In our own lifetimes, we’ve each seen memory-holing, cover-ups, revisionism and propaganda deployed around historic events, both recent and more distant. To re-state a very hackneyed phrase that I use a lot, history is written by the victor.
In this age of censorship, algorithmic filtering and of course “National Security”, knowing history becomes a battle space.
In a very real sense, we are our personal and cultural memories and the knowledge we operate with today will affect our future, so it’s hard to overstate the importance of knowing history.
This is why the burning of the Library of Alexandria 2,000 years ago ranks among the worst crimes ever committed against humanity. It’s widely believed that the losses of scientific research, including that of physics and medicine as well as the losses of cultural and historical knowledge and documentation set back the progress of human civilization by at least a thousand years.
There’s far more that we don’t know about the burning of the Library and its impacts than what we do.
Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great and it thrived during the Hellenistic period of the Greek Empire, between 300 BC and 30 AD. The extent to which the Library went to gather information and historical and cultural documentation from all over the world is fascinating. They wanted everything: Babylonian texts, Hebrew, Turkish, anything and everything. Ships that came into the harbor were required to hand over the books they had, as well as any other documents and blueprints of ships and any other kind of technology. The Library would keep the originals and have professional scribes make an exact copy of the original to return to the owner.
According to legend, the earliest Greek translation of the Old Testament was written in the city of Alexandria, which many speculate was written at the university-like campus of the Library.
Examples of the intellectual horsepower at the Library of Alexandria include:
- Hipparchus, the astronomer and the founder of trigonometry, credited with discovering the Precession of the Equinoxes, with making the first map of star constellations and with establishing the various brightness levels of the stars.
- Euclid, the most famous teacher of mathematics and the founder of systemized geometry.
- Dionysious Thrax, an early linguist who defined various parts of speech, such as nouns, verbs, pronouns, prepositions, etc.
- Eratosthenes, identified that the Earth rotated around the Sun – doing so 1,800 years before Copernicus. He’s credited as the first person to find the circumference of the Earth, estimating it correctly to within 200 miles, doing this by observing shadows in Alexandria compared to those in the south of Egypt.
- Herophilus, known as the father of anatomy established the first known medical school within the Library of Alexandria and he identified the brain as the center of thought and not the heart, as previously believed for thousands of years.
- Heron of Alexandria, the mathematician is believed to have created the very first working model of a steam engine, 2,000 years before James Watts
It’s generally thought that the Roman emperor, Julius Caesar ordered the burning of the Library in the year 48 BC. Where it gets interesting is the speculation that not all the Library’s books were lost and that some important works may still be stashed at the Vatican…