Did Arabs Destroy the Library of Alexandria?

An interesting hypothesis:



The Fate of the Library of Alexandria
By John O’Neill – American Thinker

The great Library of Alexandria, established by Ptolemy II (circa 280 BC), has come to symbolize the receptacle of knowledge of Classical civilization. This great repository was barbarously razed in the Middle Ages.

At its height, the Library contained an estimated forty thousand volumes on a wide variety of topics. It held works on astronomy, mathematics, physics, medicine, and philosophy — many of which were copied from the hieroglyphic and cuneiform texts of the Egyptians and Babylonians. It also stored histories of all the countries of the known world: histories of Egypt, of Babylonia, of Persia, of the lands of North Africa, of the lands of Western Europe, etc.

Although it was the greatest bibliographic collection in the ancient world, the Library probably held few books that were unique to it; almost all of the documents were copies of manuscripts held in other libraries or institutes of learning. Nonetheless, the Alexandria Library was celebrated as the most important treasury of information in the world at the time. Its disappearance is rightly seen as a catastrophe and symbolic of the loss of respect for knowledge that followed the collapse of Classical civilization.

Of the volumes held by the Library, as well as the other libraries of the time, it has been estimated that something like 95% were lost. What remains of the writings of antiquity is but a tiny relic of what once existed.

A story, apparently first appearing in the thirteenth century (mentioned first by Abd al Latif, who died in 1231, and later by Gregory Bar Hebraeus, who died in 1286), says that the Arabs, under Caliph Umar, destroyed the Alexandria Library shortly after the conquest of Egypt in 639 AD. The account states that the caliph, when informed about the institution, declared that if the books it contained agreed with the Koran, then they were superfluous, and if they disagreed, then they were heretical. In either event, they were worthless and should be obliterated. The books of the Library were put to the torch — used to heat the palace baths.

For centuries, Europeans had little cause to doubt this story. There were very good reasons indeed, as we shall see, for believing it to be true. Yet by the late nineteenth century, historians were having second thoughts. Evidence, they said, showed that the early Arabs had great respect for learning, and the period between the seventh and eleventh centuries was coming to be regarded as an Islamic Golden Age, when Muslim societies led the world in science and medicine.

Indeed, it was argued that the Arabs were the saviors, rather than the destroyers, of Classical learning. A prime example of this genre of thinking is Robert Briffault’s 1919 book, The Making of Humanity, which argued that the real Renaissance, or rebirth, of Classical learning actually occurred in eleventh-century Islamic Spain rather than fifteenth-century Italy.

Briffault’s thinking, with its negative view of Christianity and European culture, may be regarded as an early form of political correctness. His thesis has become the default mode of thought in much of academia. And this is reflected in theories about the fate of the Library at Alexandria. A prime example of this may be seen in the Wikipedia page dealing with the Library. Here we encounter a lengthy discussion of the destruction of the institution. The accidental destruction caused by Julius Caesar is given pride of place, as are other real or apparent destructions which occurred at later periods of the Roman Empire. The final destruction, which must surely be the most important — that carried out by the Arabs — is mentioned rather briefly at the end, only to be dismissed “as a hoax or propaganda.”

But if the destruction carried out by the Arabs was a hoax, then what happened to the Library? Even the authors of the Wikipedia page admit that following the earlier destruction by Caesar, the Library was rebuilt and restocked. This needs to be stressed: Until the disappearance of Classical civilization (apparently in the seventh century), the Library could be restocked and recreated — for the great majority of the volumes it contained were not unique to it. They were copies of books also available in the other libraries and institutes of learning that dotted the Mediterranean world. It was only with the disappearance of Classical civilization as a whole — along with the cultural, social, and economic infrastructure that underpinned it — that the restocking and re-endowing of the Library became impossible. The lost volumes could not then be replaced because all other copies, in the other libraries and academies, were also gone.

Leaving aside the assertions of the Wikipedia authors, there is irrefutable proof that the wider dissolution of Classical culture occurred in the seventh century, and that this was a direct consequence of the Arab conquests. Furthermore, there is clear evidence that this dissolution and destruction was the result of a deliberate act of policy on the part of the Arabs.

