Did the Arabs Really Destroy the Library of Alexandria?

Concerning John O’Neill’s essay from earlier today, Andy Bostom emailed me this afternoon to draw my attention to a classic history of the Arab conquests of Egypt, which was not cited by Dr. O’Neill (and is not terribly apologetic), and which rejects the notion that the Arabs destroyed the Library of Alexandria.

Update: Andy Bostom just sent me some additional information about A.J. Butler’s book:

The original version of Butler’s classic was published in 1902, went out of print in 1945, and was re-published in 1978 by Oxford University Press. From the reprint intro:

Introduction to the Revised Edition

A.J. BUTLER’S The Arab Conquest of Egypt, published in 1902, went out of print in 1945, and has been in steady demand since that time as the most comprehensive and authoritative treatment of its subject. The decision to republish it with some additional matter is therefore fully justified. The conquest of Egypt was but one event in the Arab Conquest of the Middle East and North Africa, and it was not in isolation, but as part of the general history of the reign of Heraclius on the one hand, and, on the other, of the great wave of Muslim conquest that Butler treated it. This gives his work its outstanding value, and that value is heightened by the lively style and robust learning with which it is informed.

Butler brought to his task of writing the history of the Conquest the background of a Classical scholar whom residence in Egypt as tutor to the Prince Tewfik in 1880-1 (to which his reminiscences, Court Life in Egypt (1887), bear entertaining witness) had provided with familiarity both with the antiquities of Christian and Muslim Egypt — documented in his early work, The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt (1884, reprinted by the Clarendon Press, 1970) — and with Arabic sources. The Arab Conquest, the historical link between the two aspects of Egyptian history that most interested Butler, had not previously been the subject of a full critical work, and, as Butler said in his Preface, his work ‘needed no apology’.

The excerpts below are from pages 423 through 427 of The Arab Conquest of Egypt (pdf) by Alfred J. Butler, which was published by Oxford University Press in 1978, and is now available through CopticChurch.net. I have taken the liberty of renumbering the footnotes and relocating them to the end of the quoted text:

The case, however, against the existence of the Library in the seventh century, which is the point at issue, is not yet complete. Of course no one supposes that even in the great wars upon books — such as the war made by Diocletian upon Christian books and the war made by Theophilus upon pagan books — all the books in Alexandria perished. Even after the destruction of the great public libraries, there must have been many volumes in private collections, and many in the remoter monastic libraries. The very fact that Alexandrian learning was not extinguished proves the use of books. But if the great Serapeum Library had continued in existence into the seventh century, how comes it that not a single writer in the fifth or sixth century can be cited to establish the fact in clear and unmistakable language? Take one particular instance. I have already related the visit of John Moschus and his friend Sophronius to Egypt not many years before the Arab conquest; and I have shown the keen intellectual interest of the two scholars and their fondness for anything in the shape of a book[1]: but though they were both fairly voluminous writers, and though they travelled and resided a great deal in Egypt, their pages will be searched in vain for any allusion to other than private libraries in the country. Two centuries of silence, ending in the silence of John Moschus and Sophronius, seem to render it impossible that any great public library can have existed when the Arabs entered Alexandria.

One or two other points remain to be noticed. Let it be granted for a moment that all the foregoing reasoning has not seriously shaken the theory of the survival of the Serapeum Library; and suppose also that the Library was intact when the Arabs captured Alexandria; I would still say that its destruction by the Arabs is extremely improbable. For this reason: that the Arabs did not enter Alexandria for eleven months after its capture, and in the treaty of surrender it was expressly stipulated that during the interval, not only might the Romans themselves depart, but that they might carry off all their movable possessions and valuables[2]. During all this period the sea was open, and the passage to Constantinople and other ports was absolutely unhindered. The mere market value of the books in the Serapeum Library, if it existed, must have been enormous: their literary value must have been keenly appreciated by a large number of persons with intellectual interests: and these students would surely have forestalled the fabled zeal of John Philoponus by securing the removal of such priceless treasures while it was still time, instead of leaving them to the ignorant mercy of the desert warriors to whom the city was to be delivered.

