman history still rolled up with the books that survive to this day? Very possibly not. The ravages of the fire of 48 BC, the literary pretensions and furious retributions of Roman emperors, and a simple dimming of the spark that had inspired the early Ptolemies to collect every book they could find had all taken their toll. There were already empty shelves in the libraries that Hypatia and her followers knew, and perhaps only a dim memory, preserved in Callimachus’s lists, of what treasures they once held.

But it had been in Hypatia’s own era that some of the final nails in Alexandria’s coffin were driven home. Emperor Theodosius’s order to shut all pagan temples in 391 had a profound effect upon learning in the city, not because Christianity opposed learning—Hypatia’s own circle proved the opposite—but because its more extreme proponents equated pre-Christian learning with paganism. The Serapeum had been created by the Ptolemies specifically to appeal to Egyptians and had been designed on an ancient Egyptian model, as not just a temple but a library and college. It was the logical home for the daughter library, but in finding a home in a pagan building the books themselves became tarred with the brush of paganism. Knowledge has always been the enemy of extremism, and for the most radical elements among Alexandria’s Christians, the books in the Serapeum were a threat. So they simply destroyed them.

If any books survived by this date in any great library in the city, they too can only have come under suspicion. The museum, like all schools of the Greek model, like Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, was at least nominally a religious institution. Only by centering his Academy on a temple had Plato gained for it the protection of the city of Athens—it was simply how these things had always been done. But the idea of a temple to the pagan Muses in Alexandria, in Christian Alexandria, could not have sat well with the Parabolans or the Nitrian monks who so readily chose to impose their will by force of arms rather than by force of argument. In the aftermath of Hypatia’s death, much of whatever was left of the great bookstores of antiquity must have gone. From now on those who wished to read non-Christian texts probably did so in secret, collecting their own small libraries in the privacy of their houses. Cyril’s Alexandria had no reason to spend civic or church funds on collecting old and idolatrous tomes.

So Alexandria stumbled on, now shorn of its unique attribute. Even Patriarch Cyril was aware that the city he had fought so hard to possess was now the sickly little brother to the “New Rome” of Constantinople, whose influence spread far beyond his city’s limited sphere. Perhaps aware that the city he had cut loose from its classical past was not now free but simply adrift, he did make one final bid to achieve his dream and make Alexandria the center of the new world—the Christian world. Using his tried and tested technique of accusation and confrontation he charged Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, with heresy and succeeded in having him expelled. But it was far too late for Cyril to take his place or for Alexandria to become a new Constantinople. Learning in the city was dying, the monuments of previous ages had been looted, and her books, her precious books, were gone—some up in flames, a few spirited away.

Yet, ironically, Cyril’s last desperate move did save some small part of Alexandria. Of the few books that had survived from the great library, some had recently reappeared in Constantinople, and these were taken east by the banished Nestorius and his followers, out of the reach of the book burners and into the Syrian Desert, where they were once again lost to Western scholarship.

By the seventh century Alexandria had become an anomaly, a rebellious Christian outpost on the coast of North Africa. The Brucheum and Jewish quarters were long abandoned, and the museum and the tomb of Alexander lay in ruins. Christian communities clustered around the Caesareum and Serapeum, both of which had now become churches, and only the Heptastadion and the area around the Pharos remained densely populated. In 616 the city fell briefly to the Persian emperor Khosrau II, only to be regained a decade later by the Romans. But by this date a new force was already heading her way and was soon to overtake her.

The emperors had taken little notice of the unification of the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula under the prophet Muhammad; the History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria records an almost certainly apocryphal, but telling, story of how Emperor Heraclius failed to see the signs: “And in those days Heraclius saw a dream in which it was said to him: ‘Verily there shall come against you a circumcised nation, and they shall vanquish you and take possession of the land’ ” (Severus of Al-Ashmunein, History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, part 2, chapter 14).

Perhaps not surprisingly, Heraclius thought this must be a reference to the Jews and so ordered that all the long-suffering Jews and Samaritans in his empire were to be rounded up and compulsorily baptized. He soon realized, however, that he had made a mistake: “But after a few days there appeared a man of the Arabs, from the southern districts, that is to say, from Mecca or its neighbourhood, whose name was Muhammad” (Severus of Al-Ashmunein, History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, part 2, chapter 14).

