The Library of Alexandria
Yet we know very little about it or when it was destroyed. The Egyptian city of Alexandria was founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great, after he conquered the country. After his death, one of his generals, Ptolemy, took control of the region and started the Ptolemaic dynasty a series of kings and queens that would rule Egypt for hundreds of years. Under this dynasty, the region and the city thrived and became a mecca of learning, to the point where a huge library was constructed that contained hundreds of thousands of scrolls. Thousands visited the library to study, learn and teach. For a long time, it was thought that Julius Caesar accidentally burnt it down while having his liaisons with the legendary Cleopatra. Yet there are records of the library still existing after this event. In the 4th century, Christian leader Theophilus became very upset that a giant collection of “pagan” scrolls existed in Alexandria, and he incited a mob to destroy it. Once again, this failed to totally destroy the library. This was repeated again when Islam spread and conquered the region under Caliph Omar, who again ordered pagan works to be destroyed. Historians still can’t agree which event destroyed the library for good.
The Cornish people of South Western England are a distinct group who, up until the 15th century, had their own language that is now seen as a bridge to what the British Isles looked like before Julius Caesar’s Roman invasion. The Cornish language and culture centered on the Church-sponsored Glasney College in Penryn, Cornwall. In terms of scholarship, it was a dam against assimilation of the Cornish people into British culture. Disaster struck for Cornish culture when the infamous King Henry VIII disbanded England’s monastery system in 1534, after declaring himself the Supreme Head of the Church in England. Then in 1548, a decree was sent out to not only destroy centers of Cornish learning, but all symbols of Cornish Roman Catholicism. With their cultural artifacts and language centers gone, the Cornish rebelled against further acts like the banning of Cornish in the Church. This led to a failed revolt, and the death knell to the Cornish language and culture.
University of Alabama
On December 18, 1820 planning started for the creation of “The University of the State of Alabama”. It finally opened its doors to students on April 18, 1831, and soon became a major center of learning. By the time the Civil War broke out, it had one of the largest collections of books in the country. It also was famed for its legendary party culture, which saw some of the greatest student debauchery of the young United States. It got bad in 1860 and the University leadership successfully appealed to the government to have the University changed to a military school, similar to West Point. This ultimately doomed the school, as it was targeted by Union forces a few days before the South surrendered. The school’s librarian meet the Union forces and, as they were torching the campus, begged to let the library and its knowledge stand. The Yankee commander requested to his superiors to spare the library, but they ordered him to raze everything. Just as troops started to ignite the library, someone ran in and was able to save one book: an English translation of The Koran, published in Philadelphia in 1853.
Imperial Library of Constantinople
Egypt Temple of Knowledge
The Jaffna Library
The Jaffna Public Library was founded in the 1930′s and within a few decades had grown to become one of the largest libraries in Asia. As it grew, ancient texts were moved into the library in order to safely store and restore them. Unfortunately, the library stood in the northern Tamil section of Sri Lanka, a region which, in the 1980s, was going through major upheaval. The minority Hindu Tamils sought equality with the majority Buddhist Sinhalese population, a quest which culminated on May 31, 1981. A political rally involving a popular Tamil party turned violent, and three policemen were killed. It didn’t take long before Sinhalese government forces struck out at any visible Tamil entity. Hindu temples were destroyed, people were killed, and Sinhalese people stormed and burnt down the Jaffna Library, destroying all its contents. Soon after, a Tamil military insurgency and Sinhalese Government forces would be involved in a decades-long war that would last until the last Tamil Tiger force was destroyed in August of 2009.
The Mayans of Central America have a rich and complex civilization that produced the some of the largest pyramids in the world, a prosperous trading network, and a written language that was until the Spanish arrived. The Mayans used a variety of materials to write, before settling on a medium of tree bark. Using this bark, they were able to record their civilization’s knowledge and history in foldable books called Codices. The largest collection of these Codices were located in the Yucatan, which was conquered by the Spanish Conquistadors in 1562. The priest that accompanied the invading army was Spanish Bishop Diego de Landa, who ordered all the Mayan books destroyed. Thousands of priceless volumes of Mayan life, history, and culture were put to the torch as de Landa proclaimed “We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.” As the Conquistadors moved across Central America, they systemically destroyed any Codice they came across. The last big library was in Nojpetén, Guatemala, which in 1697 became the last city conquered in the Americas. There too, all Mayan books found were put to flame. Of the thousands of books in the Mayan civilization, only three survived, which are held in European museums today.
