The Alexandrian Library
The Alexandrian Library
Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in his conquest of the Persians and became the capital of Greek-ruled Egypt until the death of Cleopatra and the absorption of Egypt into the Roman Empire. The major effect of Alexander’s conquest was to spread Greek science, religion and philosophy throughout the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East. This had significant influence, for example, in the region of Judea, Greek philosophy, especially Pythagoreanism and Platonism, mixed with native Jewish elements to produce the school we know as the Essenes.
Alexandria was a completely new city. It had no major prior native traditions, and so right from the start it was a city of migrants. Being located in Egypt, just west of the Nile delta, its culture was influenced by the ancient esoteric traditions of Egypt, stretching back to Hermes and Imhotep, but its rulers were Greek. Although the city was multilingual and multicultural due to all the migrants from diverse lands that resided there, the dominant language and that of its rulers was Greek. Given its prime position on the Mediterranean, the city rapidly grew rich on trade and this encouraged even more migration and within a century of its founding it was the largest city in the world.
Alexandria’s Greek rulers wanted a capital to attest to the city’s status, to rival the glories of fifth century Athens. They imported many philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, poets, historians and other scholars from mainland Greece, and the opportunities afforded by the city attracted many such people from other lands around the Mediterranean as well. And while the design of the city’s Greek founders lay in glorification of an ideal, what was ultimately earthed and given expression by those who gathered there over the coming centuries was a flowering of the Ageless Wisdom that was unequalled until the Renaissance.
The intention of Alexandria’s rulers to rival Athens as a centre for scholarly and philosophical vibrancy also influenced the movements that would lead to The Alexandrian Library becoming one of the largest and most celebrated in the ancient world. Alexandria was a trading post in the Mediterranean and any ship that docked was required to provide any books it was carrying for copying. The city’s rulers also sent seekers all over the Mediterranean searching for books to add to their collection. This allowed a movement that was moved by the universality of wisdom, embracing that the truth was not owned by or limited to any one tradition. Along with the library the Greek rulers founded a medical school and encouraged philosophy and the sciences to flourish.
Alexandria became a place that brought together the greatest philosophers and scientists alive at the time who travelled from the east and west to be part of what the Alexandrian Library offered, and this flourished for seven centuries, with some ebbs and flows, from its founding in the 4th century BC to the destruction of its Library and the murder of Hypatia at the hands of a Christian mob early in the 5th century AD.
In Alexandria many cultural, scientific, philosophical and religious traditions met and influenced each other. Besides Greek philosophers and scientists and initiates of esoteric Greek schools like the Orphic Mysteries, there were Buddhists and Yogis from India and central Asia, Magi and followers of Zoroaster from Persia, Essenes and members of other Jewish esoteric groups, Romans and sages drawn from all over the Roman Empire, as well as holders of the mysteries of the ancient sciences, philosophy and religion of Egypt, which by the time of the founding of Alexandria already stretched back thousands of years.
Given the open port and flourishing trading city that it was, all were welcome in Alexandria and a rich exchange and mixing of traditions ensued, out of which grew stupendous achievements in science and philosophy that we know of from the period of Alexandria’s glory such as Euclid’s geometry, Archimedes’ engineering, Plotinus’ Neo-Pythagorean and Neo-Platonist philosophical synthesis, the writings of the Jewish philosopher Philo, the astronomy of Aristarchus, the astronomy, geography and mathematics of Ptolemy, the mathematics and geography of Eratosthenes and Strabo and the mathematics of Theon and his daughter Hypatia, all of which are just a few highlights of the enormous bequest to humanity from Alexandria’s golden centuries.
But at the core of all the great Library of Alexandria offered was the Ageless Wisdom.
The poets, mathematicians, astronomers, scientists, philosophers and religious adherents of the many traditions did not work in a vacuum, but were guided from the outset by an impulse that in their different fields of inquiry were united in the fact that each gave form and particular expression, and thus added to and enriched the teachings of the Ageless Wisdom, truths of which were brought to the city by the many sages who moved there, and later passed on down the centuries by those who flourished there.
Early in the city’s history, its first rulers, Ptolemy I and Ptolemy II, set up a Museum – a word meaning ‘place of the Muses’ as the Muses were the Greek goddesses of science, philosophy and the arts – and a Library, to which they invited Greek philosophers and scientists to study and teach. Others soon followed. These two, in particular the Library, became the centres of Alexandrian learning and study, places where the teachings of the Ageless Wisdom were safeguarded but made available to study, and from this inspiration flowed all the stunning output of scientific findings and philosophical insight.
The library was extraordinary because it was not exclusive to an intellectual elite but opened its doors to anyone who was sincere in the study of truth and included noted writers, poets, scientists, and scholars. This included the educated, uneducated and women, equally to men. Those appointed as library members were appointed for life and offered generous salaries, tax exemption (a considerable boon in that era) and free food and lodging. Great freedom was accorded those offered a salary for life without imposition or requirement to follow a particular tradition of ideas or religion.
Under Ptolemy II the idea of the Universal Library took shape; he housed more than a hundred scholars within the Museum whose job it was to research, lecture upon, translate, copy and collect not only original manuscripts of Greek authors (including the private collection of Aristotle), but translations of works from the entire eastern world. The collection also included religious texts, such as Buddhist texts and Hebrew scriptures.
