Is the story of Caliph Omar's destruction of the Library of Alexandria a hoax?
The great Library of Alexandria, established by Ptolemy II (circa 280 BC), has, in the mind of modern man, come to symbolize the learning of Classical Civilization, a learning cruelly snuffed out in the Middle Ages. At its height, the Library contained an estimated forty thousand volumes on a wide variety of topics. As well as works on astronomy, mathematics, physics, medicine, and philosophy – many of which were copied from the hieroglyphic and cuneiform texts of the Egyptians and Babylonians – there were 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 were copies of others held in other libraries or institutes of learning. Nonetheless, the Alexandria Library was celebrated as the most important repository of knowledge in the world at the time, and its disappearance is rightly seen as a catastrophe and symbolic of the loss of respect for knowledge, which 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% are 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), said that the Arabs, under Caliph Umar, destroyed the Alexandria Library shortly after the conquest of Egypt in 639 AD. The story tells that the Caliph, when informed about the institution, declared that if the books it contained agreed with the Koran, they were superfluous; and if they disagreed, they were heretical. In either event, they were worthless and should be destroyed. 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 and there were very good reasons indeed, as we shall see. 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 now came to be argued that the Arabs were the saviours, rather than the destroyers, of Classical learning. A prime example of this genre of thinking was 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, which, with its negative view of Christianity and European culture, may be regarded as an early form of political correctness, has now become the default mode of thought in much of the 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".
But if the destruction carried out by the Arabs was a hoax, 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. And 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 which presumably had – if not the original Library – at least a well-stocked and 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 – the latter 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, as well as native Egyptian writers such 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 only be described as catastrophic. All knowledge of the country's past disappears, and 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 mention 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 cancelled 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, they patronised physicists, mathematicians and physicians. Yet the very fact that knowledge has to plead its usefulness in order to be permitted to survive at all speaks volumes in itself. And 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) which regarded the very concept of scientific laws as an affront to Allah and an infringement of his freedom to act.
And the crushing of all science occurred far earlier than is generally believed. As I explain in some detail in my book, 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). This goes also for Cordoba in Spain, supposedly a metropolis of half a million souls during the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries. Here too the earliest Islamic remains are dated to the mid-tenth century. All of which 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 even quicker than is generally allowed. 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 will need to confirm what has already been found. Yet more and more it begins to look as if the entire Islamic Golden Age is a phenomenon which 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.
John J. O'Neill is the author of Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization