Al-Qifti on the destruction of the library of Alexandria

Emily Cottrell has made a translation into English of the relevant passage from al-Qifti, based on Lippert’s edition, and kindly allowed it to appear here.  Here it is.  I am not absolutely sure that WordPress will allow some of the characters used — if it all  gets corrupt, I shall simplify it.

Ibn al-Qifṭī p. 354-357[1]

Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī[2] the Egyptian, the Alexandrian, disciple of Severus[3]. He was a bishop in the church of Alexandria in Egypt and he advocated the Jacobite way of the Christians[4], but later on he rejected what was believed by the Christians about the Trinity after having read philosophical books, and it became impossible for him [to believe] that the One had become Three and that the Three would be One. When it was discovered by the bishops of Egypt that he had rejected [his faith] they were furious, and they gathered to discuss his case and organized with him a dispute. They refuted him and his view was declared wrong. His incapacity pleased them and they sought to reconciled with him, displaying a friendly attitude and asking him to retract his view and to stop saying what he had wanted to prove and establish to them. But he did not, and they dismissed him from his position, after some public discourses.[5] He lived until the conquest of Egypt and Alexandria by ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ. And he came to visit ʿAmr, who knew his reputation in knowledge and his position [on the Trinity] and what had happened to him with the Christians. ʿAmr honoured him and gave him a position. He listened to his speech about the impossibility of the Trinity and he was pleased with it, and he also listened to his speech about the cessation of the world[6] and he was amazed by it; although he was using logical proofs. He listened to his philosophical expressions with sympathy although the Arabs did not know them [before] and he became fond of him. And ʿAmr  was sensible, a good listener and thinker; so he took Yaḥyā [into his company] and did not like to depart from him.

Then one day Yaḥyā said to ʿAmr, “You have control of everything in Alexandria, and have seized all sorts of things in it.” “Anything which is of use to you I will not object to, but anything which is not useful to you we have a priority over you,” said ʿAmr to him, (adding) “What do you want of them?” (Yaḥyā) said, “The books of wisdom which are in the royal stores; they have fallen under your responsibility, but you don’t have any use for them, while we do need them.” (ʿAmr) said to him: “Who gathered[7] these books, and what is (so) important about them?” and Yaḥyā answered him: “Ptolemy Philadelphus, one of the kings of Alexandria; in his reign, science and the people of science were in esteem, and he searched for the books of knowledge and ordered them to be collected, and he dedicated a special store-houses to them. They were assembled, and he entrusted the responsibility to a man named Zamira[8]; and he supported him in order that he could collect them, [after] searching for them and buying them and inciting sellers to bring them and he did so. And in a short time he had assembled 54,120 books.

When the king was informed of the [successful] collect and verified this number he told Zamīra: “Do you think that there is a book remaining in the world that we don’t have?” And Zamīra said: There are still in the world a great mass [of books], as in Sind, and in India and in Persia and in Jurjan [ancient Hyrcania] and in Armenia and Babylonia and Mosul and among the Byzantines[9]. And the king was pleased with this and he told him: “Continue in pursuing [your duty]; and so he did until the death of the king. And these books are until today kept and preserved as the responsibility of the governors working for the kings and their successors. And ‘Amr started to wish [to have] for himself what he was hearing from Yaḥyā and he was impressed with it, but he told him: “I cannot make any order without first asking the permission of the Prince of the believers[10] ‘Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb; and he wrote to ‘Umar, informing him of Yaḥyā’s speech as we have reported it and asking for his instructions about what to do. And he received a letter from ‘Umar telling him [what follows]: “As for the books you mention, if there is in it what complies with the Book of God, then it is already there and is not needed and if what is in these books contradict the Book of God there is no need for it. And you can then proceed in destroying them.” ‘Amr ibn al-‘Āṣ then ordered by law[11] that they should be dispersed in the public baths and to burn them in the bath’s heaters. And I was told that at that time several public baths used [the books] for heating, bringing some fame to new public baths which later on were forgotten afterwards and it is said that they had enough heating for six months. One who listens to what has happened can only be amazed !

Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī was a prolific writer and he wrote commentaries[12] on Aristotle, which we have mentioned earlier in the Aristotle entry at the beginning of our book. He also wrote a Refutation of Proclus[13] who had claimed the eternity[14], which is in sixteen volumes.[15] And a book on the fact that every body is finite and that its death[16] constitutes its end, in one volume. A book [called] Refutation of Aristotle, in six volumes; and a book of explanation[17] on book Lambda of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.[18] A book of Refutation against Nestorius; a book where he answers people who did not accept [faith][19], in two chapters; another book like this, in one chapter[20]. And his books of commentaries on Galen, which are mentioned in the chapter on Galen. Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī wrote [the following] in the fourth chapter of his explanation of the Physics of Aristotle, while commenting on time, where he brings an example where he says “as in our year, which is 343 of Diocletian the Copt.”[21]

The physician ‘Ubayd Allāh ibn Jibrīl ibn ‘Ubayd Allāh ibn Bakhtishū‘ said that the real name of Yaḥyā was Themistius.[22] And he says that he was good at grammar, at logic and in philosophy but did not attain the rank of these physicians, that is to say, the famous Alexandrians such as ANQYLAWS (for Antyllos?) and Stephanos and Gesius (JASYWS) and Marinus. And it is them who organized the books [i. e. Galen’s books]. Some people say NQLAWS (Nicolaus?) instead of ANQYLAWS. This is what he said. But if he meant Yaḥyā, indeed [Yaḥyā] commented on a good number of medical books, and because he was strong in philosophy he became considered a philosopher because he was one of the famous philosophers of his time. The reason he became strong in philosophy was that he was working on a boat which carried people. And because he loved knowledge, when people from the House of Knowledge and the schools[23] that were on the island of Alexandria were crossing with him, and were discussing the last lesson and the views exchanged, he would listen [to their conversation] and he started to love knowledge, and when his intention to study became stronger he thought by himself and said: “I have reached the age of forty-odd years and I have never started anything for myself, the only thing I know is seamanship, so how could I undertake anything in the field of sciences?” and as he was thinking, he saw an ant which had loaded [onto her back] the stone of a date and was carrying it, ascending her path with it, when it fell [from her back]. So she returned, took it up again, and continued in such a way until she had attained her goal and arrived where she was intending. When Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī saw that from her efforts she had reached her goal, he said, “if this weak animal can reach her goal by efforts and struggle, then of course, I would necessarily attain my goal by [putting in] some effort.” He went out and sold his boat and attended the House of Knowledge. And he started with grammar[24] and language[25] and logic, and he became excellent in these fields[26] because they were the first he learned and he adapted himself to them and he became famous in these and wrote a number of books on them, commentaries and others.

To discuss the translation, or if you want to reproduce it, please write to me at e.j.cottrell AT hum.leidenuniv.nl

[1] “Ibn al-Qifṭī,” or “al-Qifṭī,” although the latter applies rather to his father, who held from Qifṭ (ancient Gebtu) in Upper Egypt. As our author was a Muslim official who spent most of his life out of Egypt, and became the vizir in Aleppo of the Ayyubid ruler al-Malik al-‘Azīz, he cannot exactly be called “the one who held from Qifṭ” as in the Arabic usage of the kunya, or the nickname formed on the place of origin. Thus, although the use of al-Qifṭī or al-Nadīm instead of Ibn al-Qifṭī and Ibn al-Nadīm seem to be supported by some of the manuscripts carrying their names (and are adopted by an authority such as Ayman Fu’ād Sayyid in his latest edition of the Fihrist, under the title “The Fihrist of al-Nadīm” [London: al-Furqān, 2009]) I will refrain from doing so here and simply refer to the use of these two names (i. e.Ibn al-Qifṭī and Ibn al-Nadīm ) by Ibn Abī Uṣaybi’a in his Ṭabaqāt al-aṭibbā’ when quoting from their books.
[2] “al-Naḥwī” means “the Grammarian.”
[3] Severus is transliterated here as Shāwārī.
[4] “Madhhab al-naṣārā al-ya‘qūbiyya.”
[5] By Yaḥyā or by his opponents is not clear.
[6] The expression “inqiḍā’ al-dahr” literally means “end of time”. “Dahr” carries the meaning of fate and time, and for this reason probably it is used here rather than Arabic ‘ālam, “world” which may be restricted to a physical connotation. The discussion about the “eternity of the world” does not address eschatological questions, as a modern reader could wrongly understand it but rather the question  of time and eternity in relation to creation, whether creation came after a “big bang” or if time is eternal and cyclical. The Greek word translated as Lat.  “mundi” in the title of Proclus’ treatise De Aeternitate Mundi (which was refuted by John Philoponus) is “kosmos.” There was an ongoing discussion among Platonists on the cosmology of the Timaeus which was later on continued among Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.
[7] The word “jama‘a” may also mean “to edit, to publish” in this context
[8]  Probably Demetrius of Phalerum.
[9]  al-Rūm
[10] Amīr al-mu’minīn.
[11]Shara‘a.
[12] Shurūḥ.
[13] “Radd” means refutation, or simply “answer.”
[14] “al-Dahr” – i. e. the eternity of the world.
[15]Ibn al-Nadīm, Fihrist, p. 179 ed. A. F. Sayyid, reads 18 books, which agree with what we know of the number of Proclus’ arguments.
[16]Ibn al-Qifṭī reads “mawtuhu” (his death) while both Ibn al-Nadīm and Bar Hebraeus read “quwwatuhu” (its ‘potentia’). John Philoponus was known to have written a commentary on the De Generatione and Corruptione (see Ibn al-Nadīm, s. v. Aristotle, transl. Dodge, p. 604).
[17] Tafsīr, i. e. commentary.
[18] I have emended the text which does not give any satisfactory meaning otherwise. Ibn al-Nadīm reads: “kitāb tafsīr mā bāl li-Arisṭāṭālīs al-‘āshir” [al-‘āshir, the tenth, may indicate here that Lambda was considered the tenth book, which remains a possibility if some books were missing, see A. Bertolacci, ‘On the Arabic translations of Aristotle’s Metaphysics,’ in Arabic sciences and Philosophy, 15.2, 2005, 241-275 (available here: homepage.sns.it/bertolacci/Art.16_2005.pdf)]. Ibn al-Qifṭī has “kitāb tafsīr mā bāl li-Arisṭāṭālīs,” which I emend as follows: “kitāb tafsīr mā ba‘d L li-Arisṭāṭālīs”. Bar Hebraeus does not mention a bibliography.
[19] I correct Ibn al-Qifṭī’s text with the help of Ibn al-Nadīm. Ibn al-Qifṭī reads “lā ya‘rifūn” where Ibn al-Nadīm reads “lā ya‘tarifūn.”
[20] Or “epistle, treatise” (maqāla).
[21]See B. Dodge (translation), The Fihrist of al-Nadīm, New York 1970, p. 613, n. 174: this is year 627 AD.
[22]It seems that here a marginal note mentioned Themistius as the actual author of a commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics Lambda, while John Philoponus is not credited with one in Ibn al-Nadīm’s entry on Aristotle’s commentators.
[23] Bayt al-‘ilm wa al-madāris.
[24] Naḥw, probably here for ‘rhetoric’.
[25] Lugha, came to designate linguistics but may here be used for grammar.
[26] Umūr.