Finally, the silence that ails among fifth and sixth century writers reigns also after the conquest. There are no Arab historians of Egypt in the seventh or eighth century; and it might be said that later writers were anxious to suppress the story of the burning of the Library. But this cannot apply to the Coptic bishop, John of Nikiou, who was a man of learning, and who wrote before the end of the seventh century. The range and the detail of his work prove that he had access to plentiful sources of information fifty years after the conquest. Abû’l Faraj himself — the author of the charge against the Arabs — proves that Alexandria continued to be frequented by students about the year 680 A.D.: for he represents James of Edessa as going to Alexandria to complete his education after receiving a thorough instruction in the Greek language and in the Scriptures at a Syrian Convent[3]. This evidence warrants the assertion that some private and monastic libraries continued after, as before, the conquest. But if there had been a great public library before the conquest, and if it had been burned by the Arabs at the conquest, is it possible that John of Nikiou — an almost contemporary writer, who deals minutely with the capture of Alexandria — should have consigned to oblivion an event which not merely impoverished his history of its best materials, but robbed the literary world of its great storehouse of treasure for all time?

It may not be amiss to briefly recapitulate the argument. The problem being to discover the truth or falsehood of the story which charges the Arabs with burning the Alexandrian Library, I have shown —

– – – – – – – –

(1)   that the story makes its first appearance more than five hundred years after the event to which it relates;
(2)   that on analysis the details of the story resolve into absurdities;
(3)   that the principal actor in the story, viz. John Philoponus, was dead long before the Saracens invaded Egypt;
(4)   that of the two great public Libraries to which the story could refer, (a) the Museum Library perished in the conflagration caused by Julius Caesar, or, if not, then at a date not less than four hundred years anterior to the Arab conquest; while (b) the Serapeum Library either was removed prior to the year 391, or was then dispersed or destroyed, so that in any case it disappeared two and a half centuries before the conquest;
(5)   that fifth, sixth, and early seventh century literature contains no mention of the existence of any such Library;
(6)   that if, nevertheless, it had existed when Cyrus set his hand to the treaty surrendering Alexandria, yet the books would almost certainly have been removed — under the clause permitting the removal of valuables — during the eleven months’ armistice which intervened between the signature of the convention and the actual entry of the Arabs into the city; and
(7)   that if the Library had been removed, or if it had been destroyed, the almost contemporary historian and man of letters, John of Nikiou, could not have passed over its disappearance in total silence.

The conclusion of the whole matter can be no longer doubtful. The suspicion of Renaudot and the scepticism of Gibbon are more than justified. One must pronounce that Abû ‘l Faraj’s story is a mere fable, totally destitute of historical foundation[4].


[1]   Supra, pp. 96 seq.
[2]   See supra, p. 320, clause 4 in the Treaty of Alexandri, and John of Nikiou, p. 575.
[3]   Barhebraeus, Chron. Eccl. t. i. c. 290.
[4]   My only concern in this matter has been to establish the truth, not to defend the Arabs. No defence is necessary: were it needful, it would not be difficult to find something in the nature of an apology. For the Arabs in later times certainly set great store by all the classical and other books which fell into their hands, and had them carefully preserved and in many cases translated. Indeed they set an example which modern conquerors might well have followed. Thus Sédillot relates (Hist. Gén. des Arabes, t. i. p. 185) that when the French captured the town of Constantine in North Africa they burned all the books and MSS. which they captured, ‘comme de vrais barbares.’ The English on the capture of Magdala found a large library of Abyssinian books, which they carried off: but before long they abandoned the greater part at some wayside church, because it was too much trouble to transport them. The selection of books for keeping seems to have been made at random: but the value of the books saved is some measure of the loss to the world of learning of the books abandoned. The British Museum MS. of John of Nikiou was among the treasures rescued in this haphazard manner.

4 thoughts on “Did the Arabs Really Destroy the Library of Alexandria?

  1. Thanks for the tip about Butler!

    Mr. O’Neill has a way too romanticized picture of the late Roman period.

    There were NO scientists of note, no playwrights worthy of remembrance, no poets of much value and so on.

    Furthermore, that the West and the East may have drifted apart culturally by the 6th century can be exemplified by the abysmal ideas two of the most learned men in the West then held about the pyramids of Egypt:
    Both Gregory of Tours and Isidore of Seville think they were some sort of huge granaries!

    This implies that either the correct factoid about the pyramid being tombs
    a)had already been erased from the general knowledge of the Late Roman world
    b) Even the most learned men in the West had practically no accurate information about the East.

    b) implies a world of greatly reduced trade and communications, whereas a) implies a generally abysmal cultural decline throughout the Roman world (where trade might well still have interconnected East&West).

    O’Neill, and his leading star Pirenne argues for a view that contradicts both of these implications.

    That might be true, or rather not..

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