Treasures of the Alexandrian Library

By John P. Mater

The concert of reincarnation enhances our understanding of history. Like pictures viewed through a stereoscope we suddenly see them in spectacular new depths. In a similar fashion reincarnation helps us comprehend the nature of civilizations, the stages of their development, and the causes of their decline.

For any age is the souls that are incarnated in it and the karma they are working out. The golden age of Greece in the time of Pericles was magnificent because of the great men and women then living. Without these creative individuals there would not have been an Age of Pericles. Similarly, when a nation, empire, or city becomes wealthy and powerful and its citizens no longer have to strive for their liberties or even for their livelihood, other souls begin to incarnate, softer, more effete. In time the civilization loses its virility and sinks into obscurity, or it may be overrun by a race or nation often less civilized than itself, whose cycle or karma is on its rise to power -- generally at the expense of its contemporaries. In such times the wide avenues and halls of learning and art ring with the hoarse cries of the destroyers, and the accumulated wisdom of centuries is burned. Yet, in the throes of its decline the Alexandrian flowering achieved a new birth, like Phoenix rising from the ashes.

The collection of manuscripts at Alexandria was probably the largest in the western world until the invention of printing, though there may have been even larger libraries in India and China during the many flowerings that marked their long and glorious civilizations. As for the New World, Diego de Landa, Bishop of Yucatan, speaks of the Mayan manuscripts he burned as creations of the devil, thus rendering voiceless the true genius of this great people at the height of their accomplishments.

The story of Alexandria should properly begin with Philip of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great. In a series of campaigns Philip unified for the first time in history the various Greek city-states, which for centuries had warred continuously with one another. After creating the Hellenic League he turned his eyes towards Persia, the Greeks' traditional enemy. Xerxes had burned Athens in 480 B.C. and stolen its library. But Philip was unable to fulfill his desire to conquer Persia, for he was assassinated by one of his own courtiers. When Alexander at 20 years of age succeeded to the throne in 336 B.C., he defeated the Persians, first at the Dardenelles not far from legendary Troy, and later at Issus in Asia Minor. He then liberated the Greek kingdoms along the coast of the Mediterranean and, continuing southward, subjugated Egypt. Working his way eastward, he again defeated the Persians at Arbella. Then he took Babylon, Susa, and finally Persepolis, capital of the Persian empire, burning the marvelous palaces surrounding the city. Such was the revenge of the Greeks.

Continuing eastward toward India, Alexander made war against Chandragupta, founder of the Maurya dynasty, whose empire was even larger than his own. After occupying a portion of India bordering the Indus River, he turned back, reaching Babylon in 323 B.C. Soon after, in the midst of plans to conquer Arabia, he died of the fever.

Upon the death of Alexander three dynasties emerged, descending from three of his generals. The Antigonids, who ruled over Macedonia and Greece, was the most short-lived and soon became attached to the expanding Roman empire. Seleucus, the youngest and strongest of the generals, became ruler of the largest part of Alexander's empire, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to India. Seleucus built many cities, among them what was perhaps the most beautiful in the ancient world -- Antioch. Founded in 300 B.C., it endured for over a thousand years. The Seleucid dynasty can be dated from 312 to 65 B.C., when it was annexed by Pompey, the Roman general. Five months after Alexander's death, his childhood friend, General Ptolemy took over the province of Egypt.

The Nile River as it flows through the enormous Delta seeks several channels leading to the Mediterranean Sea. Alexandria is located on the westernmost of these. Alexander had personally chosen the site for the city which bears his name, traced the boundaries and pointed out where temples and public works should be located; but he did not live to see a single structure rise, for when he resumed his conquests he never returned. He had charged Dinocrates with building a magnificent city and improving the harbor. From the outset Alexandria was a city of stone and marble. Underneath were cisterns connecting with the Nile, which provided water for domestic use. Eventually there were enormous docks and warehouses along the harbor; boulevards 100 feet wide intersected one another, with side streets wide enough for chariots. A good deal of work must have been accomplished even during the short interval before Alexander's death.

