The Rise and Fall of Alexandria

BOOK: The Rise and Fall of Alexandria
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Table of Contents
Justin Pollard has worked extensively in both British and American television and has worked closely in developing feature films for directors including Shekhar Kapur (
), Gillies MacKinnon, Sam Mendes, Neil Jordan, and Joe Wright (
Pride and Prejudice
Howard Reid worked for the BBC from 1979 to 1991 on many major documentary series, including the Emmy-winning
Story of English
, and has since worked widely in both British and American television. He has written five previous books, including
The Way of the Warrior
, coauthored with Michael Croucher.
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in the United States of America by Viking Penguin,
a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2006
Published in Penguin Books 2007
Copyright © Justin Pollard and Howard Reid, 2006
All rights reserved
Title page image: SPL/Photo Researchers, Inc.
Map by Jeffrey L. Ward
eISBN : 978-1-4406-2083-6
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For Liz, Wilson, Dudley, and Teän
“Ipsa scientia potestas est”
Flotsam . . .
Antiquities are history defaced, or some remnants of history which have casually escaped the shipwreck of time.
Francis Bacon,
The Advancement of Learning
On most days in the summer of AD 1295 an Eastern Orthodox monk called Maximos Planudes could have been found in the great market of Constantinople, making his way past the spice sellers and the silk traders to the dusty undercrofts where the book merchants piled their own wares in tottering stacks of parchment. Here were codices and manuscripts in Arabic, Syriac, Greek, and Latin, some newly completed, some old. Holy books for all religions, practical treatises, histories, and chronologies. Here too were books still waiting to be written, fresh blank sheets and old volumes that had been scrubbed clean of whatever they once held, ready for a new text.
Walking along the waterfront to the great market, Maximos Planudes might have been reminded of the description in Strabo of Alexandria in the first century AD, which he excitedly called “the greatest emporium in the whole world” (Strabo,
book 17, chapter 13). Constantinople, despite the sack of 1204, had since taken on that mantle, which was why this diminutive monk was spending each day of a hot summer there searching through piles of books and manuscripts.
The book dealers must have taken careful note of this unusual creature in their midst. Monks swarmed through the city, but their interest in books was invariably limited to medieval Greek religious works—the biblical glosses and commentaries, the credulous hagiographies, the missals, Psalters, and breviaries whose attraction was as much in the artistic illumination of their pages as in the illuminating quality of their text. But Planudes was after something different. He spent his hours poring over the dreariest-looking texts, from faded Latin fragments to terse Arabic treatises.
Then one day, sometime that summer, he found it. It certainly wasn’t much to look at, but there in his hands was a fragment from the wreckage. A rare treasure, finally washed up on a distant shore. He had found Claudius Ptolemy’s great lost work on geography—
—written in ancient Alexandria, stored for centuries in her library, and believed (at least in the West) to have perished there.
Rumors had been circulating in Europe that a copy had been seen in Arabic translation, just as Ptolemy’s other great work was already known to Arabic scholars as
The Greatest,
or, in their language,
Now, here was its companion. The rumors were true.
The survival of this masterful text was a small miracle in itself. The original copies of the
had been deposited in the library of Alexandria by Claudius Ptolemy himself, and there they had remained in constant use for centuries. It appears that sometime in the fourth century, however, a copy was made to take to the new Roman capital, Constantinople. When the library at Alexandria was destroyed, this copy thus survived. Now, ironically, the very zealotry that had condemned so many of Alexandria’s books would save it. When the patriarch of Alexandria had the patriarch of Constantinople declared a heretic, his followers had taken this copy of the
with them into their desert exile. There it had been translated into Syriac and then later into Arabic. The original copy had of course long since perished, but a few of those Arabic translations survived. The last of those had then, somehow, found its way into a bookseller’s stock and was now in Maximos Planudes’ hands.
The copy of the
the monk now so fiercely bartered for was not complete, at least not in the way that he wished it to be, for there was a text, but no maps. We cannot be sure now that Ptolemy’s original version even had maps, but that was what Maximos Planudes wanted, and having secured his prize he returned to the monastery at Chora, where he began the painstaking task of noting all the details in the text and turning them back into the thing he craved—a series of maps.
