Alexandria, the Greatest Library of Ancient Times, and the Septuagint

Drawing of ancient Alexandria, Egypt, by Adolf Gnauth, 1908
Ancient Alexandria (Adolf Gnauth, 1878)

Founding of Alexandria

Alexandria was founded on the shore of the Mediterranean by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. He built it to be his new capital of Egypt. It remained the capital for almost a thousand years until the Muslim conquest of Egypt in AD 641. It lay just east of the Egyptian town of Rhacotis, which would become the Egyptian Quarter of Alexander’s city. Unlike most ancient cities that grew rather haphazardly over time, this new Greek city was designed by Alexander’s favorite architect, Dinocrates of Rhodes.

On a narrow strip of land between Lake Mariotis and the sea, Dinocrates laid the city out in a grid. Two main streets, each 100 feet (30 m) wide, crossed near the city center, where Alexander’s tomb would later be built. Side streets were 20 feet wide and paved with cobblestones. New canals connected the city with a then-major branch of the Nile (the Canopic or Canobic), which has since dried up. By diverting rivulets under the main streets, wealthy homes had fresh water delivered to them. A bridge connected the city with Pharos Island, which sheltered the harbor area. At 3900 feet (1200 m) long, it divided the old single harbor into an eastern military harbor and a western commercial one.

Alexandria under the Ptolemaic Dynasty

After Alexander’s death in 323 BC, four of his generals divided his empire, and Ptolemy Soter took possession of Egypt. Also known as Ptolemy I, he started the Macedonian dynasty of pharaohs that would end with the suicide of the famous Cleopatra VII in 30 BC when Octavian (later Augustus) captured her in Alexandria and ended the civil war with Mark Anthony.

Both Ptolemy I Soter and his son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, undertook major building programs, turning Alexandria into one of the premier cities of the ancient world. In the center of the city near Alexander’s tomb, they erected many public buildings in the classical Greek style. These included the Mouseion (Museum in Latin), the Great Library, lecture halls, and the Great Theater.

They replaced the bridge that Dinocrates built with a broad causeway (mole), the Heptastadion, named for its seven-stadia (0.7 mile or 4100 feet) length. Two bridges let some smaller ships move between the eastern Great Harbor and the western Port of Eunostos. They built the lighthouse of Alexandria (the Pharos) at the eastern end of the island, marking the Great Harbor entrance. Started by Ptolemy I and finished by Ptolemy II, it took twelve years to build. At 453 feet (138 m) high and visible from almost 50 (80 km) miles at sea, it was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Drawing of Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt, by Adolf Gnauth 1908

Pharos Lighthouse (Adolf Gnauth, 1878)

Ptolemy II restored a canal originally built by Rameses II to connect Lake Mariotis to the Canopic branch of the Nile, so the bountiful crops grown where the Nile flooded could reach the river port on the south side of Alexandria. After becoming a Roman province in 30 BC, Egypt was the personal property of the emperor. It supplied one third of the grain needed to feed Rome. Since the wheat from vast areas of Egypt could be brought to Alexandria on its many waterways, Alexandria was home to the imperial grain fleet that delivered that bounty to feed a hungry city. Under Augustus, Egypt provided around 150,000 tons (140 million kg) of wheat to Rome each year.

Map of ancient Alexandria Egypt 100 BC to AD 100 W Sieglin 1908

Alexandria between 100 BC and AD 100. W. Sieglin map of 1908

Making Alexandria a Famous Center of Learning

Ptolemy I Soter wanted to make Alexandria into a center for scholars, much as Athens had been for centuries. To attract top scholars from the intellectual centers in Alexander’s old empire, he built the Mouseion (Museum in Latin), which was a shrine to the Muses, the nine Greek goddesses of literature, science, and the arts. As part of it, he began a library collection that he hoped would become the greatest in the Greek-speaking world.

His son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, share the same vision. He expanded the Mouseion, adding additional library space that became known as the Great Library, lecture halls, and gardens. He hired resident scholars, giving them free room and board and a salary for studying and teaching there. Among the intellectual greats who studied there were Eratosthenes of Cyrene who calculated the circumference of the earth, Aristarchus of Samos who proposed a sun-centered solar system, Euclid who is called the father of geometry, and the famous mathematician and inventor Archimedes.

Philadelphus’s son, Ptolemy III Euergetes, built the Serapeum in the western part of the city. It was a sanctuary for the cult worship of the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis. The cult of Serapis was created by Ptolemy I and promoted by later Ptolemies to merge Greek and Egyptian religious traditions. Serapis already existed as an Egyptian deity, combining the Egyptian gods Apis and Osiris, but the cult added some characteristics of the Greek gods Hades, Demeter, and Dyonisus. Serapis was the patron god of the Ptolemies and later became popular in many parts of the Roman Empire.

As part of the Serapeum complex, a branch of the Great Library was built to house part of the massive collection of scrolls accumulated by the early Ptolemies. The Ptolemies used several methods for adding material to the library collections. Some were simply purchased, but any ship that landed in an Egyptian port was searched for scrolls. Any writings that were not already in the library were seized and copied. The original scroll was sent to the Great Library while the copy was returned to the original owner.

To make the great works of many cultures available to Greek-speaking scholars, both residents and visitors, Ptolemy II provided large sums of money to his chief librarian to buy “all the books in the world” for his library. He also paid to have Greek translations made of many works originally written in other languages. The greatest contribution Ptolemy II Philadelphus made to civilization came from that policy, and the spiritual impact of that decision is still being felt today.

