Writing: A History
I am a writer; however, I am also a library technician – thus my love for Mesopotamia is passionate and filled with undying thanks. If it wasn’t for this great Ancient World or the Library of Alexandria I fear I would be lost for words, pun intended.
Today, Mesopotamia is an area of land that makes up Iraq, Kuwait, north-eastern Syria and a little of Turkey and Iran. According to records, it is believed that writing began circa 3500BC because the Sumerian people wanted a record of the transactions made between traders. These writings were called ‘cuneiform’, which means wedged-shaped, and were done by pressing a water reed called a stylus into the wet clay before it was left in the sun to dry.
The writings started off as pictures and throughout the generations, as writing became more advanced, the pictures slowly formed into symbols. The symbols would combine together to make words of places and names. Over time, 1500 signs morphed into 600 and were rearranged to create words that were easier to say.
There is not just one birthplace of writing, although Mesopotamia was the earliest example. Different civilisations started their own versions during different time periods.
It is believed Egyptian hieroglyphics existed from 3200BC to 400AD. The majority of academics are confident that these writings were influenced by the writings in Mesopotamia. The word ‘hieroglyphic’ translates to sacred writings, and these writings were pictures used as symbols to represent different things. There are over 700 known pictures.
The birth of the idea of a library came from Alexander the Great. In 332BC, he decreed that Alexandria would be “the source of learning in the known world…” A grand teaching institute was envisioned, including the library.
In 323BC Alexander died, leaving the building yet to become a reality. His general, Ptolemy, who was in the process of making Alexandria the capital of Egypt, shared Alexander’s vision for a city of enlightenment, knowledge and learning.
The library was a symbol of wealth and knowledge and housed thousands of Papyrus scrolls. It grew notably due to Ptolemy’s collection, donations from the general public and a donation from Aristotle, who willed his entire collection to the institution. A rule stated that any ship that came into Alexandria’s port was to be searched for books. Those that were not in the library’s collection were confiscated and the owner was paid a fee as compensation.
The size of the collection is unknown, though its secondary collection is said to have held 300,000 books. The library, which was frequented by scholars, resembles what we would call a reference library today, where one could go and look at books without borrowing them. Scribes were employed to copy the rarest books and trade them for others, in order to continue to grow the collection.
There is no one distinct cause for the destruction of the library. However, the cracks start to appear when a struggle for leadership broke out between Cleopatra and her brother. Julius Caesar sided with Cleopatra and became a part of the civil war. When Caesar’s navy were defeated by Alexandrian vessels in the harbour, ships at sea and buildings along the docks were fired upon, including parts of the library.
Historians believe that only part of the library was burned, and that Marc Antony gifted Cleopatra with more than 1000 books in order to replace those that were lost. However, after they were defeated and Marc Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide in 30BC, the Ptolemaic dynasty ended its rule of over 300 years.
Although historians debate the exact cause of the library’s destruction, as accounts vary, there are three known points that help identify its demise. By 400AD, Paganism had been outlawed and Christianity was seen as the official religion of the Roman Empire. The ruler Theodosius commanded that all buildings that worshiped paganism be destroyed. During this time, pagan scholars were reportedly murdered in the streets, and Christians may have extinguished the life of the Library of Alexandria in the process.
Secondly, in 616AD the Persian invasion happened, during which the Romans were conquered.
What sealed the fate for the Library of Alexandria was the Arab invasion. After bringing Islam to the country, it was stated that if the books contradicted the Islamic faith, they were to be destroyed, and if they agreed with the faith, they were redundant and thus destroyed as well.
For around 300 years, the Ptolemaic Dynasty ruled over Egypt and the Library of Alexandria flourished due to the people’s desire to cultivate knowledge and continually improve themselves. From Mesopotamia to the library, words, books and symbols are an everyday pleasure in today’s world, and as a writer and library technician I believe it is important to know my history.