This is seen most clearly in the sudden rupture, in the seventh century (in the lands conquered and controlled by the Muslims), of all cultural links to the past.

Until the first quarter of the seventh century, Classical civilization was alive and well in the Mediterranean world. City life flourished, as did the economy and the arts. Literacy was widespread, and the works of the Classical historians, as well as the philosophers, mathematicians, and physicians, were readily available and discussed in the academies and libraries located throughout the Near East, North Africa, and Europe.

In Egypt during the sixth century, renowned philosophers such as Olympiodorus (died 570) presided over the academy that presumably had, if not the original Library, then at least a well-stocked and well-funded library of some sort. The Alexandrian academy of this time was regarded as the most illustrious institute of learning in the known world, and it is virtually beyond doubt that its library matched, if indeed it did not surpass, the original Library founded by Ptolemy II.

The writings of Olympiodorus and his contemporaries demonstrate intimate familiarity with the great works of classical antiquity — very often quoting obscure philosophers and historians whose works have long since disappeared. Among the general population of the time, literacy was the norm, and the appetite for reading was fed by a large class of professional writers who composed plays, poems, and short stories — these last taking the form of mini-novels.

In Egypt, the works of Greek writers such as Herodotus and Diodorus were familiar and widely quoted. Both the latter and such native Egyptian writers as Manetho had composed extensive histories of Egypt of the time of the pharaohs. These works provided, for the citizens of Egypt and other parts of the Empire, a direct link with the pharaohnic past. Here the educated citizen encountered the name of the pharaoh (Kheops) who built the Great Pyramid, as well as that of his son (Khephren), who built the second pyramid at Giza, and that of his grandson Mykerinos, who raised the third and smallest structure. These Hellenized versions of the names were extremely accurate transcriptions of the actual Egyptian names (Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure). In the history of the country written by Manetho, the educated citizen of the Empire would have had a detailed description of Egypt’s past, complete with an in-depth account of the deeds of the pharaohs as well as descriptions of the various monuments and the kings who built them.

The change that came over Egypt following the Arab Conquest can be described only as catastrophic. All knowledge of the country’s past disappears, and it does so almost overnight.

Consider the account of the Giza Pyramids and their construction written by the Arab historian Al Masudi (regarded as the “Arab Herodotus”), apparently in the tenth century (though there are good grounds for believing substantially earlier):

Surid, Ben Shaluk, Ben Sermuni, Ben Termidun, Ben Tedresan, Ben Sal, one of the kings of Egypt before the flood, built two great pyramids; and, notwithstanding, they were subsequently named after a person called Shaddad Ben Ad … they were not built by the Adites, who could not conquer Egypt, on account of their powers, which the Egyptians possessed by means of enchantment … the reason for the building of the pyramids was the following dream, which happened to Surid three hundred years previous to the flood. It appeared to him that the earth was overthrown, and that the inhabitants were laid prostrate upon it, that the stars wandered confusedly from their courses, and clashed together with tremendous noise. The king though greatly affected by this vision, did not disclose it to any person, but was conscious that some great event was about to take place. (From L. Cottrell, The Mountains of Pharaoh, London, 1956.)

This was what passed for “history” in Egypt after the Arab conquest — little more than a collection of Arab fables. Egypt, effectively, had lost her history.

Other Arab writers display the same ignorance. Take for example the comments of Ibn Jubayr, who worked as a secretary to the Moorish governor of Granada, and who visited Cairo in 1182. He commented on “the ancient pyramids, of miraculous construction and wonderful to look upon, [which looked] like huge pavilions rearing to the skies; two in particular shock the firmament[.]” He wondered whether they might be the tombs of early prophets mentioned in the Koran, or whether they were granaries of the biblical patriarch Joseph, but in the end came to the conclusion, “To be short, none but the Great and Glorious God can know their story.” (Andrew Beattie, Cairo: A Cultural History, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 50.)

We should not imagine that this loss of connection with the past occurred gradually. From the very beginning, the Arabs displayed absolute contempt for the culture and history of both Egypt and the other countries of the region they conquered. Immediately upon the invasion of Egypt, the caliph established a commission whose purpose was to discover and plunder the pharaohnic tombs. We know that Christian churches and monasteries — many of the latter possessing well-stocked libraries — suffered the same fate.

The larger monuments of Roman and pharaohnic times were similarly plundered for their cut-stone, and Saladin, the Muslim hero lionized in so much politically correct literature and art, began the process by the exploitation of the smaller Giza monuments. From these, he constructed the citadel at Cairo (between 1193 and 1198). His son and successor, Al-Aziz Uthman, went further, and made a determined effort to demolish the Great Pyramid itself. (Ibid.) He succeeded in stripping the outer casing of smooth limestone blocks from the structure (covered with historically invaluable inscriptions) but eventually canceled the project owing to its cost.

The loss of contact with the past occurred in all the lands conquered by the Muslims. Here we need only point to the fact that the Persian poet and mathematician Omar Khayyam, at the end of the eleventh century, was largely ignorant of his own country’s illustrious history and imagined that the great palaces built by the Achaemenid Emperors Darius and Xerxes, as Persepolis and Susa, were raised by a genie-king named Jamshid.

What then of the much-vaunted Arab respect for learning and science that we hear so much of in modern academic literature? That the Arabs did permit some of the science and learning they encountered in the great cities of Egypt, Syria, Babylonia, and Persia to survive — for a while — is beyond doubt. Yet the learning they tolerated was entirely of a practical or utilitarian nature — and this is a fact admitted even by Islamophiles such as Briffault. Thus, for a while, the Arabs patronized physicists, mathematicians, and physicians.

Yet the very fact that knowledge had to plead its usefulness in order to be permitted to survive at all speaks volumes in itself. Even this utilitarian learning was soon to be snuffed out under the weight of an Islamic theocracy (promulgated by Al Ghazali in the eleventh century) that regarded the very concept of scientific laws as an affront to Allah and an infringement of Allah’s freedom to act.

The crushing of all science occurred far earlier than is generally believed. As I explain in some detail in my Holy Warriors, the entire concept of an Islamic Golden Age, the three centuries between the seventh and tenth centuries during which the Muslim world enjoyed an altogether higher level of culture than Europe, is little more than a myth. The Golden Age of Islam, as archaeologists have found to their astonishment, has no archaeological confirmation.

Not a trace of the supposedly fabulous, wealthy Baghdad of Harun al Rashid in the ninth century has been found. The first Muslim remains in Baghdad, as everywhere else in the Muslim world, date from the first half of the tenth century. (A few monuments dated to the seventh century also occur, with nothing in between.) The lack of archaeological evidence is also true for Cordoba in Spain, supposedly a metropolis of half a million souls during the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries. The earliest Islamic remains for Cordoba are also dated to the mid-tenth century. All of this suggests that the appearance of Islam on the world stage has been seriously misdated and somehow placed three centuries in the past. This means, among other things, that the destruction of native cultures in the lands conquered by the Muslims occurred quicker than is generally taught and believed. Thus, Al Masudi would have displayed his complete ignorance of the pyramids and of Egyptian history not three centuries after the Muslim conquest, but only a few decades after.

Admittedly, the question of chronology is still extremely controversial. Further excavation throughout the Near East is necessary to confirm what actually happened in the three missing centuries. Nevertheless, it appears that the entire Islamic Golden Age is a phenomenon that existed only on paper and in the imagination of the storytellers of the Arabian Nights.

What, then, of the destruction of the Alexandrian Library? Were the Arabs responsible? The evidence indicates overwhelmingly that not only did the Arabs destroy the library or libraries of Alexandria, but they simultaneously put to the torch all secular learning (with the exception of the sciences) throughout the entire Middle and Near East.

Thus the Arabs, as I show in Holy Warriors, destroyed Classical civilization in Europe through an economic blockade, but in the Middle East, they destroyed it deliberately and methodically.

Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization is published by Felibri.