Ptolemy I was an able general, diplomat, and ruler, yet his other claims to fame are even more significant. Between 300 and 290 B.C. he founded the Museum and the great Library. In this he was advised by the erudite and gifted Demetrios of Phaleron, who had come to Ptolemy seeking asylum, was made welcome and later put in charge of the Library. He was devoted to Athens and his influence no doubt strengthened in Ptolemy a desire to make of Alexandria a second Athens (The early rulers of Egypt were called Pharaoh -- ruler or king. The name Ptolemy supplanted the title pharaoh, as a succession of Ptolemies became kings of Egypt. There were in all 14 Ptolemies, the last being the son of Caesar and Cleopatra, Caesarion, murdered at age 17 by order of Augustus in 30 B.C. Thereafter Egypt became a Roman province.).

Ptolemy brought the body of Alexander to Egypt and housed it in a magnificent tomb which appears to have been on display throughout the kingships of the Ptolemies. But when the forces of destruction ran rampant through the streets, it was somehow dismantled, removed, hidden, or perhaps destroyed so that its whereabouts are still a mystery. Possibly the renovation of Alexandria* will help fill in some of the gaps in history. (*Cf. Paul Johnson, "Revival of the Alexandrian Library," SUNRISE, April/May 1989).

Ptolemy II called Philadelphus, who reigned from 283 to 246 B.C., is considered the most gifted of the Ptolemies. Off the shores of Alexandria was an island called Pharos, mentioned centuries before by Homer in his Odyssey (IV: 355). A spit of land had been laid down linking Pharos with Alexandria and creating an outer and an inner harbor. Philadelphus decided to build a lighthouse on Pharos, and about 270 B.C. a splendid one was constructed 140 meters (460 ft) in height. This mighty structure remained until the 13th century A.D., a span of some 1,600 years, when it was destroyed by an earthquake (The word pharos eventually acquired the meaning "lighthouse," French phare, Italian and Spanish fero; sometimes pharos is used in English to designate a ship's lantern).

Another achievement of Philadelphus was the sending of an embassy to Jerusalem, to the high priest Eleazar, asking if he would lend to Alexandria the manuscript of the Old Testament, and to send six scholars from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. In due course, according to the story, the 72 scholars arrived and were given quarters on Pharos. In 72 days they produced a Greek translation of the Old Testament, which was called Septuagint -- 70 in round numbers -- in memory of the 72 scholars and the 72-day task they had accomplished.

An interesting custom adopted by the early Ptolemies was to search ships that entered the harbor. If manuscripts were found that were not in the library collection, the vessel would be held in port until a copy could be made -- a form of highway robbery!

As time went by, Alexandria divided into ethnic sections. The native Egyptian quarter housed the Serapeum, one of the most majestic buildings of the ancient world. There Greek and Egyptian devotees met in common worship. A second part of the city was called the Brucheion, the Greek-Macedonian quarter, which included the offices of government and the mausoleum of Alexander. Above all, it contained the great Museum and Library. There were other adjuncts to this huge complex, such as the theater for lectures and performances, and the palaces of the Ptolemaic kings. The third section of Alexandria consisted of the large Jewish quarter, which had its Sanhedrin (council).

The city was pictured by a classic writer in the 3rd century as "a universal nurse; every race of men did settle there"; Greeks from every part of the Mediterranean, Syrians, Arabs, Babylonians, Assyrians, Medes, and Persians. There also were Carthaginians, Romans, Gauls, and Iberians. The intellectual life was similarly diversified: scholars, priests, and philosophers of every conceivable affiliation. Merchants, tradesmen from throughout the known world came and went. There were also workmen, laborers, and a horde of governmental and private slaves. By the beginning of the 1st century A.D. the population of Alexandria is estimated at one million.

The late George Sarton, professor of history at Harvard University, described the Museum as occupying several large buildings equipped for various scientific purposes, much like a research institute today, with an astronomical observatory, and rooms for physiological and medical experiments. There were also botanical gardens and a zoological collection. The members lived together like the tutors or Fellows of a medieval college.

Some of the greatest figures in Greek science at one time or another visited or worked in the Museum and Library. Eratosthenes was chief librarian from 228-196 B.C. under Ptolemy III. He was an omnivorous scholar and scientist, delving into mathematics, astronomy, geography, philosophy, and also literature. Among other accomplishments, he calculated the circumference of the earth. Contrary to popular opinion, he and many of his colleagues recognized that the earth and the other planets traveled around the sun. In the same century the great geometrician Euclid brought his genius to the Museum as did Aristarchus of Samos who wrote upon the sizes and distances of the sun and moon, while Aratos of Soloi (Soli) named the constellations. The famous Archimedes, although a resident of Syracuse, discussed physics, geometry, and mathematics with the savants of the Museum. Apollonius of Perga was sent to Alexandria; and there he wrote his Elements and his 8-volume work on conic sections; also his theory of epicycles to account for the motions of the planets which appear at times to move retrograde. Specialists in all these fields and many more frequented the Museum in the course of its long and brilliant history.

The chief activity of the Library, aside from preserving, copying, repairing, and cataloguing the scrolls, was to compare the texts of the great works on drama, history, fiction, poetry, etc., from most ancient times; also more recent works by contemporary poets, dramatists, and philosophers of Greece and elsewhere. These were in many languages, but an effort was made to render them into Alexandrian Greek. Meticulous scholarship characterized the Alexandrian Library. There were also lectures on a wide variety of topics, for the librarians were not merely cataloguers and custodians, but full-fledged philologists, and the manuscripts that have survived show their erudition. Aristophanes of Byzantium, one of the most distinguished critics and grammarians, formulated rules for punctuation and capitalization, which up to that time had been hit or miss. He became head of the Library upon the death of Eratosthenes in 195 B.C.

Over the centuries Alexandria became the crossroads of the world. Scriptures from many lands found their way into the Library, while Egyptian or Pharaonic beliefs remained influential. Zoroastrian texts were there, for Egypt had been a Persian satrapy from 525-332 B.C., and many Persian ideas must have taken root. Undoubtedly there were texts from as far away as the Orient, with which there were trade relations. There was a commingling of cultures. Gymnosophists, the "naked philosophers" of India, were also present, as were Jewish beliefs and the ideas of the Babylonian Magi.

Among the Greeks and perhaps other nations as well, science and the arts were part of the Lesser Mysteries, which included teaching and discipline. The science of architecture was well understood, and in the Museum and Library of Alexandria this and other subjects were discussed openly, though the details were not broadcast, nor are they found in the literature of the times. The same secrecy was undoubtedly enforced elsewhere in both Occident and Orient, yet the high level of expertise in applied science, architecture, and art supports the view that there existed among the ancients hidden sources of knowledge. In the Greater Mysteries, according to tradition, the candidate who was considered ready by the hierophants, was led stage by stage, first to an awareness of his higher self or inner god, and finally through his own strength and perception to bring to birth the god within him.

There were a number of secret and semi-secret organizations in Egypt and the Near East, such as the Essene communities and the early Gnostics. One can only speculate to what extent the Mysteries were active in the Library and Museum; most certainly they were an important although esoteric aspect of the Alexandrian experience. H. P. Blavatsky in her Secret Doctrine refers to the initiates at Alexandria (II:574), and to Gnostics "divulging the secret of initiations" at that center (I: 416).

With the decline of the Mysteries the vitality of the Library and Museum diminished, and the Roman civilization soon swept over the Mediterranean world and most of Asia Minor. The Christian movement was also in the offing, and the Roman republic was about to give way to the rule of the Caesars. In 48 B.C. Julius Caesar visited Egypt where he met Cleopatra. During his stay there was an uprising among the Macedonian troops and others protesting his presence. Caesar retaliated by burning the Egyptian fleet in the harbor. Unfortunately the fire spread to the docks and warehouses, and thousands of manuscripts were accidentally burned. He returned to Rome where he was assassinated in 44 B.C.

