The Things We Lost in the Fire

Road to Timbuktu

Timbuktu, Mali. Image by Emilio Labrador Santiago de Chile

Many of the militants that surrounded the Ahmed Baba Institute in the winter of 2013 could not read the words of the manuscripts contained within. The library, perched on the edge of the legendary Timbuktu, sheltered tens of thousands of books from the centuries-old Mali Empire of West Africa. This treasury of art, science and correspondence was one of Mali’s last links to a vanished kingdom.

The evening prior, bands of the brigands had slept between the stacks, preparing to battle the nationalist forces to the south. None had been raised in Timbuktu, nor could speak Koyra Chiini, the local tongue. They had marched on the promise of a new Caliphate; their legal code would not tolerate the diverse manuscripts the city’s residents had guarded for centuries.

Had they pored through the pages, they may have been entranced by the geometric designs, the gorgeous maps of Mali or familiar passages from the Quran rendered in flowing Arabic script. Those young men who could read the text may have paused to consider a line of poetry, or an all-too-familiar exchange of letters between father and son. Perhaps if they had done so, the oil canister would never have been uncapped, the lighter would never have sparked, and the Institute would not have been ravaged by flame.

But all it takes is a dab of oil and a lick of fire. A book is all too easy to burn.

History is haunted by the memory of libraries set alight. The pall of smoke obscures what was lost in the pyres of philosophy destroyed on the orders of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the Mayan codices eradicated by the Bishop de Landa, and the ‘degenerate’ books purged outside Humboldt University by the Hitler Youth. But the loudest lament has often been reserved for the Library of Alexandria. Known as ‘The Museon’ (named after the goddesses of the Arts, and giving us the term ‘Museum’), its fabled collection was amassed by the Ptolemy kings of Egypt, who begged, borrowed and stole scrolls from every corner of the known world and lured academics with lucrative offers of tenure. For centuries the Library of Alexandria was the intellectual hub of the Greek world, then of the Roman Empire.

Then it was gone. No definitive account describes when, or even how, the great library met its end. For death by fire, there are a few suspects: Julius Caesar’s army in 48 BC, the Bishop of Alexandria in 391 AD, or the conquering Caliph Omar in 642 AD. Scholars reject that a single fire did the deed; the more likely cause was centuries of neglect, exacerbated by political squabbles and budget cuts. Yet the myth of Alexandria burning persists. The lost books remind us of the fragility of our own art and knowledge, despite our confidence in archives and hard-drives. Alexandria reminds us of all we stand to lose.

Alexandria Burning

The Burning of the Library at Alexandria in 391 AD by Ambrose Dudley. Image courtesy of the Stapleton Collection

Flames may be able to eradicate a single library, but other processes must be work for the books themselves, and the ideas within, to disappear. The loss of untold thousands of plays, poems, scientific textbooks and philosophical treatises once held in the Library of Alexandria are not the result of a single conflation, but are part of the greater decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

At Rome’s peak in the 2nd Century CE, the Mediterranean hosted a resounding book trade and high literacy rates (provided you were a free adult male). Alexandria was one of many great libraries, with rivals in Rome, Pergamon and Antioch. Together, these libraries may have held over one hundred thousand unique books. Today, the survivors number in the low thousands.

The reasons for Rome’s fall are myriad and much-debated. The western Empire was devastated from within by religious schism and poor governance, and pressured on its borders by the new German kingdoms, the Persian Empire and marauding Huns. Eventually, it buckled. But why did the fall take so much of the ancient world’s literature with it?

A chief weakness of Mediterranean books was technological. Rather than the paper and codex format used today, ancient books were composed of sheets of papyrus stuck together to form scrolls. Papyrus was less durable than paper, and became increasingly brittle with the rolling and unrolling that accompanied every reading. Keeping your scrolls in storage hardly kept them safe either; hungry bookworms loved nibbling on papyrus. Scrolls therefore had a relatively short shelf life, which meant that maintaining a collection required constantly copying new editions.

This short shelf life would have been a boon for booksellers in the good times, but when the region was plunged into turmoil by civil war and invasion the book market went with it. Literacy rates collapsed and Mediterranean trade was disrupted, making Egyptian papyrus hard to source and wildly expensive. The in-house copying by the great libraries was similarly hobbled by budget cuts. Unimaginative education standards may have also play a role. Historians Reynolds and Wilson suggest that from the 3rd Century a standardised school syllabus was adopted that reduced the number of widely read books to a select few — “no texts outside this range were read and copied enough to guarantee survival.”

In the Roman Empire just as it is today in Iraq, book-burners were often driven by fanatical religious ideology. The great libraries doubled as pagan religious institutions, inspiring the ire of newly-converted Christians. In Alexandria frenzied mobs incited by Pope Theophilus destroyed the Serapeum, a branch of the Museon, in 391 CE. Edward Gibbon described the aftermath: “And nearly twenty years afterwards, the appearance of the empty shelves excited the regret and indignation of every spectator whose mind was not totally darkened by religious prejudice.” Disputes between the faithful — such as the debate over icon worship in Alexandria — similarly set cities alight. Only a few ecclesiastic libraries prospered, sheltered by Church patronage. Texts deemed unsuitable by the faith were naturally excluded.

