CounterCurrents: March 9, 2016
The Burning of the Library at Alexandria in 391 AD, illustration from ‘Hutchinsons History of the Nations’, c.1910 (litho), Dudley, Ambrose (fl. 1920s) / Private Collection / The Stapleton Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library [Public domain]
“To Certain People There Comes A Day When They Must Say The Great Yes Or The Great No…”
And if you can’t shape your life the way you want, at least try as much as you can not to degrade it…
You said, “I will go to another land, I will go to another sea….
Always you will arrive in this city. To another land-do not hope-
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have ruined your life here
in this little corner, you have destroyed it in the whole world,…
The above are quotes from the work of The Poet of Alexandria, C.P. Cavafy (Konstantinos Kavafis, Constantino Kavafis, etc etc). I chose the order of these separate quotes.
I have long dreamed of the ancient city of Alexandria on the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, only 1200 miles east-south-east of my home in Rome, and only 400 miles west of the city of Damascus. The two cities, once the conscience of humanity and conservatory of its finest accomplishments, have both been maimed or destroyed by zealous religious fundamentalists and western meddling in this distant world the West does not even try to understand. The two cities epitomize both the zenith of the sublimity of human genius and the nadir of human fanaticism. I personally would hope to see both before the last vestiges, the last disconnected fragments of what they once represented, cease to be forever.
Since I am no longer a roving correspondent, I have come to love engagement in this genre of essay-report on exotic subjects or places and the application of my findings to our common present. A few books and the miraculous resources of the internet and I faced the embarrassment of too much material from which to choose. With that minor handicap I will now bury myself in the ancient dream city of Alexandria that I feel chiefly from one brief overnight there and from Lawrence Durrell’s mysterious and romantic Alexandria Quartet set in the Alexandria of the 1940s.
“What is this city of ours? What is resumed in the word Alexandria? In a flash my mind’s eye shows me a thousand dust-tormented streets. Flies and beggars own it today—and those who enjoy an intermediate existence between either.”
Lawrence Durrell, Justine, book one of the Alexandria Quartet
Founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great, Alexandria was first ruled by Ptolemy, the son of a general of Alexander the Macedonian. As such, Alexandria became one of the world’s largest cities. The Ptolemaic dynasty lasted until the death of Cleopatra VII and the Roman conquest of Egypt in the year 30. Even though historians have largely neglected that era (a period longer than the existence of the United States of America), Alexandria in that time became the capital of Egypt, its major port, and then the major center of the widespread Hellenistic civilization lasting for one thousand years, until the Muslim conquest of Egypt in AD 641. Hellenistic Alexandria was best known in those times for the Lighthouse of Alexandria (Pharos) one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. After Constantinople, Byzantine Alexandria was the world’s finest and strongest city. It was also the home of the largest urban Jewish population in the world.
I have discussed here two major and interlocking phenomena: the Library of Alexandria founded by the Ptolemaic kings and the pernicious role of religion then as now. The fate of many books of antiquity—Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine—was decided in Alexandria by the greatest library of the ancient world, housed in a wondrous and unique building known as the Museum erected in the center of the city.
At enormous cost, effort and tenacity the Museum came to contain the intellectual inheritance of Greek, Latin, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Jewish cultures before it succumbed to the ravages of man’s wars, religious fanaticism and time. A second part of the library’s collection was housed in an adjacent architectural marvel of the age, the Serapeon or Serapeum, which was the Temple of Jupiter or Serapis, for the city’s pagan population. According to later historians, “the Serapeon was second in magnificence only to the Capitol in Rome.” (Stephen Greenblatt)
“Five races, five languages, and a dozen creeds: five fleets turning through their greasy reflections behind the harbour bar. But there are more than five sexes and only the demotic Greek seems to distinguish between them …. You would never mistake it for a happy place. The symbolic lovers of the Hellenic world are replaced here by something different, something subtly androgynous, inverted upon itself. The Orient cannot rejoice in the sweet anarchy of the body—for it has outstripped the body…..”
