The Rise and Fall of Alexandria

It was in Alexandria, during the six hundred years beginning around 300 B.C., that human beings, in an important sense, began the intellectual adventure that has led us to the shores of the cosmic ocean. The city was founded by Alexander the Great who encouraged respect for alien cultures and the open-minded pursuit of knowledge. He encouraged his generals and soldiers to marry Persian and Indian women. He respected the gods of other nations. He collected exotic lifeforms, including an elephant for Aristotle, his teacher. His city was constructed on a lavish scale, to be the world center of commerce, culture, and learning. It was graced with broad avenues thirty meters wide, elegant architecture and statuary, Alexander's monumental tomb, and an enormous lighthouse, the Pharos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

But the greatest marvel of Alexandria was the Library and the associated Museum (literally, an institution devoted to the specialties of the Nine Muses). It was the citadel of a brilliant scientific tradition. The Library was constructed and supported by the Ptolemys, the Greek kings who inherited the Egyptian portion of the empire of Alexander the Great. From the time of its creation until its destruction seven centuries later, it was the brain and heart of the ancient world.

Great Hall Alexandria was the publishing capital of the planet. Of course, there were no printing presses then. Books were expensive; every one of them was copied by hand. The Library was the repository of the most accurate copies in the world. The art of critical editing was invented there. The Old Testament comes down to us mainly from the Greek translations made in the Alexandrian Library. The Ptolemys devoted much of their enormous wealth to the acquisition of every Greek book, as well as works from Africa, Persia, India, Israel and other parts of the world. Ptolemy III Euregetes wished to borrow from Athens the original manuscripts or official state copies of the great ancient tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides. To the Athenians, these were a kind of cultural patrimony-- something like the original handwritten copies and first folios of Shakespeare might be in England. They were reluctant to let the manuscripts out of their hands even for a moment. Only after Ptolemy guaranteed their return with an enormous cash deposit did they agree to lend the plays. But Ptolemy valued these scrolls more than gold or silver. He forfeited the deposit gladly and enshrined, as well he might, the originals in the Library. The outraged Athenians had to content themselves with the copies that Ptolemy, only a little shamefacedly, presented to them. Rarely has a state so avidly supported the pursuit of knowledge.

Timeline The Ptolemys did not merely collect established knowledge; they encouraged and financed scientific research and so generated new knowledge. The results were amazing. Eratosthenes accurately calculated the size of the Earth, mapped it, and argued that India could be reached by sailing westward from Spain. Hipparchus anticipated that stars come into being, slowly move during the course of centuries, and eventually perish; it was he who first catalogued the positions and magnitudes of the stars to detect such changes. Euclid brilliantly systematized geometry and produced a textbook from which humans learned for twenty-three centuries, a work that was to help awaken the scientific interest of Kepler, Newton, and Einstein. Dionysius of Thrace defined the parts of speech and did for the study of language what Euclid did for geometry. Galen wrote basic works on healing and anatomy which dominated the medicine until the Renaissance. Herophilus, the physiologist, firmly established that the brain rather than the heart is the seat of intelligence. There were also Heron of Alexandria, inventor of gear trains and steam engines and the author of Automata, the first book on robots; Apollonius of Perga, the mathematician who demonstrated the forms of the conic sections; Archimedes, the greatest mechanical genius until Leonardo da Vinci; and the astronomer and geographer Ptolemy, who compiled much of what is the pseudoscience of astrology: his Earth-centered universe held sway for 1,500 years, a reminder that intellectual capacity is no guarantee against being dead wrong. And among those great men was a great woman, Hypatia, mathematician and astronomer, the last light of the library, whose martyrdom was bound up with the destruction of the library seven centuries after its founding, a story to which we will return.

The scholars of the Library studied the entire Cosmos. Cosmos is a Greek word for the order of the universe. It is, in a way, the opposite of Chaos. It implies the deep interconnectedness of all things. It conveys awe for the intricate and subtle way in which the universe is put together. Here was a community of scholars, exploring physics, literature, medicine, astronomy, geography, philosophy, mathematics, biology, and engineering. Beneficiary of the Ionian Awakening, science and scholarship had come of age, 2,000 years ago. Genius flourished there. The Alexandrian Library is where we humans first collected, seriously and systematically, the knowledge of the world. We build on those foundations still.

Alexandria was the greatest city the Western world had ever seen. People of all nations came there to live, to trade, to learn. On any given day, its harbors were thronged with merchants, scholars, and tourists. This was a city where Greeks, Egyptians, Arabs, Syrians, Hebrews, Persians, Nubians, Phoenicians, Italians, Gauls and Iberians exchanged merchandise and ideas. It is probably here that the word cosmopolitan realized its true meaning--citizen, not just of a nation, but of the Cosmos. To be a citizen of the Cosmos...

