NYTimes.com Article: Pillagers Strip Iraqi Museum of Its Treasure

Gregory Alan Bolcer gbolcer at endeavors.com
Mon Apr 14 16:28:19 PDT 2003

Jim Whitehead wrote:

> The lesson I see is this: to achieve an archival mission, you must digitize,
> and you must replicate those bits. Atoms are too easy to steal, and to burn.
> Wars are so quick that if you wait until the tanks start rolling, you're
> already too late to save most of the collection.

A roman, christian, and moslem walk into
a library---thud, thud, thud--no open the door
and come in.   They really could have used some
digital recreations back then.   Underwater archeology
to this day isn't sophisticated enough to pull anything
significant out of the suspected site of the Great
Library of Alexandria--on of the seven ancient wonders
of the world.

The US has a restricted target list that has everything
of cultural and religious significance--everything from
the Taj Mahal to more dyanmic targets like a busful
of nuns coming up the road.



What happened to the Royal Library of Alexandria? We can be certain it 
was there once, founded by Ptolomy II Soter, and we can be equally 
certain it is not there now. It formed part of the Museum which was 
located in the Bruchion or palace quarter of the city of Alexandria. 
This great ancient city, occupying a spit of land on the shore of the 
Mediterranean Sea, had been founded by Alexander the Great in his flying 
visit to Egypt and became the capital of the last dynasty of Pharaohs 
descended from Alexander's general Ptolemy. The Great or more properly 
Royal Library formed a part of the Museum but whether or not it was a 
separate building is unclear.

Stories about its demise have been circulating for centuries and date 
back to at least the first century AD. These stories continue to be told 
and embellished today by those who wish to make a moral attack against 
the alleged vandals. We find that three parties are blamed for the 
destruction and they correspond to the three occupying powers that ruled 
Alexandria after it had been lost by the Greeks. Let me first tell those 
stories as we hear them today - without references, largely inaccurate 
and used as polemic. Then I will try and establish what, if anything we 
can know before finally and rather indulgently making my own suggestions.

The suspects respectively are a Roman, a Christian and a Moslem - Julius 
Caesar, Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria and Caliph Omar of Damascus. 
It is clear that the Royal Library could not have been burnt down or 
otherwise destroyed by all three of these characters and so we find we 
have too many sources for the event of the destruction rather than a 
paucity. As scholars of the Gospels will vouch, this too can be an 
embarrassment. How we decide to reconcile the stories will depend almost 
entirely on how we criticise the sources and which of them we choose to 
consider most reliable.

Archaeology can be a help with ancient history although it tends to be 
silent about the things in which we are most interested leading the more 
foolish archaeologists to claim they never happened. In the case of 
Alexandria a series of earthquakes and floods in the middle ages mean 
that the entire palace quarter in the North East of the city is now 
underwater and largely inaccessible. Recent work in underwater 
archaeology has revealed more but we will probably never be able to dig 
around in the foundations of the Museum. The Great Temple of Serapis, to 
which we will later return, was in the south-western quarter and parts 
of its foundations have been excavated.

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