Under the prophet Muhammad the Arab world was uniting in a way it had never done before, and if the Roman world was unaware of it, it was not unaware of the Roman world. Under Muhammad’s successors, the caliphs, this new nation was already vigorously expanding through a program of military conquests across the Near East. In 639 Omar I ordered his general, Amr ibn al-Asi (better known as simply Amr), west to conquer in the name of Islam. Damascus, Syria, and Jordan had already fallen, and Egypt would be next.

Amr conquered Egypt with just four thousand cavalry. The Byzantine viceroy Cyrus, who was also patriarch of Alexandria, was found hiding in the citadel of Babylon (a Roman fortress in Cairo) and rapidly offered his country’s capitulation. John of Nikiu tells us that Amr congratulated him on coming forward. Cyrus replied, “God has delivered this land into your hands: let there be no enmity from henceforth between you and Rome: heretofore there has been no persistent strife with you” (R. H. Charles, The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu, 120.17-20).

Cyrus was putting a brave face on a rather unequal situation. Amr would certainly agree to peace, but it would be entirely on his terms. First a tribute in gold was to be paid, and then the Roman garrison in Alexandria was to be disbanded, although the troops were allowed to leave with their possessions and “treasure” intact. The Romans would promise no further military intervention in Egypt, and Amr would take 150 soldiers and 50 civilians as hostages to ensure they kept to the deal. The final part of the peace was more evenhanded and perhaps offered a last chance for peace in Alexandria. John of Nikiu summed up the deal succinctly: The Romans were to cease warring against the Muslims, and the Muslims were to stop seizing Christian churches and interfering in Christian religious practice.

Sadly, this was not a peace that would last. The caliph’s forces did not immediately take Alexandria, partly because the Arabs chose to avoid the place. In their eyes it was dangerous and corrupt, an ancient town of evil fortune, filled with philosophers and monks—and the notoriously truculent city mob. By the time Amr did arrive in the city in September 642 the garrison was gone and there was little resistance as his cavalry rode in through the Gate of the Sun. The city he found still impressed him with its ancient temples converted into churches and the still-dazzling marble of the colonnades on the main streets, and he seems to have treated its people with the respect he had promised. Those who wished to leave were allowed to, while those who wished to remain were permitted to continue worshipping in their churches unmolested, provided of course that they paid the appropriate tribute.

Now as master of all Egypt Amr could write to the caliph telling him he had seized a city of 4,000 palaces, 4,000 baths, 12,000 dealers in fresh oil, 12,000 gardeners, 40,000 Jews who paid tribute, and 400 theaters or places of amusement. The caliph seemed unimpressed, perhaps wary of the somewhat inflated figures from his general. He reportedly just nodded nonchalantly at the messenger and rewarded him with a loaf of bread, a bottle of olive oil, and a handful of dates.

Perhaps Caliph Omar was right to be cautious, for the people of Alexandria did not keep to their side of the bargain. The Muslim writer Al-Baladhuri in his Conquest of Alexandria (The Origins of the Islamic State, volume 1, pp. 346-49) recorded that the Alexandrians wrote to Emperor Constantine (the son of Heraclius) explaining how his subjects were humiliated by the Muslims and forced to pay a poll tax—effectively making them second-class citizens. They then casually added that the Muslim garrison was rather understrength and hence vulnerable.

Constantine, roused to righteous indignation, immediately took advantage of the situation and sent an expeditionary force to recapture the city for the empire: “Constantine sent one of his men, called Manuwil, with three hundred ships full of fighters. Manuwil entered Alexandria and killed all the guard that was in it, with the exception of a few who by the use of subtle means took to flight and escaped” (Al-Baladhuri, The Origins of the Islamic State, volume 1, p. 346).