Soon a new rumor was flying around the Mediterranean: Planudes had a map of the world—Ptolemy’s map of the world. The story came to the ears of the Byzantine emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus, who ordered a copy made for himself. Soon others were reconstructing, dividing, and improving the maps. By the fourteenth century, the twenty-six maps of the original version had been divided into sixty-four, and one of these copies was obtained in 1400 by the Florentine patron Palla Strozzi, who persuaded a Byzantine scholar to translate the work from Planudes’ Greek into Latin.
Now the
could at last be read by the academics of Europe, who, thanks to Christianity, retained their knowledge of Latin but had become largely ignorant of Greek. This version, finally finished around 1410, came into the royal courts of Europe at a time when interest in the exploration of the world, an interest that had slept for so long, was finally being rekindled. But none of the Renaissance princes who collected these wonders was more passionate than the pope. If there were new lands to discover, then the papacy wanted to ensure that Catholicism traveled there with the explorers. So the little book that Planudes had discovered years before made its way to the Apostolic Library at the Vatican, along with many of its lavishly illustrated descendants. From the Vatican, copies would then be sent out across Europe.
One of those would change the world.
For Alexandria lies, as it were, at the conjunction of the whole world.
Dio Chrysostom,
Most of us take it for granted that two cities, Athens and Rome, completely dominated the classical world. We are well aware that their achievements had a profound effect on Western civilization. Their legacy is still apparent, from the architecture of our public buildings to the phrasing of our laws. Even democracy itself was, we are told, their gift. But this is, in fact, a distorted view of history, fueled by generations awed by the might of Rome and the ingenuity of Athens, and perhaps a little too keen to take native historians of both cities at their word.
In fact there was a third city that, at its height, dwarfed both of these in wealth and population as well as in scientific and artistic achievement. Largely overlooked by history, this city had a unique soul. While Greece and Rome spread their influence through trade and war, this city set out on another adventure, not at the point of a sword but on the tip of a pen. Its triumph was to be a conquest of the mind—led not by legions of soldiers but by dynasties of scholars navigating on a sea of books.
This city was Alexandria. Within a few generations of its foundation the city was the marvel of its age, but not just for its size and beauty, its vast palaces, safe harbors, and fabled lighthouse, or even for being the world’s greatest emporium, its central market. Alexandria was built on knowledge, and at its heart was not a treasury but the greatest library and museum of antiquity. Encouraged by the ruling Ptolemaic dynasty, this institution became the meeting place and crucible of all the great cultures and minds of the ancient world. It proved an intellectual magnet attracting generation upon generation of the finest scholars, philosophers, poets, and inventors. Egyptians, Greeks, Jews, Babylonians, Persians, Gauls, Phoenicians, and Romans flocked here, stimulating huge advances in mathematics, astronomy and astrology, alchemy, optics, medicine and anatomy, grammar, geography, philosophy, and theology—in short, the sum total of the wisdom of the ancient world. In these halls the true foundations of the modern world were laid—not in stone but in ideas.
There was never anything like the great library and museum before, nor has there been since: the single place on earth where all the knowledge in the entire world was gathered together—every great play and poem, every book of physics and philosophy, the key to understanding . . . simply everything. That institution aimed to accumulate every book written, even from as far afield as India, and at its zenith it was said to contain three-quarters of a million scrolls. Here were not only the works of the brilliant scholars of their own time but also those of their illustrious predecessors—of Homer, Pythagoras, and Herodotus, of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—names that might otherwise be unknown to us. Other libraries since have held more books; indeed, today the Library of Congress in Washington and the British Library in London hold between them nearly every book printed in the last two hundred years and many more besides. But they are not complete, not least because most of the knowledge of the first thousand years of Western civilization is missing. These were the books that formed the library of Alexandria, and only a handful have been seen since that library’s tragic destruction. All that remains is perhaps 1 percent of the works that were once lodged there, the chance survivors of that shipwreck of human achievement.
BOOK: The Rise and Fall of Alexandria
9.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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