Friday, December 18, 2009

Alexandria and How Papyrus Helped Build Western Civilization

I stood yesterday on the spot of sidewalk in Alexandria where it is said that the Ptolemys built the Great Library of Alexandria. They began their project not long after Alexander the Great founded the city in 332 BC.

The city, located in the Nile Delta, was then surrounded by the marshes that had been the Pharaoh’s coveted and profitable source of the paper sedge, papyrus. A unique local resource, papyrus was used as the raw material for millions of scrolls and correspondence worldwide for thousands of years. It was also a plant worshipped by the ancient Egyptians.

The Ptolemys realized the potential of the swamps, they also saw how they could use them to fulfill their goal of housing a collection of every known book. Perhaps they caught the collector’s bug from Alexander’s tutor, Aristotle; in any event, they began their collection of books in earnest. In those days that meant scrolls made from papyrus.

They intended that Alexandria would become the intellectual center of the world, and in the process they would make money. In Alexandria they kept hundreds of scribes busy, as the Library sent out lists that led to exchanges and more additions. The Ptolemys had a policy of confiscating any book scroll found on boats calling in at the port. After copying them for the Library, they often kept the original returning the copy to the chagrin of many. As a result, a thriving business flourished here in exporting books.

Not only did they make use of the plant for paper, it was also cut and dried to provide fuel for the baths of the city, an equally important function, as the baths ranked high on the list of necessities of life for the Romans. Many of the large bath complexes in Rome had libraries for the patrons, it's possible that in Alexandria both functions of the plant came together.

Although nothing is left of the Great Library there are ruins of a smaller one at the Serapeum in the west of the city. I was told that the large number of niches cut into the rock of these ruins represent original shelves for the papyrus scrolls.

It was a letdown then to find that papyrus and its history is not well represented in the new Library, the modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina. This library was built on a plot close to where the Great Library stood, and it does serve, as did the original, as a place of study, a venue for conferences and a site for art and science initiatives. It also emulates the Great Library in being a cultural showplace for the city, because the building is extraordinary;it is a modern architectural marvel with open stacks and a stream of visitors.

It reminded me of the new British Library near Saint Pancras in London, though it has a way to go in terms of holdings, witness the many empty shelves. I was graciously given a short tour of the document restoration lab, a very modern facility that deals with thousands of old manuscripts made of everything but papyrus, and I was told that it would be a while before they involve themselves with such. At present they leave papyrus manuscripts to the Egyptian and Coptic Museums in Cairo.

As to the plant, for many years it disappeared with the exception of a few wild clumps in a few scattered areas. It was gone and almost forgotten in the Delta almost from the time the Saracens destroyed the original Library. Then in the 1970’s, like the new Library, papyrus again rose from the ashes. It was brought back as cuttings that have been planted in the Nile in Cairo. So my next task was to return to that city to see how my favorite plant is doing in cultivation.

On the following day after a brief tour of the ruins, I caught the afternoon train back to Cairo. My coffee this time was served by Cleopatra, as apparently it was Hatshepsut’s day off.

Next post finds me floating in the Gardens of the Sacred Sedge.

© Copyright J. Gaudet, 2009, all rights reserved.

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