Lawrence Durrell, Justine
Ancient sources describe the Alexandrian Library as comprising a collection of scrolls stored in a hall known as bibliothekai on shelves made to hold papyrus scrolls. Allegedly a sign hung over the shelves reading “the place of the cure of the soul”. The Museum also had a dining room, meeting rooms, lecture halls and gardens, something like the typical American university campus.
The top scholars, scientists and poets of the ancient world who were brought to the intellectual Eden of Alexandria made some of humanity’s major advances: Archimedes discovered the pi, laying the foundation for calculus; Galen revolutionized medicine; Eratosthenes established that the earth was round and calculated its circumference within 1%; geographers realized it was possible to reach India by sailing west from Spain; geometers calculated that the year consisted of 365 ¼ days and proposed the leap year every four years; anatomists understood that the brain and nervous system were a unit. The Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, was produced in Alexandria.
While these scientific discoveries were changing human life, the Alexandrian Library became the most significant in the ancient world.
“Conceived and executed by the Ptolemaic kings in the Third Century BC, it functioned as a major center of scholarship in general, with its some half-million papyrus scrolls systematically organized, labeled, and shelved according to a clever new system: alphabetical order.”
Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve.
Such histories of humanity’s attainments return like a truth teller’s tales, tailored for our minds and bodies especially today. It seems evident that just as we at some point in our lives must say the great yes or the great no, we must also consider stopping progress for a moment to rest and to recall, study and respect the importance in our lives of the attainments of former times.
And we must read, truly read. in order to understand our own reality for ourselves and that our reality is not what we are told it is. For that we need our books and learning and a kind of writing that iPhones or iPads cannot accommodate.
Umberto Eco noted that a book is a fragile creature, it suffers the wear of time, it fears rodents, the elements and clumsy hands. so the librarian protects the books not only against mankind but also against nature and devotes his life to this war with the forces of oblivion. History in general underlines the book’s fragility. And so it was with the great Alexandrian Library which according to some malevolent chroniclers was destroyed by Arab conquerors when Alexandria fell to Islamic armies from Arabia in the year 641. However, according to Philip K. Hitti in his History of the Arabs (perhaps the most authoritative of traditional Western historiography on the Arab peoples), “the story that by the Caliph’s order Amr for six months fed the numerous bath furnaces of the city with the volumes of the Alexandrian Library is one of those tales that make good fiction but bad history.” Hitti reports that in reality the great Ptolemaic Library was burnt as early as 48 BC by the Roman imperialist, Julius Caesar. The Daughter Library in the Serapeon was destroyed about AD 389 by edict of a mad neo-Christian fanatic, Emperor Theodosius. Therefore, at the time of the Arab conquest no library of importance existed in Alexandria.
Pagans, Christians and Jews had coexisted in polytheistic peace in early Ptolemaic Alexandria, until … until, as often in history, religion raised its ugly head in the fourth century after Emperor Constantine in Rome decided to make Christianity the official one-and-only religion of the empire. After centuries of religious pluralism in Alexandria, “Christians” rose up against the pagan worshipers of Mithras and the Roman deity, Jupiter and the Egyptian deities of Osiris and Apis, killing, spreading mayhem and destroying their places of worship.
The pagans responded in kind until they were subdued. Then the Christians turned on the Jews, attacking private homes and shops in a kind of Kristallnacht and demanding their expulsion from the city.
Religion had again carried out its mandate: Christianity’s victory over all other religions of the great city marked the downfall and then the death of Alexandrian intellectual life and tradition and contributed to the destruction of the great school of learning that was the Alexandrian Library, the Museum. It was victory of ignorant religion and fanaticism over progressive mankind, already 1700 years ago.
“And then in autumn the dry, palpitant air, harsh with static electricity, inflaming the body through its light clothing. The flesh coming alive, trying the bars of the prison. A drunken whore walks in the dark street at night, shedding snatches of songs like petals. Was it in this that Anthony heard the heart-numbing strains of the great music which persuaded him to surrender forever to the city he loved?”
Lawrence Durrell, Justine
AND THE BOOKS?
So what happened to the books? What happened to the written testimonies of the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Jewish civilizations until that time? As a general background, keep in mind that throughout world history men and religions and ideologies have burned books to prove themselves right and others wrong.
