10/26/12 - the wonders of alexandria

In today's selection -- under the guidance of Ptolemaic rulers such as Philadelphus, the Egyptian city of Alexandria became one of the greatest centers of knowledge and learning in all of history. Ptolemy rule of Egypt began when Alexander the Great's army conquered it, and then Rome became its de facto ruler when Rome conquered Greece. Alexandria's demise as the premier center of knowledge began with the establishment of Christianity as Rome's official religion -- its practices in this area were deemed pagan and cultic -- and when the Christian patriarch Theophilus unleashed anti-pagan mobs in Alexandria:

"Alexandria, the capital of Egypt and the commercial hub of the eastern Mediterranean, ... had many tourist attractions, including an impressive theater and red-light district, but visitors always took note of some­thing quite exceptional: in the center of the city, at a lavish site known as the Museum, most of the intellectual inheritance of Greek, Latin, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Jewish cultures had been assembled at enormous cost and carefully archived for research. Starting as early as 300 BCE the Ptolemaic kings who ruled Alexandria had the inspired idea of luring leading scholars, scientists, and poets to their city by offering them life appointments at the Museum, with handsome salaries, tax exemptions, free food and lodging, and the almost limitless resources of the library.

"The recipients of this largesse established remarkably high intellectual standards. Euclid developed his geometry in Alexandria; Archimedes produced a remarkably precise estimate of the value of pi and laid the foundation for calculus; Eratosthenes, positing that the earth was round, calculated its circumference to within 1 percent; Galen revolutionized medicine; Alexandrian astronomers postulated a heliocentric universe; geometers deduced that the length of a year was 365 1/4 days and proposed adding a 'leap day' every fourth year; geographers speculated that it would be possible to reach India by sailing west from Spain; engineers developed hydraulics and pneumatics; anatomists first understood clearly that the brain and the nervous system were a unit, studied the function of the heart and the digestive system, and conducted experiments in nutrition. The level of achievement was staggering.

"The Alexandrian library was not associated with a particular doctrine or philosophical school; its scope was the entire range of intellectual inquiry. It represented a global cosmopolitan­ism, a determination to assemble the accumulated knowledge of the whole world and to perfect and add to this knowledge. Fantastic efforts were made not only to amass vast numbers of books but also to acquire or establish definitive editions. Alexandrian scholars were famously obsessed with the pursuit of textual accuracy. How was it possible to strip away the cor­ruptions that inevitably seeped into books copied and recopied, for the most part by slaves, for centuries? Generations of dedi­cated scholars developed elaborate techniques of comparative analysis and painstaking commentary in pursuit of the master texts. They pursued as well access to the knowledge that lay beyond the boundaries of the Greek-speaking world. It is for this reason that an Alexandrian ruler, Ptolemy Philadelphus, is said to have undertaken the expensive and ambitious project of commissioning some seventy scholars to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The result -- known as the Septuagint (after the Latin for 'seventy') - was for many early Christians their principal access to what they came to call the Old Testament.

"At its height the Museum contained at least a half-million papyrus rolls systematically organized, labeled, and shelved according to a clever new system that its first director, a Homer scholar named Zenodotus, seems to have invented: the system was alphabetical order. The institution extended beyond the Museum's enormous holdings to a second collection, housed in one of the architectural marvels of the age, the Serapeon, the Temple of Jupiter Serapis. Adorned with elegant, colon­naded courtyards, lecture halls, 'almost breathing statues,' and many other precious works of art, the Serapeon, in the words of Ammianus Marcellinus, the fourth-century historian, ... was second in magnificence only to the Capitol in Rome."


Stephen Greenblatt


The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began


Vintage/Anchor Books


Copyright 2011 by Stephen Greenblatt


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