Explore posts in the same categories: History

18 Comments on “Did Arabs Destroy the Library of Alexandria?”

  1. islams not for me Says:

    I’d like to point out that the muslims destroyed the last of the libraries in Alexandra.

    According to this author:

    The Mysterious Fate of the Great Library of Alexandria

    http://www.bede.org.uk/library.htm

    There are three storys from three different groups who destroyed the library…

    He includes the following.

    ‘Julius Caesar’

    ‘Theophilus’

    ‘Omar’

    Niether group has irrefutable evidence of the detruction but the author of the above article says the following:

    “The verdict on Caesar”
    “Taken together we can conclude a number of things from these sources:”

    “The earliest descriptions of the Alexandrine War, written by Caesar or his crony, deliberately cover up anything that reflects badly on the great man. Their silence about burning down the world’s greatest library, even by accident, is not surprising. ”

    “The library as a separate building did not exist by the time of Strabo’s visit in 20BC. ”

    “The belief that Caesar had destroyed the library was widespread by the time his family no longer occupied the throne of the emperors in the late first century AD. Plutarch, Gellius and Seneca are all evidence for this. We must therefore assume that the library did not exist at this time. Plutarch, a Greek, would certainly have known if it did. ”

    “Although we cannot prove his guilt with first hand evidence, it seems justified to claim that the book stacks of the Royal Library were burnt down by Julius Caesar. Perhaps the reading rooms, which in any case were part of the Museum, survived but, as Seneca and all the other sources tell us, the books themselves perished. That scholarship continued in Alexandria after this time cannot be doubted but I can find no explicit mention of the Royal Library after Caesar’s ill-fated visit. Indeed as Athenaeus of Naucratis (died after 200AD) mournfully wrote in the Deipnosophistai “And concerning the number of books and the establishment of libraries and the collection in the Museum, why need I even speak when they are all the memory of men.”

    Not that this justifys Christian, pagan or moslem atrocities or violence during those times…


    • According to the article, the destruction by Ceasar was not the end of the Library.

      From the article:

      “following the earlier destruction by Caesar, the Library was rebuilt and restocked. This needs to be stressed: Until the disappearance of Classical civilization (apparently in the seventh century), the Library could be restocked and recreated — for the great majority of the volumes it contained were not unique to it.”

      Cheers

      • islams not for me Says:

        Agreed… So we can assume that there were at least 3 rebuilds and restocks during its lifetime.

  2. islams not for me Says:

    See here:

    “SARACENS CONQUER EGYPT DESTRUCTION OF THE LIBRARY AT ALEXANDRIA”
    “(A.D. 640)”

    http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/Texts/PD/LibraryOfAlexandriaIrving.html

  3. Jeremiah Says:

    Wow. That is pretty ridiculous. While we’re talking about whether or not Muslims destroyed the Library of Alexandria because they hated science, let’s talk about whether or not Jews killed Christ because they hated Christians. Oh wait, that would be anti-semetic.

    • Keith Lehman Says:

      Jeremiah:
      Why would it be anti-Semitic … Jesus was Jewish!
      Hello?!?
      In addition “Christians” did not exist until after Christ – it was his disciples who established what has become known as Christianity. Those that followed and or believed in Jesus of Nazareth and his sermons, et cetera, were not called Christians until many years after his death. Oddly, most of the history was oral until after anyone who knew the Christ had passed on.

  4. islams not for me Says:

    silly jeremiah…

    The romans actually killed Jesus.

  5. ken Says:

    I have often heard the claim that the Crusaders returned from the Crusades carrying lost knowledge, gleaned from the Arabs, and that this “recovered” knowledge relit the fires of civilization in Europe. I beg to differ.

