Recapturing the spirit of the ancient library of Alexandria in the 21st Century

Posted on: 27 November 2018

‘Out of the Ashes’ public lecture series at Trinity to explore the impact of cultural destruction

The destruction of the ancient library of Alexandria has become a byword for cultural loss, and its memory as the greatest library of its age continues to haunt the modern world. The founding director of the new Library of Alexandria shared how he set about recapturing the spirit of the ancient Library of Alexandria 1600 years after its destruction at a free public lecture in Trinity College Dublin last night, Monday, 26th November, 2018.

At the lecture, Dr Ismail Serageldin, Founding Director Emeritus, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, discussed the Ancient Library of Alexandria and its beginnings. He also shared his thoughts on rebuilding the library, navigating current unrest in the region while looking to the future of what he said has now become a ‘national institution.’

Stepping back from the political unrest and recent turmoil of the region, Dr Serageldin described how “2,300 years ago, the Ancient Library of Alexandria was a revolutionary effort to organise global knowledge and to create the first universal library”. Alexandria, he said, was the intellectual capital of the Hellenistic world for the next 600 or so years.

“The library held about 700,000 scrolls and had the biggest repository of global knowledge of anywhere in the world and had about 100 resident experts from all fields from poetry to mathematics and astronomy. Girl students were invited and learned there frequently.”

The story of the Ancient Library of Alexandria, according to Dr Serageldin, is really about five remarkable women including Cleopatra VII, whose great love Marcus Antonius gave her 200,000 scrolls from Pergamon, leading Dr Serageldin to comment: “What kind of a woman is it whose way to her heart is a massive book donation to the public library? I say to you – my kind of woman!”

Dr Ismail Serageldin discussed the challenges of reimagining the ancient library

The library, he said, operated one of the oldest visiting scholar programmes which brought the greatest minds in the world to Alexandria. Some notable scholars who sojourned at the library included Aristarchus (‘the first human being to say the earth revolves around the sun’), and Archimedes. While Eratosthenes, the third director of the Library, calculated the tilt of the earth axis with great accuracy, compiled the first known star catalogue, and made an early formulation of trigonometry.

Commenting on the destruction of the library, Dr Serageldin said: “Contrary to popular myths it was not destroyed by the Arabs in the 7th Century AD, but had already disappeared centuries earlier. It was destroyed in stages, with three major events/periods of destruction.”

Today, the new Library boasts a collection of 4-8 million books, one of the largest reading rooms in the world with 2,000 seats, a conference centre, a planetarium, four museums, art galleries, a centre for internet archive and seven research and documentation institutes. It attracts over 1.4 million visitors annually.

Discussing the Arab Spring, Dr Serageldin talked about the millions of people who spilled out onto the streets until Mubarek resigned and the revolution which ensued. He showed the audience images of how many government buildings were destroyed and also how the revolutionary youth formed human chains around the library to defend it. However, in the years of unrest that followed no institution was safe and the Academy of Sciences was attacked with books and manuscripts burned beyond repair, and the Library itself targeted.

Quoting Napoleon Bonaparte, Dr Serageldin said “in the long run the sword is always beaten by the pen”  and the Library, is involved in “defending the values of rationality, pluralism and human rights”. “We have to organise the forces of reason to act against extremism and violence,” he concluded.

Dr Peter Crooks, Dr Ismail Serageldin and Prof Jane Ohlmeyer

The lecture is the first instalment of a new three-year lecture series by the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute, which runs from 2018 until 2021. The series, which is entitled ‘Out of the Ashes — Collective Memory, Cultural Loss and Recovery’ will see world-leading experts on cultural loss and recovery share their knowledge of how societies have dealt with cultural trauma through reconstruction and commemoration. The series will also explore how the international community should respond to the destruction of cultural heritage in armed conflicts in the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa.

Out of the Ashes takes its immediate impetus from Ireland’s national archival tragedy—the destruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland at the Four Courts, Dublin, in 1922 at the opening of the Irish Civil War. In one afternoon seven centuries of Ireland’s historical and genealogical records, amounting to hundreds of thousands of documents, were destroyed. Earlier this year, Trinity launched the ground-breaking Beyond 2022 Project—an international archival partnership which is working to reconstruct virtually the Public Record Office of Ireland and its collections in time for the centenary of their destruction.

Coordinator of the lecture series, Dr Peter Crooks, Department of History, Trinity, and Principal Investigator of ‘Beyond 2022’ project, commented: “Cultural atrocity is a subject with a deep history and enormous contemporary resonance. Think of Sarajevo in 1992, Baghdad in 2003, Palmyra in 2015. This multi-annual series sets the Irish experience of cultural loss over the centuries in its broadest possible context. But just as important is the story of recovery, of how societies deal with cultural trauma. This series brings to international attention our current effort to create an inspiring national legacy to mark the centenary of 1922 by reconstructing digitally the collective memories of all traditions in these islands and of the Irish abroad.”

Other speakers who will participate in the lecture series include Ed Parsons, Geospatial Technologist, Google; Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts, The British Library; and Shamil Jeppie, Director of the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project.

Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, Director of Trinity Long Room Hub, added:  “The calibre of international experts that will be joining us at the Trinity Long Room Hub for this major multi-annual series speaks to the importance of the endeavour of telling the story of our cultural heritage. In the face of new threats to archival records and heritage sites in many parts of the world, it is more important than ever to learn about cultural loss and the inspiring stories of cultural recovery that the series will unveil. This series will bring us up to 2022 when we will commemorate 100 years since the destruction of our own cultural heritage – the Public Record Office at the Four Courts. The Beyond 2022 project is the inspiration for this series.”

Across its three years, Out of the Ashes traces the story of collecting, destroying and reconstructing cultural heritage. The first year of the lecture series will explore the human urge to collect and the social meaning of the world’s great collections, including the manuscripts of the world heritage site of Timbuktu which were saved from oblivion in 2013. Year two examines intentional destruction of cultural heritage in armed conflicts. Finally, Year three showcases how societies have recovered from cultural trauma, both literally through reconstruction of lost knowledge and also socially through the creation of sites of cultural memory.

The Out of the Ashes series is organised in association with the Trinity College Research Themes, Digital Humanities, Identities in Transformation, Making Ireland, and Manuscript, Book and Print Cultures, and the Trinity Library.

The Out of the Ashes lecture series is generously supported by Sean and Sarah Reynolds.

For more about the series please see here.