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Bibliotheca Alexandrina: History, Facts, and Description

Eman is a writer and engineer. She loves to research and write about historical and modern places in Egypt.

This article contains informative knowledge about the Library of Alexandria, one of the oldest libraries around the world, including its history, description, and main library sections.

This article contains informative knowledge about the Library of Alexandria, one of the oldest libraries around the world, including its history, description, and main library sections.

The Library of Alexandria is located in the city of Alexandria, Egypt. The library roots go back to the Ptolemaic era.

At the beginning of the Ptolemies rule of Egypt, the ancient library was one of the wonders of that city. It was also one of the largest libraries of its time.

By the end of the Ptolemaic period in Egypt, during the reign of Cleopatra VII (51-30 BC), the library began to be exposed to burn and destruction during the battles for power.

After that, the library was exposed to many incidents of ruin and theft, especially in the late Roman rule of Egypt.

In 2002, the library was rebuilt under the name of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The Egyptian government, with some help from UNESCO, built the library, costing 220 million dollars.

The new Library of Alexandria contains electronic and printed resources. There are also 4 museums, a planetarium, cultural theaters, research centers, galleries, convention centers, and discussion forums.

The Ancient Library of Alexandria

Artistic Rendering of the Library of Alexandria, based on some archaeological evidence.

Artistic Rendering of the Library of Alexandria, based on some archaeological evidence.

The History

1. Foundation

In 332 BC, Alexander III of Macedon ended the Persian rule of Egypt. Then he founded Alexandria on the shore of the Mediterranean, becoming the capital of Egypt. He was greatly influenced by the Assyrian Library of Nineveh, which inspired him to combine all the different works of all the countries he conquered in one place under Greek power as a universal library. But this concept changed with the change of rulers. The library was initially an intellectual center in the service of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Later, when the Romans ruled Egypt, the library fell under the protection of the emperors.

After the death of Alexander, the library was built during the reign of his friend Ptolemy I, known as Soter (323-284 BC).

Traditional action of the "Archimedean screw" pumping water up.

Traditional action of the "Archimedean screw" pumping water up.

Archimedes' screw, also known as the water screw or the Egyptian screw, is a machine used to move water from a low water body into irrigation canals. Water is pumped by rotating a spiral surface inside a tube. Although it is commonly attributed to Archimedes, there is some evidence that the device was used in ancient Egypt long before his era.

The Ptolemies offered free housing, tax breaking, and good salaries to the scientists to attract them to the library. The scholars attracted by privileges were Strabo, Zenodotus, Aristophanes, Eratosthenes, Herophilus, Euclid, and Archimedes.

2. Description

There were two locations for the library:

  • The mother library or Mouseion, meaning the museum, was located on the grounds of the royal palace and contained between 400,000 and 700,000 manuscripts. The Mouseion consisted of an Academy of Sciences, a research center, and a library. The main Academy building and the Library building were connected by a network of tracks, columns. There were also botanical gardens and animal displays to please the scientists. Also, there was an outdoor amphitheater called exedra.
  • By the time of Ptolemy III, known as Eurgertes, a secondary library existed in the temple of Serapeum, which was located in the neighborhood of Rhachotis, a poor neighborhood in southwestern Alexandria. Serapeum contained around 42,800 manuscripts.

3. Library Collection

They wanted the best, most reliable copies of all books in the world if possible. They were willing to buy, borrow, or steal to get it.

During the reign of Ptolemy Urgerts, the library borrowed official Athenian copies of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, giving Athena a huge sum of money as a guarantee of their return. Library clerks have made wonderful copies of these books with the highest quality manuscript. The originals were kept for the library, and the copies were returned to Athens.

Another story said that during starvation in Athens, ambassadors from the Library of Alexandria forced the sale of valuable manuscripts owned by Athena in interchange for food. In addition to purchasing books, the Ptolemies obtained books by plunder.

It was widely reported that upon entering the port of Alexandria, ships were searched, and whatever books they were carrying were seized. A copy was made and handed over to the original owner, but the original has been kept for the library.

4. The Destroy of the Library

The first story of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria goes back to Julius Caesar. Around 48 BC, Caesar went to Alexandria on his pursuit of Pompey during the Roman Civil War. On reaching Egypt, he learns that Pompey was dead. However, he found himself in the midst of another civil war, between Ptolemy XII and his sister Cleopatra VII on the throne of Egypt. After Caesar had sided with Cleopatra, Ptolemy's army proceeded to besiege Caesar and Cleopatra inside Alexandria. It was said that Caesar set fire to some ships in the port. The fire spread to the sidewalks, and then to the neighborhoods of the neighboring city. According to this story, contemporary writers have estimated that about 40,000 manuscripts were lost during that fire.

Then many events led to the destruction of the library. Especially during the last period of Roman rule in Egypt, through that period, Roman persecution of the Egyptians increased, which led to an increase in vandalism, robbery, and looting.

