The Library of Alexandria

Since starting this blog I have been asked about the name a couple of times.  Surprisingly, more people are unaware about the history of the ancient Library of Alexandria than I would have expected so I am going to dedicate an article to this blog namesake and do my best to pull together interesting information and stories on the subject.

Often when people think about almost mythic Library of Alexandria they think of it as a singular beacon of learning and knowledge in the ancient world.  What is often overlooked is that The Great Library was actually one component of a larger institution, the Musaeum of Alexandria. There are conflicting reports on the founding of The Musaeum but the general consensus appears to be that this institution was created by either Ptolemy I Soter or his son Ptolemy II likely sometime between 323 BC and 246 BC. The Musaeum grew into an institution that brought together some of the best scholars of the Hellenistic world and has even been compared to modern institutions such as the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University or the Collège de France in Paris.  This institution could be described as the earliest version of what would today be described as a University.

At its peak this institution housed more than one thousand scholars and staff members whom, on top of being salaried by the Musaeum, received free meals, free room and board, and free servants.  The scholars who lived and studied in this great ancient institution conducted scientific research, published works, conducted lectures and collected as much literature and scholarly materials as possible from the known world.

The Great Library of Alexandria was a single branch of this institute of scholarly pursuits and while it served as a repository of all of the information collected and generated by the scholars who worked and lived within the Musaeum it’s primary function was to showcase the wealth of Egypt.  In addition to the Great Library (the centerpiece of the Musaeum) the institution included rooms for the study of astronomy and anatomy. There was even an ancient zoo housing exotic animals. Beyond the area’s designated for specific study there were great classical thinkers present in Alexandria including the fathers of mathematics, engineering, physiology, geography, and medicine.

Due to multiple counts of destruction some partial and some complete it is not possible to know the exact size of this inspiring ancient institution.  However, various scripts that have survived from the time indicate that the library once housed over 500,000 scrolls. To be certain, not every text was contained on a single scroll and one of the tasks set to the scholars of The Great Library was to translate the texts they collected around the world so there very likely would have been many duplicates of most texts.  That aside, this amazing historical institution remains symbol of knowledge and scholarly pursuits through today.


The relation of the institutions is still a matter of debate. The Musaeum is discussed by P.M. Fraser, Ptolemaic Alexandria (1972: vol. I:213-19 etc), and Mostafa el-Addabi,The Life and Fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria (Paris 1990:84-90

Murray, S. A., (2009). The library: An illustrated history. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, p.14

Roy MacLeod (4 September 2004). The Library of Alexandria: Centre of Learning in the Ancient World, Revised Edition. I.B.Tauris. pp. 1–. ISBN 978-1-85043-594-5.

Tarn, W.W. 1928. Ptolemy II. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 14(3/4), 246–260. 

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