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Alexandria and its Library
Category: Classical Mediterranean and Europe
|Alexander the Great hoped that Alexandria, the city at the mouth of the Nile that he founded and helped plan, would become a center of trade and culture for the Mediterranean basin. Less than fifty years after its founding in 331 BC, the booming metropolis had become a sophisticated hub of commerce, due in large part to its famed Great Library.|
Soon after Alexander's unexpectedly early death in 323 BC, his expansive empire dissolved into three major regions. One of his closest friends and ablest generals, Ptolemy, was at the time de facto governor of Egypt. He took control of the reins of that ancient land, eventually becoming pharaoh ( as Ptolemy I Soter) and, thus, continuing the Greek presence in Egypt began by Alexander. It was Ptolemy that intercepted Alexander's funerary procession, bound for Macedonia, and brought his mortal remains to Alexandria for internment. Besides personal glory and luxurious living, however, the early Ptolemaic rulers were, to their credit, also interested in improving the culture of their city and its land. Alexandria, Egypt's new capital, was already the center of commerce for the known world: they wanted it to become the intellectual capital as well. To this end Alexandria's Great Library was conceived and built.
The Great Library was mankinds' first center of scholastic learning and research. The brilliant minds of antiquity here laid the foundations for the systematic study of astronomy, geography, literature, mathematics, medicine, and physics. It was here that Euclid first defined geometry and Eratosthenes accurately measured the circumference of the earth, arguing that India could be reached by sailing westward from Spain. The Ptolemaist devoted much of their time and energy, and a small portion of their wealth, to obtaining copies of every important manuscript know to man. To this end a law was passed proclaiming that every caravan and ship entering Alexandria was to be searched - not for contraband, but for articles of learning. Any map or scroll found was turned in to the library so that scribes could copy it as pictured below.
Thus, Alexandria's scholarly haven eventually cataloged papyri scrolls, including many now-lost masterpieces of art, literature and science, such as classics by Homer, Aristotle, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. But all was not letters of learning. The legendary library's ground also boasted botanical gardens and a museum, as well a temple to the nine muses (Greek gods and goddesses of the arts and science). A short stroll along a garden-lined palisade would take one to a zoo no doubt containing many exotic animals Many were the ancient scholars that walked its colonnaded passages.
What led to the Great Library's demise is not completely clear. A good portion of its priceless works was evidently destroyed in a fire that occurred when Julius Caesar torched the ships of Cleopatra VII's brother. By the fourth century AD, as Christianity influence was spreading, most of the remaining manuscripts of the Library were, apparently, destroyed in an effort to stamp out all relics of paganism and heresy. Later, in 640 AD, Arabs that swept through the almost abandoned city probably burned for fuel whatever scrolls had survived. Of the 123 plays of Sophocles that were known to be in the Great Library, only seven remain today.
Even though Alexandria's location was ideal for a commercial port, with lots of coastline and a large natural harbor, its points of egress were rife with dangerous sandbars. It was, therefore, conceived that a tall lighthouse on Pharos Island, near the mouth of the harbor, would not only be of benefit to mariners, but (at least if magnificent enough) would also be a wondrous new attraction to boost Alexandria's renown.
The Pharos Lighthouse, as it came to be known, was partially constructed largely of Proconnesian white marble, much of it imported from Princes' Island off the Coast of present-day Turkey. It was built in three large tiers: the base, or lower tier, was quadrangular: the middle tier was octagonal: the top-most tier was cylindrical. A mammoth spiral stairway leading to the top even allowed pack animals to haul wood to the top to feed the bright fire that burned there. Topping the spectacular structure was (by some accounts) a statue of Poseidon; another account contends it was an image of Zeus - or, perhaps, a statue of both of them.
The construction of Alexandria's Pharos Lighthouse was begun by the first Ptolemy (Auletes), but wasn't finished until 283 BC during the reign of his son, Ptolemy Philadelphus. By all accounts, it was an incredible sight, more than worthy of being one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
This monument's ultimate demise was brought about not by the hand of man, but by a series of earthquakes that rocked the region. Its top-most tier tumbled down during a severe quake in 303 AD. However, it was not until a massive trembler, on August 8th, 1303, that most of the remaining structure came down to be swallowed up by the surrounding waters. Today, a fort built by the Mamluk sultan Oait Bey can be seen on Pharos Island, where the wondrous lighthouse once stood.