Friday, September 21, 2012

WHY I LOVE The Great Library of Alexandria by K. Hollan VanZandt

Many people don’t know that the Great Library of Alexandria was actually the world’s first university. It sat at the edge of the large harbor, and held not just rooms full of scrolls, but an entire (and rather impressive) zoological and botanical park. There were lecture halls, and music rooms, and even many temples throughout the “campus” if you will.

So how did it come to be? Alexander the Great’s general, Ptolemy, made a bold move after Alexander died. He returned to Egypt with Alexander’s corpse while the other generals fought over who would take over Alexander’s powerful throne. Ptolemy knew the power of Egypt’s grain reserves. And he knew the Egyptians would honor him as a leader if he had possession of Alexander’s corpse. So away he went to Alexandria.

First on his list was to create a new religion. So he did what the Christians would later imitate: he built a composite religion off of other successful religions in the area, creating a new god called “Serapis”, who was part bull, part man, and drew roots from Egyptian myth. (Remember, myth is according to Joseph Campbell, “other peoples’ religion.”) And he built massive monuments and temples to Serapis for worship. And the people followed.

With the new religion at its core, he decided he wanted to create the world’s most complete library, and so he founded the Great Library, declaring that by law all manuscripts, letters, maps and any other written material would be confiscated from travelers entering the city. The library kept the originals, by the way, and returned copies to the owners if they ever saw them at all. At its height the Great Library was thought to have held nearly 3 million scrolls -- many of them irreplaceable. (This is why I focused so intensely on what few could be copied and saved in my novel, Written in the Ashes.)

Taxes from Egypt’s trade kept the library comfortable and expanding. Scholars and philosophers from all around the Mediterranean (which was almost the whole world at that time for those under Roman rule) flocked to the Great Library to spend their days in comfort, studying, philosophizing and inventing.  Here are a few important names you should know from those who were in residence:

Aristarchus created the first heliocentric model of the solar system in 300 B.C.E. Yes, that’s almost 2,000 years before Copernicus. While his model wasn’t complete, could you imagine having that knowledge way back then? The bulk of his work was lost in the burning of the Great Library...

Eratosthenes around 276 B.C.E. invented a little word called “geography” as well as our system of longitude and latitude. He also successfully calculated the circumference of the Earth to within a few meters. Yes, that’s long before we fell into the Dark Ages and thought our world was flat. The bulk of his work was also lost in the burning of the Great Library...

And finally Archimedes around 200 B.C.E.. Much of Archimedes life we know of, as he traveled to Athens frequently, and the Athens library remained intact through the Christian era that destroyed most of the libraries of the world as it rose into power. He was considered one of the greatest inventors and mathematicians the world has ever seen, often considered to have invented the first machines. But again, much of his unknown work may have been lost in the burning of the Great Library...

The last known librarian of the Great Library of Alexandria is a woman by the name of Hypatia, circa 400 C.E. She was a commoner, not of noble birth, but born of a great mathematician who was her father, Theon, and who also sponsored her studies.

How would our world be different if these threads of knowledge had not been lost? How would our children’s lives be different if they saw Hypatia’s name in their history books and understood that greatness knows no gender? How would we protect our culture with the realization that knowledge is fragile, and can be misused and even lost forever?

These are the questions that I have spent one third of my life writing about, with many years yet to come...

Kaia VanZasndt is the author of Written In the Ashes, historical fiction during the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria.


  1. Thank you for a post which was educative and so interesting.

  2. Mystica & Missy, I LOVED her book, Written In the Ashes. It's great historical fiction about the Great Library of Alexandria and so much more!

  3. Ok, you sold me. *g*

    I'm off to look up Written in Ashes on Amazon. Great article.

  4. Thinking of all that was lost makes me feel ill :( Fantastic post, putting Written In the Ashes on my wish list!

  5. Thanks for the lovely comments, everyone! If you have any questions about this article or my book, I have an author Q&A on Goodreads and would be happy to hear from you : )

  6. Hi Kaia thank you for loving the Great Library of Alexandria
    I would appreciate if i can get signed copy of the book
    off corse fully paid
    shaun Navazesh

  7. Thanks for loving the The Great Library of Alexandria I feel like i had some thing to do with it strangely ,,,may I purchase a signed copy of your book
    shaun Navazesh