A number of Rome writers—Cicero, Livio, Seneca, Plutarch et al—confirmed that the Library and 700,000 books were burned during Julius Caesar’s conquest of Alexandria in year 48. Other historians however doubt that the books of Alexandria disappeared all at once; otherwise such a horrendous destruction would have been more widely condemned. In any case, various soldiers at various time burned some of the books, literal bookworms destroyed others.
Yet the hostility to “pagan wisdom” of official warlike Christianity spreading through the Roman world (and not only) was so intense that other historians believe the newly converted Emperor Theodosius ordered the destruction of Alexandria’s book treasures in 391.
Other ancient libraries suffered the same fate in that era of empires rising and falling during the transition from Paganism to Christianity. By the end of fourth century, Rome’s reported twenty-eight public libraries and many private collections no longer played a cultural role and people simply stopped reading. As the Roman Empire crumbled, culture vanished. The people had to be entertained, recited and sung to, while libraries disappeared. Christianity’s purge of the “dangerous” legacy of pagan or pre-Christian culture resulted in the destruction of education and learning as well as of its symbol: books. (Books offering pagan culture, after all!) After the disintegration of the Empire, the barbarians arrived and the books or rather parchments-papyrus scrolls that had survived perished in the chaos of wars and flames.
However, a few pockets of culture resisted. The nearly hidden and only with difficulty accessible monasteries founded in that epoch from Europe to the Middle East treasured the scrolls of pagan works; monks developed the art of copying by hand and conserving those major intellectual works some of which would then re-emerge after the dark period lasting almost until the Renaissance.
BOOK-BURNINGS IN HISTORY
The burning of Alexandria’s books recalls the scene of the night of May 19, 1933 when thousands of people chanting Nazi oaths gathered on Opernplatz in the center of Berlin to watch Brown Shirts, SS and Hitler Youth burn some 25,000 “un-German” books. Propaganda Minister Goebbels intended this literary bonfire as a purification of the true German spirit, supposedly weakened by un-German ideas and intellectualism. “The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. You do well to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past. From this wreckage the phoenix of a new spirit will triumphantly rise.” Burned in this carnage were books by seventy-five German and foreign authors, among whom were: Walter Benjamin, Bertold Brecht, Albert Einstein, Friedrich Engels, Sigmund Freud, André Gide, Ernst Hemingway, Franz Kafka, Lenin, Jack London, Heinrich Klaus, Thomas Mann, Ludwig Marcuse, Karl Marx, John Dos Passos, Arthur Schnitzler, Leon Trotsky, HG Wells, Emile Zola and Stefan Zweig. Among the burned books were those of the great poet Heinrich Heine—a visionary in this case—who had written a century earlier in a play: “There where books are burned, in the end also people are burned.”
The earliest recorded book-burning is attributed to Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s order in 213 BC that all books of philosophy and history from anywhere other than Qin province in China be burned (and a large number of intellectuals buried alive). Then, the Ancient Greeks and Romans burned Jewish and Christian scriptures, and thirteenth-seventeenth century popes ordered the burning of the Talmud. The same happened to John Wycliffe’s works in the fifteenth and William Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament in the sixteenth centuries.
A passage in the New Testament’s Book of Acts (Acts 19: 19-20) suggests Christian converts in Ephesus burned books of “curious arts”: “Many of them also which used curious acts brought their books together and burned them before all men….” The Spanish Inquisition burned five thousand Arabic manuscripts in Granada in 1499, and Spanish conquistadors burned all the sacred texts of the Maya in 1562. Luther’s translation of the Bible was burned in Catholic parts of Germany in the 1640s, and in the 1730s the Archbishop of Salzburg ordered the burning of every Protestant book and Bible that could be found. During the McCarthy era of the 1950s several American libraries burned the works of supposedly pro-Communist authors. Two twentieth century novels feature book-burnings by future authoritarian societies: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, in which book-burning becomes institutionalized in an anti-intellectual US much like today’s America, and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where unapproved books are burned in a “memory hole”. Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem burned copies of the New Testament in 1984; Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was ceremonially burned in 1988; BBC reported on a bonfire of Henry Potter books in the state of New Mexico, USA, burnt by people accusing the fictional boy wizard of being the devil. In Italy in 2008, conservative Christian Democrat city councillors burned on the main square of the town of Ceccano near Rome a copy of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code which they labeled “blasphemous” because it depicts Jesus and Mary Magdalene having a daughter which the Church has spent two thousand years trying to cover up.