The Septuagint

The Septuagint, the standard Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures and the one used by Jesus and his apostles, was prepared in Alexandria around 250 BC. Ancient sources tell how that happened in a letter from Aristeas, a government official and scholar who was involved in the process, and in the writings of Philo of Alexandria in AD 15. The letter of Aristeas to his brother was reproduced in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews around AD 93.

As the wisdom and historical literature of many cultures was being gathered and translated, the head librarian for the Great Library, Demetrius Phalereus told Ptolemy II that they should include the writings of the ancient Jewish culture and that skilled translators would be needed. Ptolemy told him that he had already given him the money for that, so do it.
Ptolemy had a letter sent to High Priest Eleazar in Jerusalem. He asked Eleazar to send translators, “choosing men of honorable lives, advanced in years, who are skilled in the Law and able to interpret it, out of each tribe six, so that agreement may be obtained from the large number, because the inquiry concerns matters of great importance.”

Aristeas and Andreas, one of Ptolemy’s chief bodyguards, traveled to Jerusalem with twenty cups of gold, thirty of silver, five bowls, a table for offerings, and a hundred talents of silver for offering sacrifices and for whatever repairs the temple might need in the future.
In response, the high priest sent six scholars from each of the twelve tribes to perform the translation. Philo of Alexandria, writing in AD 15, describes the activities of the translators in The Laws of Moses Vol. II. At a dinner with Ptolemy when they arrived in Alexandria, the pharaoh posed many questions to them. He was impressed with the intellectual excellence of the translators and told them to start their work.

They selected a secluded location on the Island of Pharos to do their translation. Philo reports that there was total agreement in the selection of each word of the translation, even when alternative Greek words might be used for a Hebrew word. He ascribes this to the men being not merely translators, but prophets directly inspired by God as they worked. Before and during Philo’s time, there was an annual celebration by Jews and others on the island to give thanks for God’s word being translated into Koine Greek, which made it accessible throughout the Hellenized world.

The importance of inspired word selection is seen in the translation of the Hebrew word almah, which refers to a young woman of childbearing age. For all but two occurrences of almah, the Septuagint translates it using neanis (νεᾶνις), meaning young woman or maiden. But for those two exceptions found in Genesis 24:43 and Isaiah 7:14, almah is translated as parthenos (παρθένος), the word meaning virgin in Greek. The Isaiah prophesy of a virgin conceiving and giving birth to a son foretold how Jesus would enter this world.

The translation, paid for by a Greek pharaoh as just one of many ancient literary and cultural documents, was quickly recognized as the authoritative version of the Jewish holy book by the Jews who didn’t use Hebrew in daily life. For those who had settled throughout vast areas of Europe, Africa, and Asia, Koine Greek was their common language. Since many of these diaspora Jews were no longer fluent in Hebrew, the Septuagint was regarded as the official words of God, equal in authority to the original Hebrew writings.

When the apostles, including Paul, quoted Old Testament scriptures, it was usually the Septuagint translation that they used. When Paul took the Gospel into the Gentile world, the scriptures that were read in the Jewish synagogues would often have been from the Septuagint since Koine Greek was the language the local Jews and Gentile God-fearers would all know. Many if not most would have had difficulty understanding Hebrew. Similarly, all the books of the New Testament were written in Koine Greek, making them easy to understand in most of the eastern Roman Empire.

End of the Great Library

The Great Library has been gone since the 7th century AD, and the history of its destruction has some interesting twists. When Julius Caesar brought troops into Alexandria to help settle the dispute between Cleopatra VII and her brother, a building that housed part of the library in the Royal Quarter was accidentally set afire.

After Augustus (Octavian) defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII, Egypt was reduced from a powerful kingdom to a Roman province. The library no longer had the patronage of a pharaoh. It became less important as other libraries around the Roman Empire grew. Claudius built an addition, but he appears to have been the only imperial patron. Other libraries opened in Alexandria, including one in the temple where the emperors were worshiped, and some of the Great Library holdings might have been used to stock them.

The Imperial Library in Constantinople, started by Constantius II, the son of Constantine, became the greatest repository of Greek and Latin literature, housing more than 100,000 texts until at least the 1200s.

Some accuse Christians of being responsible for the destruction of the Great Library collection during the reign of Emperor Theodosius, when the Serapeum, the cult sanctuary of Serapis, was destroyed in AD 391. But destruction of the pagan temple doesn’t require the destruction of the library holdings. There is solid historical evidence that this wasn’t the end of the library.

What remained of the Great Library was destroyed in AD 642, when Christian Alexandria was overrun by the Muslim army under Amr ibn al-As. A Muslim historian, Abd al-Latif, reported in the late 1100s that the general contacted Caliph Omar to ask what to do with the still-massive collection. According to Abd al-Latif, Omar replied, “If those books are in agreement with the Quran, we have no need of them; and if these are opposed to the Quran, destroy them.” His general proceeded to burn the entire collection. The scrolls from the great library were reputedly used to heat the baths in Alexandria, and there were enough to heat it for 6 months.

Want to read the ancient historians?

If you’re interested in reading the works of Josephus or Philo in the original Greek or in English translation, I recommend the Delphi Ancient Classics series of e-books, available for very low prices at Amazon. For this historical note, I consulted the works of Josephus, Philo, and Eusebius.

Fact and Fiction by Carol Ashby