Category Archives: Alexandria

The Lesson of Alexandria

Recently, I watched the documentary, Alexandria, City of Dreams by Bettany Hughes and was reminded of a nagging question: Why did Alexandria fail?

But perhaps this needs more context. Alexandria was a city founded by Alexander (points for being obvious) after his conquest of Egypt to be the center of Greek influence in that region. The city is best known for its two Wonders of the Ancient World: the Pharos Lighthouse and the Great Library.

The shiny thing on the coast was an engineering marvel, one of many, in fact, to be found in classical Alexandria. The first known steam engine was invented there. There’s reason to believe that the Antikythera mechanism had its origins in the city. Temples used machines to open doors automatically, to move images of gods across the ceiling, and to give out holy water from coin-operated dispensers.

And then there was the library. City law mandated the copying of all books brought into the port for inclusion in the stacks. In fact, the story goes that the originals were kept and the copies given to the travellers. The library housed schools. The chief librarians were scholars in their own right. Eratosthenes, for example, used the angles of shadows at noon on the summer solstice in two parts of Egypt to determine the circumference of the Earth–he came within a few percent of the correct number. The book collection is reported to have been an assemblage of the great writings–perhaps even just about all writings–from the ancient world.

So with the blessings of technology and literacy, why did Alexandria fail? This question is important today. We share those two characteristics. If we are to avoid the ancient city’s fate, we have to figure out what didn’t work.

Carl Sagan, in his Cosmos series, argued that slavery was one of the causes. Certainly, the view that machines were mere toys since labor could be done by enslaved humans retarded technological development. Why build machines and make them better when a person can be made to do every job that we can conceive of at the moment? (I ask this question from time to time when I wrestle with my computer.)

But the problem wasn’t just in the fact that some people were held as slaves. The tragic flaw of Alexandrian society was the idea of a privileged few ruling over many subjects. The machines were used mainly to cow visitors to temples into fear and donating. Education was sold to those who could afford it.

The astonishing achievements of Alexandria were reached by a small portion of the population. The city fell to barbarians because the benefits of its technology and learning spread to only a few. There’s debate as to who destroyed the library. Julius Caesar burned the original building by accident. Theodophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, ordered the closure of the library, and a later patriarch, Cyril–named a saint by fools–instigated the killing of the last head librarian, Hypatia. There are claims that when Muslim armies captured Alexandria, they destroyed the books, since anything that agreed with the Qur’an was unnecessary and anything that opposed the Qur’an should be destroyed.

What if instead of a privileged few enjoying the blessings of advancement, the whole of the society had participated? What if instead of a town full of subjects and slaves who were not invested in the knowledge, a militia of citizens had stood up for their Wonder of the World?

I value universal education because I see no other means of assuring that knowledge will progress and no other means of preventing civilization from descending into barbarism. The small-minded and the wicked will always be with us. The answer is to drown out their voices with those of reason. Spreading the blessing of education to everyone is the duty of any society. It is also the essential act of any society that wishes to survive.

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