House of Wisdom
The ancient civilizations that inhabit what is now Iraq were supporters of the arts, and supported fledgling ancient libraries across the region. When the region fell under Islamic expansion, the conquering Arabs discovered and celebrated this vast knowledge their Empire now held. A number of collections were created that combined books from across the Islamic world. First, the collection was held in Damascus and in 762, under the Caliph al-Mansur, the city of Baghdad was created. Government functions and the library soon moved there. In Baghdad, the library flourished and became known as the House of Wisdom, holding knowledge from Greek sources as well as printed and translated works from the Eastern Kingdoms of China and India. However, from the East, came Baghdad’s destruction. In the 13th century, Hulagu Khan and his Mongol horde conquered everything in his path until he controlled most of Southwest Asia. When he came across the borders of the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate, he sent envoys to their capital in Baghdad, who were rebuffed by Baghdad’s ruler Caliph Al-Musta’sim. Incensed, the Mongols brushed aside any resistance and were quickly at the gates of Baghdad, which they put under a two-month siege before the city surrendered. The city was then sacked for a week, and the river alternated between turning red from the blood of those killed, and black from all the books that were thrown into the river. Hundreds of thousands of priceless wonders were destroyed, and the sack of the city marked the end of the golden age of Islam.
The Great Library of Timbuktu
In April, 2012, Timbuktu, once the great spiritual capital of Africa, was assaulted by two rival Tuareg rebel groups. A couple of months later, insurgents from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb came in and wrested control from the other groups and began a régime of terror. Since the fifteenth century, Timbuktu had been an epicenter of commerce on the trans-Saharan caravan route, but also, thanks to its thriving mosque and university, an oasis of learning and literacy. Scribes copied countless works on topics ranging from political science, history, and theology to astronomy, botany, and poetry. Arabic and, at times, Fulani, Songhai, or Bambara texts were recopied on camel shoulder blades, sheepskins, tree bark, and even papers from Italy. Some were illumined with gold leaf, with frail calligraphy presenting significant stylistic variations. The surviving manuscripts, including one in Turkish and one in Hebrew, span the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Unfortunately, many of the areas of knowledge they cover—anatomy, erectile dysfunction, women’s rights, medicine, music—are domains traditionally despised by Islamists. The Ahmed Baba Centre had several times been ransacked by armed men, though no damage had yet been done to the manuscripts themselves.
Library of Monte Cassino
The world’s most glorious monastery, at Monte Cassino in Italy, was destroyed during the second world war because of a mistake by a British junior officer. The officer – translating an intercepted radio message – mistook the German word for abbot for a similar word meaning battalion. His version convinced his superiors this meant a German military unit was using the monastery as its command post, in breach of a Vatican agreement which treated it as neutral. Allied generals ordered a huge bombing attack. Only when the planes were in the air did a British intelligence officer, Colonel David Hunt, recheck the full radio intercept. He found that what it actually said was: “The abbot is with the monks in the monastery”. Monte Cassino – founded in 526 by St Benedict, numbering St Thomas Aquinas among its early monks – was blitzed in what is mourned as probably the greatest single aesthetic disaster of the war. In December 1942, some 1,400 irreplaceable manuscript codices, chiefly patristic and historical, in addition to a vast number of documents relating to the history of the abbey and the collections of the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome, had been sent to the abbey archives for safekeeping. Fortunately, German officers had them transferred to the Vatican at the beginning of the battle. Another account however notes that 120 trucks were loaded with monastic assets and art which had been stored there for safekeeping. The trucks were loaded and left in October 1943, and only “strenuous” protests resulted in their delivery to the Vatican, minus the 15 cases which contained the property of the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. Edsel goes on to note that these cases had been delivered to Göring in December 1943, for his birthday.