Here clearly were the seeds of the modern world. What prevented them from taking root and flourishing? Why instead did the West slumber through a thousand years of darkness until Columbus and Copernicus and their contemporaries rediscovered the work done in Alexandria? I cannot give you a simple answer. But I do know this: there is no record, in the entire history of the Library, that any of its illustrious scientists and scholars ever seriously challenged the political, economic and religious assumptions of their society. The permanence of the stars was questioned; the justice of slavery was not. Science and learning in general were the preserve of a privileged few. The vast population of the city had not the vaguest notion of the great discoveries taking place within the Library. New findings were not explained or popularized. The research benefited them little. Discoveries in mechanics and steam technology were applied mainly to the perfection of weapons, the encouragement of superstition, the amusement of kings. The scientists never grasped the potential of machines to free people. The great intellectual achievements of antiquity had few immediate practical implications. Science never captured the imagination of the multitude. There was no counterbalance to stagnation, to pessimism, to the most abject surrenders to mysticism. When, at long last, the mob came to burn the Library down, there was nobody to stop them.

The last scientist who worked in the Library was a mathematician, astronomer, physicist and the head of the Neoplatonic school of philosophy--an extraordinary range of accomplishments for any individual in any age. Her name was Hypatia. She was born in Alexandria in 370 A.D. At a time when women had few options and were treated as property, Hypatia moved freely and unselfconsciously through traditional male domains. By all accounts she was a great beauty. She had many suitors but rejected all offers of marriage. The Alexandria of Hypatia's time--by then long under Roman rule-- was a city under grave strain. Slavery had sapped classical civilization of its vitality. The growing Christian Church was consolidating its power and attempting to eradicate pagan influence and culture. Hypatia stood at the epicenter of these mighty social forces. Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria, despised her because of her close friendship with the Roman governor, and because she was a symbol of learning and science, which were largely identified by the early Church with paganism. In great personal danger, she continued to teach and publish, until, in the year 415, on her way to work she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril's parishioners. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and, armed with abalone shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint.

The glory of the Alexandrian Library is a dim memory. Its last remnants were destroyed soon after Hypatia's death. It was as if the entire civilization had undergone some self-inflicted brain surgery, and most of its memories, discoveries, ideas and passions were extinguished irrevocably. The loss was incalculable. Of the physical contents of that glorious Library not a single scroll remains. Only a small fraction of the books survived, in copies preserved in other libraries, along with a few pathetic scattered fragments. And how tantalizing those bits and pieces are!

Aristarchus' books We know, for example, that there was on the library shelves a book by the astronomer Aristarchus of Samos, who argued that the Earth is one of the planets, which like them orbits the Sun, and that the stars are enormously far away. Each of these conclusions is entirely correct, but we had to wait nearly two thousand years for their rediscovery. In some cases, we know only the tantalizing titles of the works that were destroyed. In most cases, we know neither the titles nor the authors. We do know that of the 123 plays of Sophocles in the Library, only seven survived. One of those seven is Oedipus Rex. Similar numbers apply to the works of Aeschylus and Euripides. It is a little as if the only surviving works of a man named William Shakespeare were Coriolanus and A Winter's Tale, but we had heard that he had written certain other plays, unknown to us but apparently prized in his time, works entitled Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet.

If we multiply by a hundred thousand our sense of loss for the works of Aristarchus and Sophocles, we begin to appreciate the grandeur of the achievement of classical civilization and the tragedy of its destruction.

In modern Alexandria few people have a keen appreciation, much less a detailed knowledge, of the Alexandrian Library or of the great Egyptian civilization that preceded it for thousands of years. More recent events, other cultural imperatives have taken precedence. The same is true all over the world. We have only the most tenuous contact with our past. And yet just a stone's throw from the remains of the Serapaeum are reminders of many civilizations: enigmatic sphynxes from pharaonic Egypt; a great column erected to the Roman Emperor Diocletian by a provincial flunky for not altogether permitting the citizens of Alexandria to starve to death; a Christian church; many minarets; and the hallmarks of modern industrial civilization --apartment houses, automobiles, streetcars, urban slums, a microwave relay tower. There are a million threads from the past intertwined to make the ropes and cables of the modern world.

Our achievements rest on the accomplishments of 40,000 generations of human predecessors, all but a tiny fraction of whom are nameless and forgotten. Every now and then we stumble on a major civilization, such as the ancient culture of Ebla, which flourished only a few millennia ago and about which we knew nothing. How ignorant we are of our own past! Inscriptions, papyruses, books time-bind the human species and permit us to hear those few voices and faint cries of our brothers and sisters, our ancestors. And what a joy of recognition when we realize how like us they were!

We have in this book devoted attention to some of our ancestors whose names have not been lost: Eratosthenes, Democritus, Aristarchus, Hypatia, Leonardo, Kepler, Newton, Huygens, Champollion, Humason, Goddard, Einstein --all from Western culture because the emerging scientific civilization on our planet is mainly a Western civilization; but every culture-- China, India, West Africa, Mesoamerica --has made its major contributions to the global society and its seminal thinkers. Through technological advances in communication our planet is in the final stages of being bound up at a breakneck pace into a single global society. If we can accomplish the integration of the Earth without obliterating cultural differences or destroying ourselves, we will have accomplished a great thing.

Compilation from Carl Sagan's Cosmos
New York: Wings Books. 1980

The complete Cosmos TV series is now available at . 13 one-hour episodes on VHS or DVD plus a soundtrack CD. Digitally re-mastered, restored, and enhanced. Includes new footage and updates from Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan.

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