Who destroyed the Library at Alexandria?

By V.A. Mohamad Ashrof, Special to Arab News
Publication Date: 
Thu, 2002-11-14 03:00

Ptolemy II, who became the ruler of Egypt after Alexander the Great in the third century BC, was a great patron of learning. In Alexandria, he established a library which eventually contained some 500,000 books and was a fabled repository of the wisdom and arts of the ancient world. It came to be known as the great library at Alexandria and was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It has been said that the library was burned on the orders of Caliph Omar ibn Al-Khattab, after the Muslims had taken the city. The story goes that the books were used to feed the numerous furnaces which heated the baths of the city. The story also contains the oft-quoted remark, allegedly made by Caliph Omar, "If these writings of the Greeks agree with the book of God, they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed." Thus the library was burned without even a cursory look at its contents. Or so the story goes. But is it true?

The Encyclopedia Brittanica says that the library had in fact been destroyed long before the advent of Islam — in the fourth century AD. Phillip K. Hitti, the great historian of the Arabs, states that the story "is one of those tales that make good fiction but bad history." He continues, "The great Ptolemic library was burnt in 48 BC by Julius Caesar. A later one, referred to as the daughter library, was destroyed about 389 AD by Emperor Theodosius. At the time of the Arab conquest, therefore, no library of importance existed in Alexandria and no contemporary writer ever brought these charges against Omar ibn Al-Khattab."

Professor Bernard Lewis, a modern critic of Islam, has summarized the verdict of modern scholarship on the subject: "Modern research has shown the story to be completely unfounded. None of the early chronicles, not even the Christian ones, make any reference to it and it is not mentioned until the 13th century..." Those words were written by Professor Lewis in 1950. In 1990, he said: "Not the creation but the demolition of the myth was an achievement of European scholarship which, from the 18th century to the present day, has rejected the story as false and absurd, and thus exonerated Caliph Omar and the early Muslims from this libel."

Dr. D.P. Singhal, an Indian historian, also considers the story false. He notes: "The alleged sentence of the caliph is alien to the traditional precept of the Muslim leaders who had expressly commanded the preservation of captured religious texts of Jews and Christians, and had declared that the works of profane scientists and philosophers could be lawfully used by the believer."

Bertrand Russell made the following statement: "Every Christian has been taught the story of the caliph destroying the library in Alexandria. As a matter of fact, the library was frequently destroyed and frequently rebuilt. The early Muslims, unlike the Christians, tolerated those whom they called ‘People of the Book,’ provided they paid tribute. In contrast to the Christians, who persecuted not only pagans but each other, the Muslims were welcomed for their broadmindedness and it was largely this that facilitated their conquests."

Dr. Singhal makes the same point: "In fact, the Arabs were far too fond of books and learning to behave in such a manner. They built a number of famous libraries in their empire and those libraries were created by men of high education and learning. On the other hand, during the Crusades, European invaders burned many libraries... It is likely that Byzantine Emperor Theodosius destroyed all or part of the library at Alexandria because as a devout Christian, he did not approve of pagan books — whether Greek or Asian."

In the 500 years between the burning of the library and its first being reported, no Christian writer or historian mentions it though Eutychius who was archbishop of Alexandria in 933, described the city’s capture by the Arabs in great detail. Colin Wilson, a scientific writer and researcher, expressed his belief that the demolition of the library was caused by Christian clergy. He wrote, "The Library at Alexandria, which contained, among other things, Aristotle’s own book collection, was burned down on the orders of the archbishop of Alexandria supported by Emperor Theodosius." No less a historian than Edward Gibbon said that the library had been thoroughly destroyed by Christian fanatics some three centuries before Egypt was conquered by the armies of Islam.

M.N. Roy, the Indian philosopher, analyzed the issue in a wider perspective. "The Library at Cairo contained over 100,000 volumes, while Cordoba boasted six times as many. This fact gives the lie to the calumny which depicts the rise of Islam as an eruption of savage fanaticism — specifically the tale of the destruction of the famous library at Alexandria. One must have a pious mind of credulous disposition to believe that those who took delight in founding and supporting such noble seats of learning would have callously set fire to the library at Alexandria, that those who command the gratitude of mankind for having saved its most precious patrimony, could have possibly begun by contributing to the destruction of that same patrimony. When dispassionate and scientific study of history dissipates legends and discredits malicious tales, the rise of Islam stands out, not as a scourge, but a blessing for mankind."

He continues, "While books written in the 11th and 12th century indignantly detail the shocking story of the burning of the library at Alexandria, the historians Eustichius and Elmacin, both Egyptian Christians, who wrote soon after the Muslim conquest of their country, are significantly silent about the savage act. The former, a patriarch of Alexandria, could hardly be suspected of partiality to the enemies of Christianity. An order by Caliph Omar has been usually cited as evidence of the barbarous act though it would have been much easier not to record that order than to suppress any historical work composed by Christian prelates who had endless possibilities of concealing their composition. A diligent examination of all relevant evidence enabled Gibbon to arrive at the following opinion on the matter: ‘The rigid sentence of Omar is repugnant to the sound and orthodox precept of the Muslim casuist; they expressly declare that the religious books of the Jews and Christians, which are acquired by the right of war, and that the works of profane scientists, historians or poets, physicians or philosophers, may be lawfully applied to the use of the faithful.’"

It is no mere chance that for most of its 2000 years, Christianity has not inspired a spirit of learning but has in fact often suppressed it. Christian Crusaders were responsible for the destruction of hundreds of thousands of Greek as well as Arabic writings. In 389 AD for example the celebrated library of Serapis at Alexandria was destroyed by order of Archbishop Theophilus. The guiding principle of Pope Gregory was, "Ignorance is the mother of piety." According to this, Gregory burned the precious library in Palestine which was founded by Emperor Augustus, destroyed the greater part of the writings of Livy and forbade the study of the classics. In Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella put to flames all Muslim and Jewish works they could find. Nor is it a coincidence that when science and learning became widespread in Europe, in spite of the Church, it was accompanied by a rejection or reduction of the Biblical authority and so science became secularized.

Let me conclude my piece with a remark made by Dr. Singhal: "Seldom in history has there been a parallel to continuing a falsehood with such persistence, conviction, and indignation, in spite of all contrary evidence."

14 November 2002

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