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The Fiction on Library of Alexander

Reader comment on item: Something Rotten in Denmark?
in response to reader comment: From a Muslim

Submitted by Ege (United States), Mar 19, 2007 at 19:33

Just a quick note to clarify who is to blame for destruction of the great library.

from: http://www.bede.org.uk/library.htm

Caliph Omar

First the legendary account:

The Moslems invaded Egypt during the seventh century as their fanaticism carried them on conquests that would take form an empire stretching from Spain to India. There was not much of a struggle in Egypt and the locals found the rule of the Caliph to be more tolerant than that of the Byzantines before them. However, when a Christian called John informed the local Arab general that there existed in Alexandria a great Library preserving all the knowledge in the world he was perturbed. Eventually he sent word to Mecca where Caliph Omar ordered that all the books in the library should be destroyed because, as he said "they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous." Therefore, the books and scrolls were taken out of the library and distributed as fuel to the many bathhouses of the city. So enormous was the volume of literature that it took six months for it all to be burnt to ashes heating the saunas of the conquerors.

The leader of the Moslem forces that took Egypt in 640AD was called 'Amr and it was he who was supposed to have asked Omar what to do about the fabled library that he found himself in control of.

There are only a few sources that we need to examine. They are very late The first of the two late sources dates from the 12th century and is written by Abd al Latif (died 1231) who, in his John of Nikiou (died after 640AD) who detailed the Arab invasion. Finally, the story comes from the hand of a Christian intellectual who would have been more than happy to show the religion of his rulers in a bad light. Agreeing with Gibbon this time, we can dismiss it as a legend.

The verdict on Omar

The errors in the sources are obvious and the story itself is almost wholly incredible. In the first place, Gregory Bar Hebr├Žus represents the Christian in his story as being one John of Byzantium and that John was certainly dead by the time of the Moslem invasion of Egypt. Also, the prospect of the library taking six months to burn is simply fantastic and just the sort of exaggeration one might expect to find in Arab legends such as the Arabian Nights. However Alfred Butler's famous observation that the books of the library were made of vellum which does not burn is not true. The very late dates of the source material are also suspect as there is no hint of this atrocity in any early literature - even in the Coptic Christian chronicle of

Submitting....

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