Built sometime between 285 and 246 BC, the Great Library of Alexandria has been regarded as one of the most significant libraries of the ancient world and among the largest in history. It was part of the Mouseion, a research institution dedicated to the Muses, the nine goddesses of literature, science, and the arts. At its peak, the Library of Alexandria is estimated to have held between 40,000 and 400,000 papyrus scrolls. The invaluable wealth of knowledge contained within the walls of the Library of Alexandria is commonly believed to have been destroyed by someone. The debate over who was responsible for ravaging the library is one that has been raging for decades, but the truth may be much simpler, and sadder, than a catastrophic fire.

Great libraries of the past

The Great Library of Alexandria wasn’t the first of its ilk. The Ancient Greeks and civilizations of the Near East had a penchant for recording and collecting knowledge in massive libraries and learning institutions very similar to the Mouseion and Library at Alexandria. The Sumerians built the earliest example of one of these knowledge hubs in 3,400 BC in Uruk. That library was merely a collection of written works rather than a fully fledged learning institution. The curation of scholarly texts began roughly a millennium later, in 2,500 BC. Many later civilizations in the Near East held collections of scholarly written works, but the Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal founded the most famous of these ancient libraries.

The Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh was built during the seventh century BCE. It held a vast collection of scholarly scripts and served as an inspiration for the construction of other massive libraries in the area. Nebuchadnezzar II constructed an educational library of his own in Babylon during the latter half of the seventh century and early sixth century BCE. In Greece, the first public library is said to have been founded by the son of Hippocrates, Peisistratos, in the sixth century BCE. These great libraries combined became the inspiration for building the Great Library of Alexandria, which found its roots in both Greek and Near Eastern knowledge.

Distinguishing myth and fact

Although the Library of Alexandria was an institution of research and learning, its history is a muddled mess of fact and fiction. While sensationalizing elements of history is nothing new, the destruction of the Library of Alexandria is one of the more twisted stories of the past.

Even its founding is a bit cloudy, but according to the most reliable surviving records, the library’s inception was likely a joint effort. Until relatively recently, it was believed that the library was built at the command of Ptolemy I Soter, but the source was later found to be a false attribution written some 150 years after the end of Ptolemy I’s rule. It is more likely that the library was built at least in part by his successor, Ptolemy II Philadelphus. From the start, the Library of Alexandria was intended to surpass the collected knowledge of all its predecessors by housing all knowledge known to man.

The story of the Library of Alexandria’s downfall is one often described with roiling flames and incredible fanfare. Most commonly cited is the burning of the library by Julius Caesar, whose men supposedly set fire to their own ships to block off Cleopatra’s brother, Ptolemy XIV, from taking Alexandria. The fire then spread to the wharves and burned down buildings. Stories carried Caesar’s arson further inland, naming it as the cause of the library’s demise.

Ultimately, the truth is much sadder. The wharf fire did destroy some of the library’s scrolls in a warehouse by the harbor, but Alexandria and its library were destined to slowly deteriorate after the area fell to Roman rule. The city lost its former status, and without the scholarly traffic it once received to keep the library alive, it gradually faded into obsolescence. Its scrolls were moved to other newer libraries around the Mediterranean, and when Aurelian fought to reclaim Alexandria in 272 CE, warring forces destroyed the area of the city where the great library stood. Any remains of the building were demolished during Diocletian’s siege of the city in 297 CE.