Abd al-Latif’s “Account of Egypt” and the destruction of the library of Alexandria

I was reminded this evening of the stor about the destruction of the library of Alexandria under Omar.  The conqueror Amr wrote to the Caliph Omar to ask what to do about all the books.  He got back the reply:

As for the books you mention, here is my reply. If their content is in accordance with the book of Allah, we may do without them, for in that case the book of Allah more than suffices. If, on the other hand, they contain matter not in accordance with the book of Allah, there can be no need to preserve them. Proceed, then, and destroy them.

I take this quotation from L. Canfora, The vanished library, corrected Eng. tr., 1990, p.98.

The question for us is whether this statement is to be found in the ancient sources.  Who is the source for this, to start with?

Canfora says (p.109) that Gibbon discusses this passage, and relies on Bar Hebraeus, Specimen Historiae Arabum, given in Latin translation by Edwarde Pococke in 1649.  I did not see a page number, tho.  Is Pococke’s work online?

Hunting around on the web I find a page by James Hannam which says that there are in fact two sources, although unfortunately he does not reference this page.  As well as Bar Hebraeus, he refers to Abd al-Latif, “Account of Egypt”, whom he says describes Alexandria and mentions the ruins of the Serapeum.  The author died in 1231 and thankfully there is a Wikipedia page.

The Arabic manuscript was discovered in 1665 by Edward Pococke the orientalist, and preserved in the Bodleian Library. He then published the Arabic manuscript in the 1680s. His son, Edward Pococke the Younger, translated the work into Latin, though he was only able to publish less than half of his work. Thomas Hunt attempted to publish Pococke’s complete translation in 1746, though his attempt was unsuccessful. Pococke’s complete Latin translation was eventually published by Joseph White of Oxford in 1800. The work was then translated into French, with valuable notes, by Silvestre de Sacy in 1810.

The Wikipedia references are unfortunately to a secondary source.  But my eye fell immediately on the existence of a French translation of the work, by de Sacy, in 1810.  Surely this should be online?  If so, the work might be an interesting one to examine.  A Google search revealed that the title of the work is Relation de l’Egypte par Abd al-Latif, Paris, 1810.  This proved to be on Google books here and here.  So … what does he say?

 P.171 starts book 1, chapter 4, where he looks at the antiquities of Egypt.  After some pages on the pyramids, surely deserving of translation, on p.182 is material about Alexandria.  On p.183 is a statement about the burning of the library.  Here it is, with a little context about what sounds like “Pompey’s pillar.”

I saw at Alexandria the column named Amoud-alsawari [the column of the pillars]. It is of granite, of red stone, which is extremely hard. This column is a surpassing size and height: I had no difficulty in believing it was seventy cubits high; its diameter is five cubits; it is raised on a very large base proportional to its size. On top of this column is a big capital, which could not be so well positioned with such accuracy without a deep knowledge of mechanics and the art of raising great weights, and extreme skill in practical geometry.  A man worthy of trust assured me that he measured the periphery of this column and found it was seventy-five spans of your large measure.

I also saw on the seashore, on the side where it borders the walls of the city, over four hundred columns broken into two or three parts, of which the stone was similar to that used by the column of  the pillars and which seemed to be to it in the proportion of a third or a fourth. All the residents of Alexandria, without exception, assume that the columns were erected around the column of the pillars; but a governor of Alexandria named Karadja, who commanded in this city for Yusuf son of Ayyub (Saladin), saw fit to overthrow these columns, to break them and throw them on the edge of the sea, under the pretext of breaking the force of the waves and thereby protecting the city walls from their violence, or to prevent enemy ships from anchoring against the walls. This was acting like a child, or man who can not distinguish right from wrong.

I also saw, around the column of the pillars, some sizeable remains of these columns, some whole, others broken; it could still be judged by these remains that these columns were covered with a roof which they supported. Above the column of the pillars is a dome supported by this column. I think this building was the portico where Aristotle taught, and after him his disciples; and that this was the academy that Alexander built when he built this city, and where was placed the library which Amr ibn-Alas burned, with the permission of Omar.

The pharos of Alexandria is too well known to need description. Some accurate writers say that it is two hundred and fifty cubits high.

It is interesting to see that de Sacy uses an older form of French, where était is étoit, and -ai- is often -oi-.

UPDATE (2015): The four hundred columns are the colonnade around the enclosure of the Serapeum of Alexandria.

11 thoughts on “Abd al-Latif’s “Account of Egypt” and the destruction of the library of Alexandria

  1. Yes, it is … but apparently he is quoting from the slightly earlier Arab historian Ibn al-Qifti (History of wise men, ca. 1227). And exactly the same story about Omar in much the same words was reported by Ibn Kaldun in connection with the destruction of a great Persian library.

    Anyway, having set me off on this quest, I found an excellent paper by Diana Delia which now convinces me that it’s all a false lead anyway and there was no library left to destroy:
    Diana Delia, From Romance to Rhetoric: the Alexandrian Library in Classical and Islamic Traditions, American Historical Review, 97 (1992) 1449-67.

    I really should have been doing other things this morning 🙂

  2. Roger, thanks for these very interesting posts. I came across this recently from a different angle – looking at how many unverified assertions there are in the wikipedia article on the library of Alexandria – but quickly decided that al-Qifti was way beyond me. I’m going to try something easier – finding the original words of some obscure passages in Galen about how the books were collected for the library.

  3. Well done! That will be quite a useful enterprise anyway.

    I do have contacts in the Arabic scholarly world, so I will see if I can access al-Qifti somehow.

    I was thinking about that article, and decided that what it really needs to say on this is to have a section on “Arabic sources on the destruction of the library”, list the sources, say what they say (with refs which quote the source verbatim) and they say what named scholars say about it (with refs). No need to express an opinion one way or the other.

  4. Thanks – that sounds a good idea. Are you offering to add the section? Although I’m sure several people have tried hard to improve it (the discussion shows that), the wikipedia article is still not up to the standard that I’d hope for a topic of such general interest.

  5. Not unless I have all the materials to hand, and have some spare time. I’m job hunting at the moment, and need to spend my every waking moment stuffing my head with techno-drivel on which I shall be tested …

    I have yet to find an adequate translation of Bar Hebraeus’s text as given by Pococke.

    Apparently there are some intelligent remarks by J. B. Bury in a footnote to the passage in volume 4 (or 5) of his edition of Gibbon. But this does not seem to be online.

Leave a Reply