in category Khulafah Rashida

Did Muslims burn down the library of Alexandria in Egypt?

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A common accusation made against Muslims is that they burned down the Library of Alexandria. However, this did not happen.

The earliest recorded document accusing Muslims of burning down the library is Bar Hebraeus’ Historia Compendiosa Dynastiarum. It claims that Umar ibn al-Khattab ordered the books to be destroyed; and that they were used as a source of heat for Islamic bathhouses.

The document only dates back to the 13th century - nearly 600 years after the event described. However, the libraries were in fact destroyed gradually between the 1st century BCE and 4th centuries CE - long before the Prophet Muhammad (saw). Julius Caesar set fire to Alexandria’s docks in 48 BCE, destroying 40,000 scrolls from the library. In 272 CE, Emperor Aurelian destroyed the quarter of Alexandria where the supposed remnants of the library would have been. Emperor Diocletian’s siege of Alexandria in 297 CE caused further damage to the city.

A new library, the Serapeum, was established in the fourth century CE by Egyptian pagans. Ironically, the Coptic Christians actually demolished the Serapeum in 391 CE.

Is it possible that Bar Hebraeus’ source, although late, still contains a kernel of truth? One of the main characters in the account is Yahya an-Nahwi, also known as John the Grammarian (Philioponus). But John the Grammarian died in ~570 CE, and thus could not have witnessed the Muslim conquest.

Roy MacLeod, author of Introduction: Alexandria in History and Myth observed:

"both of the Alexandrian libraries were destroyed by the end of the fourth century, and there is no mention of any library surviving at Alexandria in the Christian literature of the centuries following that date." (p. 71)

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