That situation continued until the year 641 AD, with the arrival of the conqueror Islamic leader Amr bin Al-Aas to Egypt to end the rule of Romans in Egypt. The Egyptians praised him at the time for their liberation from the Romans.

The New Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Inside Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

Inside Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

The Modern Library

1. Description

The main library building is in the form of a 160-meter-long cylinder, with the upper part being cut at an angle. The roof angle prevents the harmful effects of sea spray and allows the upper floors to enjoy the natural light.

According to UNESCO, the library has shelves for eight million books, and the main reading room has an area of 20,000 square meters (220,000 square feet). The library also contains special collections on Mediterranean civilizations and a large collection of science, technology, arts, and humanities.

2. Library Sections

Let's explore the main library sections.

  • The Main Library

    The main library provides information in many forms, through books, maps, manuscripts, multimedia, and electronic resources.
  • Specialized Libraries

This section includes 6 libraries, the most important of which:

The Arts and Multimedia Library:

The Arts and Multimedia Library includes a rich collection of printed and audiovisual materials in the arts. The printed set includes books and music notes. The audiovisual materials include documentaries and educational programs.

Perkins Brailler

Perkins Typewriter.

Perkins Typewriter.

Taha Hussein Library for the Visually Impaired:

The Taha Hussein Library relies on the latest innovations in information technology to enable the visually impaired to read, write and use the Internet.

Who was Taha Hussein?

Taha Hussein was an Egyptian writer and critic. He is considered one of the most prominent figures in the modern Arab literary movement.

He lost his sight as a child. Taha studied at Al-Azhar, then joined the National University in Egypt when it opened in 1908. In 1914, he was sent to Europe to complete his studies. He returned to Egypt to work as a professor of history and then professor of the Arabic language. He worked as Dean of the Faculty of Literature, then Director of Alexandria University, then Minister of Education.

The Children's Library:

The Children's Library provides educational, cultural, and entertainment resources for children from 6-11 years old. It includes materials in several languages and covers a wide range of subjects, from arts to zoology. There is also a computer lab to explore the many interesting websites and learn how to search in the library.

The Young People's Library:

The Young People's Library offers a wide world of knowledge, entertainment, culture, and information for young people from 12-16 years old.

The Youth Library won the UNESCO Digital Arts Prize in 2007. It also won three awards in the International Cyber-Fair Competition, the largest educational event on the Internet for three years in a row: the Silver Award in 2008, the First Prize in 2009, and the Platinum Award in 2010.

Rare Books Section:

The Rare Books section houses a rich collection of rare books, maps, and special collections. This section contains more than 15,000 rare books, the oldest dating back to 1496. It also contains 66,000 books from private collections donated to the library by public figures.

Rare Manuscripts

Letters of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him to the kings of the ancient world.

Letters of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him to the kings of the ancient world.

  • Manuscripts Center

    The Manuscripts Center is part of the cultural communication sector. It aims to explore the depths of the Arab and Islamic heritage of the manuscript through indexing, verification, and study. The center consists of three sections:
  1. Academic Studies and Events Department: This section collects and translates the scientific studies concerned with the Arab and Islamic heritage in its various manifestations and its links with other ancient civilizations.
  2. Indexing and Verification Unit: It includes a group of expert researchers in indexing Arabic and Islamic manuscripts. These experts have cataloged complete manuscript collections, such as Escorial Manuscript Collection in Spain.
  3. Original manuscripts section: This section contains a variety of original manuscripts, the most important of which are the manuscripts of the Alexandria Municipal Library, the donated collections: the manuscripts of Sheikh Al-Hosari, the manuscripts of the Holy Quran Memorization Society in the Egyptian city of Damanhur, the manuscripts of the Malta Library illustrated, and many manuscripts donated by individuals.

Sheikh Al-Hosary was famous for his accurate recitation of the Holy Quran. Al-Hosari memorized the entire Qur’an at the age of eight. He studied and taught at Al-Azhar University. In 1960, he read the Noble Qur’an at the First Islamic Conference in India. In 1962, he was appointed vice-president of the Noble Qur’an Review Committee at Al-Azhar, then its chair. In 1977, he read the Holy Quran in the United Nations during his visit to it at the request of Arab and Islamic delegations.

Legendary Library of Alexandria | National Geographic

The Goals of Bibliotheca Alexandrina

The new library is an extension of the old library, both of which have the same goals. The goal of the ancient library was to bring together the world cultures in one place. The modern library also collects under its roof many sources in different languages, rare books, museums, and ancient manuscripts to document facts, making it a unique meeting place for civilizations. It is also a great place to search.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Eman Abdallah Kamel


Eman Abdallah Kamel (author) from Egypt on March 03, 2021:

Thank you, Linda, for reading the article and the comment. The idea of rebuilding the Library of Alexandria was remarkable and the efforts made deserve appreciation.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on March 02, 2021:

Thank you for creating such an informative article, Eman. I enjoyed reading the historical details and the facts about the modern library very much.

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