Later Antony came to Egypt. Since Pergamon had been incorporated into the Roman empire, its library of some 200,000 scrolls was given by Antony to Alexandria to compensate for the accidental burning by Caesar. In 37 B.C. Antony joined Cleopatra in Alexandria. A split developed between Antony and Octavian resulting in a sea battle in 31 B.C. in which Antony was defeated, whereupon he returned to Egypt where he and Cleopatra took their own lives (Cleopatra had a son by Julius Caesar, and two sons and a daughter by Antony. The tragic fate of these offspring illustrates graphically the cruelty that invariably accompanies the surge of empire). Now Octavian, taking the name Augustus, became the first of a long line of Roman emperors called Caesars.

The activities at Alexandria continued for some centuries, but on a declining scale. The dawning Christian movement became organized: several churches sprang up in the city, which eventually became the diocese of Christian bishops. The new religion did not look kindly upon so-called pagan activities. Under the Emperor Aurelian in the 3rd century A.D. the greater part of the Museum and Library were destroyed. Books were packed into the Serapeum for safe keeping, but eventually (400 A.D.) these too suffered a similar fate by order of Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria. There were riots and in 415 A.D. the brilliant Hypatia, last head of the Library-Museum complex, was brutally murdered. The treasures of the Library, Museum, and Serapeum were open to pillage. The final destruction took place in 642 A.D. when the Arabs conquered Egypt and eventually, it is reported, used what was left of the Library to heat the baths.

Meanwhile, about the beginning of the 3rd century A.D. a remarkable man, Ammonius Saccas, founder of Neoplatonism, began to teach. His best known and perhaps greatest pupil was Plotinus, who was in Alexandria in 205 A.D. Plotinus wrote some powerful treatises based upon the precepts of his teacher. He gained wide popularity and in his later years taught at Rome. Following Plotinus came others, such as Porphyry, Amelius, Synesius, and Iamblichus. Neoplatonism had a broadening influence on some of the fathers of the Church, such as Origen who, according to Porphyry, had attended the classes of Ammonius Saccas. The last great Neoplatonist was Proclus, who taught at Athens and headed the Academy until his death in 485 A.D.

Neoplatonism was indeed a Platonic philosophy in that it researched into first principles. But it contained another element: it sought not merely to give man clear knowledge, but encouraged him to enter into a loftier state of consciousness, which Plotinus termed ecstasy, defining it as "the flight of the soul towards God, on whom it gazes face to face and alone" (Dictionary of Christian Biography, IV, "Neoplatonism," an excellent article on Plotinus by J. R. Mozeley. See also Plotinus, Enneads VI. 9. 11).

Like Phoenix rising from the ashes, Neoplatonism had a profound influence, coming as it did near the end of the Alexandrian cycle and amid sometimes violent chaos. Three centuries later Proclus expounded this doctrine to quite a following at the Academy in Athens, the home of philosophy, founded by Plato nearly a thousand years earlier. It was like a sunset, however, for not more than forty years after the death of Proclus, the Emperor Justinian in 529 A.D. suppressed the philosophical schools and closed the Academy. But by that time the Phoenix bird had risen and flown away.

One might suppose that all the treasures of the Alexandrian Library were destroyed, yet there are traditions, echoed by H. P. Blavatsky in her monumental The Secret Doctrine (I:xxiii-ix; II:692, 763), that the most valuable and irreplaceable volumes were rescued and housed secretly, to be revealed at times and in places where they will most profitably serve the welfare of humanity.

All this is particularly reassuring when we deplore the destruction of the Alexandrian treasures. Yet from the viewpoint of reincarnation, the real treasures of the Alexandrian School were the grand souls who created and composed it. From life to life these remarkable individuals will bring religion, philosophy, science, and art to flower wherever they may incarnate. The Phoenix bird never really dies but is perpetually reborn.

It is fitting to close with a few words about Alexander the Great. In spite of the brutality of his conquests, Alexander was not a crude and vulgar person. He envisioned the establishment of a world polis, a world civilization, where all men would be brothers, and the sciences, religions, and arts could flower side by side in peace and cooperation. This dream was in part achieved at Alexandria. In this spirit it is exciting to follow the present efforts by UNESCO, the Egyptian government, and other nations to rebuild the Alexandrian Library.


(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, February/March 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Theosophical University Press)

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