Founded shortly after the city itself, on the advice of Ptolemy I’s counsellor Demetrius of Phalerum, in antiquity Alexandria’s library stood beside the Mouseion in the heart of the city. Dedicated to “the writings of all nations”, the library welcomed scholars and philosophers and supported research and debates. By law, all ships docking at Alexandria were obliged to allow any scrolls on board to be copied, if they were of interest. By the mid-first century BC it held 532,800 manuscripts (all catalogued by the Head Librarian, Callimachus), and later spawned a subsidiary attached to the Temple of Serapis. The two were known as the “Mother” and “Daughter” libraries and together contained perhaps 700,000 scrolls (equivalent to about 100,000 printed books today).

As many as 40,000 (or even 400,000) scrolls were burned during Julius Caesar’s assault on the city in 48 BC, when he supported Cleopatra against her brother Ptolemy XIII; as compensation, Mark Antony gave her the entire contents of the Pergamum Library in Anatolia (200,000 scrolls). But it was Christian mobs that destroyed this vast storehouse of “pagan” knowledge, torching the Mother Library in 293 and the Daughter Library in 391, though medieval Europe later mythologized its destruction as proof of Arab barbarism. An apocryphal tale had the Muslim leader Amr pronouncing: “If these writings of the Greeks agree with the Koran they are useless, and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious, and ought to be destroyed.”

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