In this sense it opened the door for a greater synthesis of traditions and expansion of scholarly understandings across science, philosophy and religion not limited in the way we commonly refer to as ‘scholarship’ today, that implies elitism and excludes anything but rationality in its parameters.
The wide breadth of what the library represented and how it gave a home to all that is synthesised from philosophy, religion and science is offered by the example of Eratosthenes, a Libyan-Greek scholar who became chief librarian of the Library of Alexandria in 236 BCE. He was a geographer, mathematician, poet, historian, and astronomer. Amongst his incredible list of accomplishments was a system of latitude and longitude, a map of the world, a system for finding prime numbers, a map of 675 stars, a calendar including leap years and critically and incredibly calculating the Earth’s circumference and diameter with little deviation from their actual size.
Hypatia was born in Alexandria in AD 370 and she also became part of the library’s faculty: her father Theon was a famous mathematician and the library’s last director before it was destroyed in AD 415. Hypatia was gifted in every way and she was nurtured by her access to all the library offered. Her own father had tutored her in mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy and nurtured her independence, “Reserve your right to think,” her father Theon said, “for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.”
Hypatia was a brilliant public speaker and scholar and wrote on mathematics and astronomy. It is thought many of her accomplishments were destroyed with the library, but it is known that she did work on algebraic equations and conic sections and invented the astrolabe, a device used to calculate the date and time according to the positions of stars and planets and used for ship navigation, as well as inventing devices for measuring the density of fluids.
She was known for her charisma, charm, and excellence in making difficult mathematical and philosophical concepts understandable to her students that threatened and contradicted the teachings of the relatively new Christian church, which was gradually encroaching upon the liberties and freedoms of scholarship and religious expression encouraged by the very foundations of the library. It was this offence to the Church and its voluntary henchmen the Parabalani that led to the murder of Hypatia and ultimately the final destruction of the great library.
Teachers from around the Mediterranean and further afield such as India taught, studied and exchanged insights in the Library and Museum, and precious texts of the Ageless Wisdom stretching back to those of Hermes were located, brought back to the Library for preservation, and copied and studied intensively. Nearly all of what we know of ancient and classical writings is due to the preservation efforts of the collectors and librarians of the Library of Alexandria.
In this respect the Library and the collection within its walls and the people who studied there were dedicated to preserving this living wisdom for all time; it was a new pyramid, representing a place where humanity’s access to this source of living wisdom was assured and would always be available to those members of humanity who sought it.
The Library was not just a depository of tomes and scrolls, it was a living institution of the Ageless Wisdom, open to anyone of whatever social class who wanted to access its treasures. All who entered the Library were held in a deep respect and equality. It welcomed within its smooth stone colonnades and cool vaults all of humanity who were inspired to study the Ageless Wisdom where admission did not depend on undergoing austerities associated with the Pythagorean schools or the Essene communities.
All of the Ageless Wisdom was catapulted into this one place, where everyone who entered was offered a way of living that supported their bodies to take in and understand the Wisdom and to be in its sacredness. The rows and shelves of parchment emanated this same quality of sacredness.
Teachings and seminars went on constantly, and each was encouraged to discover through their own livingness the Truth for themselves. The volumes of the Library were catalogued according to their energetic teachings and where they came from and how they fit into the whole of the universal system of the Ageless Wisdom.
There was activity and continuous enthusiasm for study and discussion going on everywhere in the Library – it was a bustling centre – but all was conducted from a quality of stillness, as the goal was not knowledge for self but wisdom for all, and that meant living in a true rhythm of stillness and a movement (way of living) that allowed wisdom to shine forth.
But in the end it did not last. The long period of stability for the cities around the Mediterranean provided by the Roman Empire was coming to an end with its decline, and a new aggressive, fanatical religion, Christianity, was now the official religion of the Empire; it saw the Ageless Wisdom and its teachers associated with the Library as a direct threat to its power and prestige.
Under Christian force the Library was sacked, much of its literature stolen, destroyed and or burned, and its teachers dispersed or, worse, as in the case of Hypatia, brutally murdered. The Dark Ages descended upon Europe with the extinguishment of the light of Alexandria, but all was not lost.
Some of the true materials were hidden away in the desert to be rediscovered when the time was right again, such as the Nag Hammadi scrolls; or spirited away to depositories of Constantinople, only to be reintroduced to Europe again when the time was right, the period of the Renaissance, as that city too fell, in this instance to Islam.
What is key to note about the City and Library of Alexandria is that its wisdom lives on in all of us.
Its teachings through books, scrolls, discussions and presentations were gathered in a central place in order to accelerate the evolution of man at that time.
The library as a physical place on earth offers a symbol of what the synthesis of philosophy, science and the ancient mysteries can represent when there is a place offered for that to flourish. Its power was a gathering together of what appeared to be separate or different expressions of the same truth and this posed a threat to the forces of control that coalesced into the doctrines and creeds of the early Christian church.
However, although the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria has been considered the greatest catastrophe of the western world, we cannot look to a particular place – bricks or location – or the books that were enshrined within the library and its various annexes. That is not the source.
The source is always what is an embodied awareness from movement. What was represented in the library and those that gathered there was the movement of people where the truth was embodied and expressed.
The sacking of the great library targeted those movements as much as the hundreds of thousands of books held in the library. Like so many of the movements in The Lineage, whether held by individuals or a group, it is the movements that have been violently dispensed with. However, there were those that fled the library and took those movements far afield, to continue elsewhere. The traditions founded on the Ageless Wisdom and its movements continued.