    Now can these people claim this when it is a known fact without any controversy that the Crusades and the Crusaders themselves passed through the Christian Easter Roman Empire also known as Byzantium aka Constrainable (before it became Istanbul) both going to and returning from the Holy land. Then there is the fact that the Eastern Roman Empire also known as Byzantium and Constrainable (before it became Istanbul), at one time controlled the whole of the Eastern and Western Mediterranean World, therefore any knowledge the ancient West possessed would certainly also be known to the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium aka Constrainable) as well. Even the most rabid believer in Politically Correct Theology cannot dispute these “FACTS.” There were also clergymen among the Crusaders, who surely spoke, read, or wrote Latin, and Greek. There is no debate about this or that the elites of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium aka Constrainable) also spoke, read, or wrote these same languages. There is no doubt that the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium aka Constrainable) lasted for a thousand years after the Roman Empire self-divided into a Western and an Eastern half. There is also no debate that the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium aka Constrainable) succumbed to those wonderfully gentile Muslims and to their loving peaceful leader, Mohammed the Conquer in the year 1453AD just 39 years before Columbus sailed for the Orient, and about 400 years AFTER the Crusaders first set foot in the Holy Land. There is no argument that all the major Kingdoms of Europe including the Pope and Italian states had ambassadors and Legations in the Easter Roman Empire (Byzantium aka Constrainable). In today’s world, the activities of industrial and commercial spies are widespread, well documented and widely known. Why could not the same activity be carried on in the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium aka Constrainable) by or on the behalf of Western Europeans?

    In 1919, the year Robert Biffault’s book was first published, Europe was in culture shock following WWI, and many Europeans doubted the future of a civilization capable of killing so many of its own so quickly and savagely. At the time, the chattering classes in Europe could hardly stop themselves from chattering about Russian Communism and the bright future it offered humanity. At the same time, the cream of Western intelligence lay a molding in the trenches and shell holes of France and Belgium. One small proof of this is the little German PhD, Dr Joseph Gerbils who was soon to graduate University and meet Adolph Hitler, but Dr. Gerbils was spared service in the Kiser’s Army due to his physical limitations.

    The way was paved for a Politically Correct work of fiction that could explain away to 1919 shell shocked Europeans how Great Brittan and Mighty France got their Asses handed to them in both Iraq and the Dardanelles by the “Sick Man of Europe,” the Ottoman Turk Empire. The hilarious argument that, “Why didn’t you know that it was the Arabs who taught us everything,” sounded like some kind of excuse slip written for a naughty school boy in the aftermath of “THE WAR TO END ALL WARS.” You know come to think about it, the name “The War to End All Wars” sort of has an Sadam Hussein Arab kind of ring to it, like “The Mother of All Battles.”

  6. Keith Lehman Says:

    Silly Islam is Not for Me …
    Roman governor ordered the punishment, Roman soldiers carried it out; but the actual arrest and charges was instituted by the Jewish Patriarchs who feared Jesus of Nazareth (Christ) rise in influence among the people, et cetera. Therefore, it is true that the infliction upon Jesus was by pagan hands, but it was because of the Jewish religious hierarchy who arranged it.


    • More accurately, all men are responsible for the death of Jesus. So, it’s kind of pointless to assign His death to any specific group of humans:

      “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” – John 10:11

      Cheers

  7. islams not for me Says:

    Yes keith…

    The Theocratic Jewish leaders ‘ordered’ Jesus death. But it was the Romans who did the deed.

    Some of the more anti-semite characters claim that the Jews soley killed Christ. But that is not true.

  8. tewkewl Says:

    I think this is pretty correct. these guys only cared about the Koran and sharia… the same as now. they did see the need for any science or anything. However, the western europeans of this period were essentially the same. by 800, europe had become a shadow if it’s former roman glory… science was replaced by fanaticism. Constantinople was the only bastion of classical learning left after the the arabs set torch to the classical world in north africa. I often wonder what would happen if someone went back in time and killed mohammad before he did what he did. We would have been much more advanced since their would have been unbroken knowledge from the classical era till today. In short, we could hav skipped the dark ages.

  9. snitch-n-time Says:

    Islam, much like Mormanism, has a claimed history shockingly disconnected from archieology. That this causes no concern to Islamists & Mormans is itself even more shocking.

    Considering the similar etymology of the Q’ran & the Book of Mormon this should not be a big surprise.

