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Volume Three  Issue Two - September/October 2002

Review Panel

Miriam Bibby

THE LIBRARY OF ALEXANDRIA: 
CENTRE OF LEARNING IN THE ANCIENT WORLD

 

 Attention has focused for several years now on the foundation of a new centre of learning, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, at the ancient throne of knowledge in Egypt, Alexandria. This book of essays, inspired by the work of the Australian Friends of Alexandria Library and produced by a group of Australian historians, archaeologists, classicists and medievalists, is ‘in homage to the Library’s legacy…and an opportunity to share recent work on the Library’s significance.’ The pale ghost of pharaonic Egypt is tantalisingly here, but scarcely able to make itself seen or heard. There are no essays on the nature, function, discovery or interpretation of ancient Egyptian texts. The ground in this book is firmly held by classicists and medievalists and it would be a brave reviewer who would venture forth, unreferenced and alone, to argue any case for pharaonic contributions or to enter into a discussion of the nature of Ptolemaic Egypt.

True, the function of ancient Egyptian ‘libraries’, stored in religious foundations, is clearly different from that of a concerted and systematic attempt to draw together and to classify texts from all over the world, ancient or modern. (One footnote to Roy McLeod’s opening essay, a reference to a 1972 New York Graphic Society publication by M.A. Hussein, Origins of the Book: Egypt’s contribution to the Development of the Book from Papyrus to Codex suggests a possible starting point for those wanting to extend the argument back into history.) Roy McLeod focuses on the origins, factual and mythological, of the original Alexandrian foundation. He suggests after references to the collections and translations of Hittite and Assyrian kings that ‘the special character of the Library was informed by Macedonian rulers who had a vested interest in accumulating oriental knowledge, with the intention of installing a syncretist Hellenism throughout the imperial world’. The Library was closely connected to the museion ‘but we have clues suggesting that it was built upon the plan of a rameseseum – as such, a combination of palace, museum and shrine.’ (From Roy McLeod we also first gain the information that Ptolemy III ran up the first ever library fine, still ongoing as far as I can tell, although the king’s ransom that he put up to borrow books which he apparently never intended to return possibly still covers the debt.) D T Potts investigates the nature of ancient libraries with a detailed exposition of the ‘systematically collected library in the ancient Near East’, arguing the case for that of Sennacherib predating that of the better known Assurbanipal.

Wendy Brazil creates a vision of Alexandria which crosses space, interspersing (inevitably) quotations from Durrell with views of imaginary and real dwellers in and visitors to Alexandria. It is Robert Barnes who grasps the nettle with the quote from Timon of Phlius (who enters stage periodically throughout the book like a snarling Greek chorus) on the nature and functions of the library and its living inhabitants: ‘In populous Egypt many cloistered bookworms are fed, arguing endlessly in the chicken-coop of the Muses’.

 R.G. Tanner continues the ‘nature and value’ theme of this essay with a piece on the possible origins of the collection, but it was John Vallance’s essay ‘Doctors in the Library: the strange case of Apollonius the Bookworm and other Stories’ that provided the link for me between the academic Alexandria and the actual application of knowledge. A two-way process; the ‘bookish doctors’ move between academic or empirical spheres and into the real world, giving a sense of patients left waiting in wards while the doctors discuss, dispute and dally. Samuel Lieu’s ‘Scholars and Students in the Roman East’ evokes the pharaonic ghost again with its description of Libanius’ ‘teacher’ (pedagogue): ‘…he is worse than a slavedriver; always on to you, almost stuck to you, continually goading, rebuking all the time, chastising laziness…punishing trivia excessively, following you fully armed as it were, brandishing a stick or martinet in his right hand.’ Patricia Cannon Johnson’s wellexpressed essay on the Neoplatonists leads on to J.O. Ward’s provocative final firework. In this, the possible backwash into Europe of an Alexandrian tide of acquisition and storing knowledge is viewed through the medium of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose.

 The essay begins, innocently enough, with an overview of how realistic a representation of a medieval library Eco gives in his book because Ward is ‘a literal sort of academic’. Gleefully, although not in the following example, Ward presents estimated facts and figures including the real costs of producing a library: ‘Even a missal…might require up to 156 skins of best calves…a large bible might require up to 500 skins. Even at a conservative estimate, Eco’s 85,000 books might have required the skins of between two and eight million calves.’ There is much real information in this essay, but that is not the point. The library in Eco’s allegory is labyrinth; the library is our vain and misunderstood attempt to define a creation for which we are not responsible, in both senses of the word.

 ‘By establishing a constructed, artificial and ultimately erroneous notion of truth, and vainly surrounding it with a myriad of treatises carefully guarded from profane use, the library and the librarians are contradicting the nature of things. In their insatiable pride, their urge to monopolise and deify knowledge, they go against the “desires of their loins or the ardour that makes another man a warrior of the faith or heresy”.’ ‘Perhaps the final spiritual meaning of the aedificium of Eco’s novel is the contingency of all meaning, the uselessness of all systematic knowledge. What a paradoxical conclusion for a novel about a library!’ And thus, this book of essays on the Library of Alexandria concludes.

 MAB

 Title: The Library of Alexandria: Centre of Learning in the Ancient World

Editor: Roy McLeod

Publisher: I B Tauris

ISBN: 1-86064-428-7

Price: £39.50

                                                                    

  cover click on image to purchase from amazon.co.uk

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