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Topic: The Fall of the Alexandrian Library
Replies: 10   Last Post: Mar 5, 2001 2:30 PM

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Charles Seife

Posts: 2
Registered: 12/3/04
Re: The Fall of the Alexandrian Library [long]
Posted: Sep 11, 2000 12:41 PM
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Here is a relevant passage from Gibbon, who himself doubts the veracity of
Abupharalgius' anecdote.

Hope this helps...
Charles Seife
(Hooray for e-texts!)

Chapter LI: Conquests By The Arabs.
Part VII.

I should deceive the expectation of the reader, if I passed
in silence the fate of the Alexandrian library, as it is
described by the learned Abulpharagius. The spirit of Amrou was
more curious and liberal than that of his brethren, and in his
leisure hours, the Arabian chief was pleased with the
conversation of John, the last disciple of Ammonius, and who
derived the surname of Philoponus from his laborious studies of
grammar and philosophy. ^115 Emboldened by this familiar
intercourse, Philoponus presumed to solicit a gift, inestimable
in his opinion, contemptible in that of the Barbarians - the
royal library, which alone, among the spoils of Alexandria, had
not been appropriated by the visit and the seal of the conqueror.
Amrou was inclined to gratify the wish of the grammarian, but his
rigid integrity refused to alienate the minutest object without
the consent of the caliph; and the well-known answer of Omar was
inspired by the ignorance of a fanatic. "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." The sentence was executed with blind
obedience: the volumes of paper or parchment were distributed to
the four thousand baths of the city; and such was their
incredible multitude, that six months were barely sufficient for
the consumption of this precious fuel. Since the Dynasties of
Abulpharagius ^116 have been given to the world in a Latin
version, the tale has been repeatedly transcribed; and every
scholar, with pious indignation, has deplored the irreparable
shipwreck of the learning, the arts, and the genius, of
antiquity. For my own part, I am strongly tempted to deny both
the fact and the consequences. ^* The fact is indeed marvellous.
"Read and wonder!" says the historian himself: and the solitary
report of a stranger who wrote at the end of six hundred years on
the confines of Media, is overbalanced by the silence of two
annalist of a more early date, both Christians, both natives of
Egypt, and the most ancient of whom, the patriarch Eutychius, has
amply described the conquest of Alexandria. ^117 The rigid
sentence of Omar is repugnant to the sound and orthodox precept
of the Mahometan casuists they expressly declare, that the
religious books of the Jews and Christians, which are acquired by
the right of war, should never be committed to the flames; and
that the works of profane science, historians or poets,
physicians or philosophers, may be lawfully applied to the use of
the faithful. ^118 A more destructive zeal may perhaps be
attributed to the first successors of Mahomet; yet in this
instance, the conflagration would have speedily expired in the
deficiency of materials. I should not recapitulate the disasters
of the Alexandrian library, the involuntary flame that was
kindled by Caesar in his own defence, ^119 or the mischievous
bigotry of the Christians, who studied to destroy the monuments
of idolatry.... ^120

[Footnote 115: Many treatises of this lover of labor are still
extant, but for readers of the present age, the printed and
unpublished are nearly in the same predicament. Moses and
Aristotle are the chief objects of his verbose commentaries, one
of which is dated as early as May 10th, A.D. 617, (Fabric.
Bibliot. Graec. tom. ix. p. 458 - 468.) A modern, (John Le
Clerc,) who sometimes assumed the same name was equal to old
Philoponus in diligence, and far superior in good sense and real

[Footnote 116: Abulpharag. Dynast. p. 114, vers. Pocock. Audi
quid factum sit et mirare. It would be endless to enumerate the
moderns who have wondered and believed, but I may distinguish
with honor the rational scepticism of Renaudot, (Hist. Alex.
Patriarch, p. 170: ) historia ... habet aliquid ut Arabibus
familiare est.]

[Footnote *: Since this period several new Mahometan authorities
have been adduced to support the authority of Abulpharagius.
That of, I. Abdollatiph by Professor White: II. Of Makrizi; I
have seen a Ms. extract from this writer: III. Of Ibn Chaledun:
and after them Hadschi Chalfa. See Von Hammer, Geschichte der
Assassinen, p. 17. Reinhard, in a German Dissertation, printed
at Gottingen, 1792, and St. Croix, (Magasin Encyclop. tom. iv. p.
433,) have examined the question. Among Oriental scholars,
Professor White, M. St. Martin, Von Hammer. and Silv. de Sacy,
consider the fact of the burning the library, by the command of
Omar, beyond question. Compare St. Martin's note. vol. xi. p.
296. A Mahometan writer brings a similar charge against the
Crusaders. The library of Tripoli is said to have contained the
incredible number of three millions of volumes. On the capture
of the city, Count Bertram of St. Giles, entering the first room,
which contained nothing but the Koran, ordered the whole to be
burnt, as the works of the false prophet of Arabia. See Wilken.
Gesch der Kreux zuge, vol. ii. p. 211. - M.]
[Footnote 117: This curious anecdote will be vainly sought in the
annals of Eutychius, and the Saracenic history of Elmacin. The
silence of Abulfeda, Murtadi, and a crowd of Moslems, is less
conclusive from their ignorance of Christian literature.]

[Footnote 118: See Reland, de Jure Militari Mohammedanorum, in
his iiid volume of Dissertations, p. 37. The reason for not
burning the religious books of the Jews or Christians, is derived
from the respect that is due to the name of God.]

[Footnote 119: Consult the collections of Frensheim (Supplement.
Livian, c. 12, 43) and Usher, (Anal. p. 469.) Livy himself had
styled the Alexandrian library, elegantiae regum curaeque
egregium opus; a liberal encomium, for which he is pertly
criticized by the narrow stoicism of Seneca, (De Tranquillitate
Animi, c. 9,) whose wisdom, on this occasion, deviates into

[Footnote 120: See this History, vol. iii. p. 146.]

At 08:20 PM 09/08/2000 , you wrote:
>Reading in "A Short Account of the History of Mathematics" by Ball, I came
>upon a passage that said that when the Arab commander gave orders to burn
>the library of Alexandria, the Greeks protested so much that the commander
>asked the Caliph Omar. The Caliph answered, "As to the books you have
>mentioned, if they contain what is agreeable with the book of God, the book
>of God is sufficient without them; and, if they contain what is contrary to
>the book of God, there is no need for them; so give orders for their
>Does anyone know where Ball got this quote? I seem to recall that it comes
>from one of the later Roman writers, but I do not recall which one.
>Thank you for your help!
>Michael Button
>Dr. Michael Button
>Department of Mathematics phone: (661) 259-3540 X 3163
>The Master's College e-ddress:
>21726 Placerita Canyon Road fax: (661) 253-4080
>Santa Clarita, CA 91321-1200

Charles Seife Science magazine
+1 202 326 6583 (work/voice) +1 202 371 9227 (work/fax)
+1 202 237 8490 (home/voice) +1 202 237 8491 (home/fax)

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