The Empire in the West had collapsed entirely by 476 CE, taking Rome’s international trade and the education system with it. The Empire in the East, centred on Constantinople (now Istanbul), fought on, shadow of its old glory, under new religious governance. Within generations, few could read in Latin or Ancient Greek, and even fewer had the skills to manufacture new books. It does not matter when exactly the Library of Alexandria burned, because by the 6th Century CE it no longer existed within a society that commanded the resources to replenish its shelves or cared to share its once-treasured books.

The Things We Saved

A teacher of geometry in the Middle Ages. Illustrated frontpiece from a hand-copied edition of Euclid’s Elementa

The tale of Alexandria burning has been told and retold for centuries. It reflects the anxieties of our modern Empires, afraid their dominion too could slip away, and their triumphs be lost to time. Less frequently we repeat its crucial sequel; the remarkable story of how, against the odds, thousands of books were saved.

The heroes of this story are not vast institutions like the great libraries, but the small communities and individuals who held out against the storm. The closure of all non-religious institutions in the lingering Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire inspired a handful of scholars to seek refuge in the universities of Mesopotamia and Persia, taking their personal libraries with them. Islamic scholars would build upon these philosophical and medical theories in their own scientific and cultural golden age. In dark-age Europe, a nucleus of schoolteachers and textbook writers in Constantinople and on the fringes of the Latin world upheld the old processes of copying and cataloguing, to preserve the old classics for their students.

Nonetheless, the scarcity of papyrus and the price tag attached to animal-skin parchment made preservation an expensive hobby. It may have become prohibitive were it not for the invention of minuscule cursive script, which allowed more to be squeezed onto each and every page (Latin and Greek had traditionally been written in bulky capitals). A brief flowering of education in Constantinople kept many of the Greek classics alive — our copies of almost all Ancient Greek literature can be traced to editions made during the brief reopening of the Imperial University in 860 CE. These copies would have decayed beyond recognition had it not been for the European revival movement of the late fourteen century, credited with kick-starting the Renaissance. Humanists armed with deep purses scoured monasteries for ancient manuscripts with the same fervour men now put into digging through Nigerian television archives for lost episodes of Doctor Who. To them we owe Cicero and Seneca, Lucretius and Aristotle, Ovid and Virgil.

What determined which books endured? The surest survival mechanism is popularity. The best bets were the ancient blockbusters: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Herodotus’ Histories and Virgil’s Aeneid were likely to turn up in a scavenger hunt simply because of the sheer number of copies once in circulation.Even today, forty percent of Ancient Greek texts discovered by archaeologists are copies of Homer. It would be equally unlikely for the world to lose track of Shakespeare, the King James Bible, or Star Wars. More niche ancient authors have only reached us in pieces; our knowledge of Aristotle is based almost entirely on his lecture notes, whilst Sappho’s love poetry, sensually potent enough even in fragments to lend us the term “sapphic”, consists today of stray quotations and a sole complete ode. Tantalising lost names jump out from ancient bibliographies: Agrippina’s Autobiography, Suetonius’ Lives of Famous Whores. In the 21st Century, there are more words extant in the world written by Kardashians than Caesars.

The door is not quite shut. The modern archaeology has led to improbable discoveries: literature in an ancient rubbish dump, and poetry within the folds of an Egyptian mummy’s bandages. Yet despite the occasional astonishing haul (say, the Dead Sea Scrolls), we are not likely to find too many masterpieces buried in a desert. The disappointing contents of Villa of the Papyri, entombed by the Mount Vesuvius eruption, is an important lesson. The Library, initially treated with frenzied excitement, turned out to be almost exclusively dedicated to the works of a second rate Epicurean philosopher. Not all lost things deserve our laments. 

The Conversation

Surviving Timbuktu manuscripts on Astronomy and Mathematics

The demise of a single great library is never the end. Just as we did not lose Homer and Sophocles when Alexandria burnt, not all of Mali’s books from the Abbasid period perished with the razing of the Ahmed Baba Institute. While the global media breathlessly reported on the obliteration of Timbuktu’s libraries, it emerged in the days and weeks that followed that the majority of manuscripts had in fact been saved. Library curators, teachers and citizens  who had long felt responsible for their city’s unique heritage had risked their lives during the occupation to hide or evacuate thousands of manuscripts. Books were sequestered in family homes and smuggled south to Mali’s capital in crates of fruit and vegetables until the troubles passed.

Re-constituting the lost library is not the answer. The fate of Alexandria reminds us that knowledge cannot be entrusted to a single storehouse. Even if the immediate danger has passed, the remaining manuscripts of Timbuktu are vulnerable to future fanatics, to mould and decay, to a loss of language and, worst of all, to indifference. Scholars are looking at new solutions to preserve and disseminate the books, included high-resolutions digital scans and free exhibitions online. The internet and digital storage come with their own dire preservation challenges — but they are amongst the best means of keeping old works in the global cultural conversation. While it may be the fate of all libraries to burn, books that are being read, discussed, copied and saved are not so easily lost.

This is Part 1 of a 2-Part series, ‘Things We Lost in the Fire’. Part 2, on digital libraries, new art forms and modern defences against destruction and decay, will be dropping next week!


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