When Amr returned to this situation around 646 he was no longer in a mood to deal generously with the inhabitants, nor were they foolish enough to think he would. Ancient Alexandria was about to fight its final battle. Al-Baladhuri finishes the tale:

Amr made a heavy assault, set the ballistae, and destroyed the walls of the city. He pressed the fight so hard until he entered the city by assault, killed the fathers and carried away the children as captives. Some of its Greek inhabitants left to join the Greeks somewhere else; and Allah’s enemy, Manuwil, was killed. Amr and the Moslems destroyed the wall of Alexandria in pursuance of a vow that Amr had made to that effect, in case he reduced the city. . . . Amr ibn-al-Asi conquered Alexandria.

Al-Baladhuri, The Origins of the Islamic State, volume 1, pp. 346-49

The city had become a minor irritant in the Muslims’ conquest of Egypt, and its repeated calls on the Byzantine Empire for military help created unwanted friction. The solution of the Muslim general charged with bringing the city back to heel was simple: He tore it down. Flour once again flowed in the sands around the island of Pharos, as the city’s famous granaries were demolished.

It is at this point, with Amr back in control of the city’s remains, that the final legend associated with the great library is set. The story comes from a much later source, Bar-Hebraeus’s History of the Dynasties, written in the thirteenth century, and is almost certainly fictional, but it does prove that the fame of the library and the need to explain its terrible loss was still felt centuries after it had vanished. Bar-Hebraeus tells the story that John the Grammarian, a Coptic priest present at the destruction of the city, was, due to his great learning, on good terms with Amr and eventually plucked up the courage to ask him about the fate of the library. “‘You have examined the whole city, and have set your seal on every kind of valuable: I make no claim for aught that is useful to you, but things useless to you may be of service to us.’ ‘What are you thinking of?’ said Amr. ‘The books of wisdom,’ said John, ‘which are in the imperial treasuries’ ” (Bar-Hebraeus, quoted in E. A. Parsons, The Alexandrian Library, p. 416).

He then patiently described how the Ptolemies had collected books on all subjects from the four corners of the world, regardless of expense, and then rather extraordinarily claimed that they still existed in the warehouses of the city which Amr had sealed following his victory. While the city was now Amr’s to do with as he pleased, would he not consider leaving intact this rare collection, as it could be of no use to either him or his soldiers?

Amr, renowned for his own scholarship, declared himself amazed at this news but warned that it was not in his power to hand such a library over to John. However, he would write to the caliph and seek his advice on the matter. In time the caliph wrote back with bad news: “Touching the books you mention, if what is written in them agrees with the Book of God, they are not required: if it disagrees, they are not desired. Destroy them therefore” (Bar-Hebraeus, quoted in E. A. Parsons, The Alexandrian Library, p. 416).

So Amr, faithful to his master’s decision, ordered the books distributed among the bathhouses of the city, where they provided fuel for the boilers for six months. “Listen and wonder,” concluded Bar-Hebraeus.

The origin of this story is uncertain, and it occurs in none of the earlier chronicles. By the thirteenth century, however, not long after the disastrous failure of the Third Crusade against Saladin, it suited a Christian writer like Bar-Hebraeus and his audience to characterize the Muslim world as barbaric and backward. And even if the enemy was wrong, there was a ring of truth to the idea that religious bigotry had after a thousand years of enlightenment finally dragged Alexandria into oblivion. Ironically, however, it was Muslim scholars who were even then preserving and translating the few great works from Alexandria’s library shelves that had survived.

What the story does powerfully demonstrate is that any conqueror might consider the contents of a library as dangerous as the contents of an arsenal. Building that arsenal of ideas had been a driving force behind Ptolemy I’s creation of Alexandria, and the insecurity of conquerors and the intolerance of extremists had been its downfall. Alexandria had been a city of ideas where the greatest freedom was the freedom to think, but Roman emperors, Christian patriarchs, and Muslim caliphs had all, in attempting to control those thoughts, whittled away at the library, the city, and the idea that lay behind them. A thousand years after the walls of Alexandria fell, the traveler George Sandys reached her sad remains and wrote her epitaph:

Queene of Cities and Metropolis of Africa: who now hath nothing left but her ruines; and those ill witnesses of her perished beauties: declaring that Townes as well as men, have their ages and destinies.

George Sandys, The Relation of a
Journey Begun An. Dom. 1610, book 2

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