  10. zizo Says:

    * Islamic religion calls for respect for science and scientists, there are verses confirm this and some of the caliphs were encouraged to monitor the science and gifts for those who come with something new
    * Caliph Omar was encouraging to religious language and science and knowledge in general

    * Travelers who visited Alexandria Fbl Islam did not talk about the public library if they reported to exist, calling

    * First historian said that the story was after more than five centuries of Ibn al-Aas entry of Alexandria (the novel is found in the history of Hanna Alngiwssa and the son of governance and Albuladhiry and Tabari and Almsaudy Canadian and Abu Saleh)

    * John Filbynos mentioned in the novel may not have been alive at that time as if he were alive that have exceeded the 120-year-old
    * Some wonder no matter the size of the burned books do you need so many bathrooms and bringing into question time in the novel

  11. Sophia Says:

    This blog is ridiculous. Even if the Arab burning of the Great Library of the Musaeum was true, the (Christian) Roman Emperor Theodosius destroyed far more ancient works than they ever did. And that happened centuries before the fall of Egypt (and subsequently the Byzantine Empire). He not only destroyed libraries, he destroyed the most enduring ancient holy sites in a span of a few years. His was an actual purge of anything pagan. Anything that contradicted the Bible was destroyed, utterly. From the Temple of Apollo in Delphi to the vestal virgins of Rome to what is most probably the last remnants of the Great Library – the Serapeum of Alexandria. The crusaders weren’t any better as well, destroying, for example, the Library of Tripoli.

    Besides, Arabs treated Christians and Jews very well in those times, given that the Koran specifically tells them to. They recognized them as fellow “People of the Book”, given that all three share the same basic scriptures – the Old Testament. That is the very reason why the Coptic Christians in Egypt (and the Palestinian Christians in Lebanon, etc.) have survived all these centuries. In fact, ancient Christian scholars during the golden age of the Caliphates would go into Muslim territories to study the classics. At a time when Europe was a mess of pockets of survivors of the (Western) Roman Empire fending off waves after waves of (barbarian) Germanic hordes – the Dark Ages, the Caliphates and the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire) were the only places where civilization survived. And they DID preserve the classics. A lot of the most prominent scholars and scientists in those periods were Muslims. Though to be fair, once the Caliphates started to fall to the Turks, it was the Catholic church who took up the torch and began preserving the classics as well.

    For example, did you know who the “founding father of secular thought” is? It’s a man known to us as Averroes. He was a follower of the Aristotelian school of philosophy. He lived in Cordoba, Spain in the 12th century. His real name was Ibn Rushd and he was Muslim. Or how about the father of modern medicine, Avicenna? His real name was Ibn Sina.

    The modern hostility of all three religions against each other started only during the crusades. When the newly converted Christians of Europe were at first exploited by the Byzantines to defend for them, that quickly morphed into a free for all conquest when the Europeans decided they didn’t want to stop just there but continue until they owned the Holy Land solely.

    Let’s not forget that it was the Spanish Inquisition that eventually forced all Jews and Muslims out of Spain, where they had been living in peace together during the Caliphates for centuries.

    As for the Pyramid fable, even prior to the Arab conquest, nobody had any real idea who built the pyramids anyway, LOL. They were thousands of years old by then. Even the originator of the pyramid design, the ancient genius Imhotep, had even long passed legendary status and become a demigod. And they didn’t exactly have archeologists. Egypt was merely a shadow of what is once was, being for all sense and purposes a vassal state of the Roman Empire. They had been Romanized beyond recognition. What makes you think that they had any better clue with regards to the pyramids as the later Arabs did?

    And no, I’m not Muslim. Not that it would matter, you people would probably dismiss everything I said and just call me “Libtard”. Stop pretending you people have any interest in historical facts. We all know the entire purpose of all this is because you hate Muslims and are trying to find any reason you can find to justify it, even if untrue. Period.


  12. Actually my interest in history and archeology has been used to prove or disprove many subjects.

    As an example what have moslems done as a group to help humanity? Nothing much. Only specific persons did anything worthwhile.

    Meanwhile islam is not merely a ‘religion’ but a theocratic system that like the catholics before them it is a failure.

    So while your offended at our ‘bigotry’ I’ll point out that my ‘bigotry’ is based off of what moslems write & do.


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