To authority and to religions in general there is something satisfyingly symbolic about book-burning. It is more than just the censorship of beliefs and ideas. For a book is much more than a scroll of parchment or printed words on paper. It is the power of fire. More than just destruction. Goebbels recognized the power of this symbolism, as have tyrants and organized religions and ideologies of all time.
Authorities around the world, both secular and religious, have known since the Chinese Qin dynasty that book-burning is an act of peculiar potency. Hopefully, Pastor Terry Jones, leader of the now well-known Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, who planned to burn two hundred copies of the Koran, has learned how potent the book-burning act can be. Jones received death threats and President Barack Obama warned him of the consequences the pastor’s act may have had for US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Moreover, there’s an important difference between Pastor Jones’s plans and official book-burning such as those of the Nazis, says Richard Evans, professor of history at Cambridge and a specialist in German social and cultural history. While the book-burnings of 1933 were still largely symbolic, presaging the “mass violence, real and symbolic”. Jones’s International Burn-a-Koran Day is, on the other hand, an act of defiance and “quite clearly a symbolic attack on Islam as a whole”. Evans adds:
“Anyone who had tried to burn Mein Kampf in 1933 would have been arrested and shot”.
The seventeenth century poet, philosopher and political theorist, John Milton, (Paradise Lost) whose books were publicly burned in England and France, gives an excellent explanation of why authorities down the centuries have seen danger in certain books. “Anyone who kills a man,” Milton said, kills “a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself”.
Throughout history, says Matt Fishburn, author of Burning Books, (Palgrave Macmillan, UK) a chronicle of the phenomenon through the ages, most official book-burnings have been about “control” and to announce “what a regime stands for”. The Nazi burnings were, essentially, about announcing what would be acceptable in the future. In such cases to burn a book is to be a fascist. The burnings were the symbol; the repressive legislation that came in their wake was what really enforced it.”
More innocently, people have long lit celebratory bonfires to mark the end of one phase in their lives and the start of another…. But it is as an official means of suppressing dissenting or heretical views that book-burning has acquired its infamy.
Why the fire? Why burning rather than some other kind of destruction? The symbolism of flames is plain to Andrew Motion. The novelist and former poet laureate says “to burn (a book) of any kind, and certainly one that is a representation of a culture and a set of beliefs, is to appear to consign it to the flames of eternal damnation.” Book-burning, he says, is first and foremost a monumental “manifestation of intolerance. It’s the conflation of what ought to be nuanced views into one, hate-filled act.”
Book people will recognize and be grateful to those exceptional people of ancient Alexandria for mankind’s first attempt at the unification of various cultures and the preservation of the heritage that eventually passed down to us via the Renaissance beginning in Italy on the ruins of the Roman Empire.
One of the principle events of the second millennium was the printing press, introduced to the West by the German, Johannes Gutenberg around 1440. The books-scrolls, which survived the devastation of the Alexandrian Library, eventually made their way to join others preserved in the monasteries and private collections. They were then found by specialists-book hunters-copyists whose hand-written copies of surviving works by the Hellenistic-Roman greats thus reached the Gutenberg printing presses, igniting that great swerve in knowledge that was the Rinascimento or Renaissance.
“In the great quietness of the winter evenings there is one clock: the sea. In the mind is the fugue upon which this writing is made. Empty cadences of sea-water, licking its own wounds, sulking along the mouth of the delta, boiling upon those deserted beaches—empty, forever empty under the circular flight of the seagulls.”
Lawrence Durrell, Justine
Gaither Stewart, based in Rome is a veteran journalist and essayist on a broad palette of topics from culture to history and politics, he is also the author of the Europe Trilogy, celebrated spy thrillers whose latest volume, Time of Exile, was recently published by Punto Press.