13 Responses to “Al-Qifti on the destruction of the library of Alexandria”


  1. Roger Pearse

    Note: copies of Lippert’s edition may be found on Google Books here.

  2. Dioscorus Boles

    Very good. One comment about footnote [1]: Qifṭ which is what was known to the ancient Egyptians as Gebtu is what is known in English as Coptos, a town in Upper Egypt that was its capital in early Islamic period until it was replace by Qus at a later stage. Saying that the name Copts is derived from this word “Qift” or “Coptos” is unfortunately repeating the error of Westerners in the Middle Ages who erroneously thought so.

    It is interesting to know that Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī had lived until the days of the Arab occupation of Alexandria in 642 AD. I think this is unlikely, and most probably John Philoponus, the Jacobite Alexandrian, who was passed as heretic by the Jacobite ecclesiastics of Alexandria, because of his beliefs on the Trinity, died in the sixth century. He could not have lived until 642 AD as he is known to have lived between 490 and 570 AD. He must have been later confused with others who carried the name of John (Yahya) and who witnessed the Arab occupation of Alexandria. Here is an article which points to three people who are often taken as Yahya al-Nahwi (John the Grammarian or John Philoponus): http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/arabic/bioY.html#yahya2

    The link gives the following references which spoke about the people wrongly identified as Yahya al-Nahwi:
    1. M. Meyerhof, “Joannes Grammatikos (Philoponos) von Alexandrien und die arabische Medizin”, Mitteilungen des Deutschen Instituts für aegyptische Altertumskunde in Kairo, vol. 2 (1932), pp. 1-21;
    2. Ullmann, Medizin, pp. 89-91; and E. Savage-Smith, Galen on Nerves, Veins and Arteries: A critical edition, edition and translation from the Arabic, with notes, glossary and in introductory essay (Ph.D. diss. University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1969; Ann Arbor, University Microfilms no. 69-22,480), pp. 17-29.

    I have no way of accessing these references, and hope one of you will be able to read them, and let us know more about the matter.

  3. Dioscorus Boles

    My gut feeling is that the confusion (about Yahya al-Nahwi of the 6th century and the Yahya of the 7th century who witnessed the burning of the library of Alexandria) arose in the mind of the person who had read Ibn Zar’ah, the Jacobite from Baghdad (d. 1008 AD), who had translated into Arabic the Greek commentary on “De usu partium”, and which was written by an Alexandrian physician who lived in Egypt in the 7th century. This person most probably got mixed up and confused the Yahya mentioned by Ibn Zar’ah with Yahya Al-Nahwi of the 6th century who erred according to the Church in the Church doctrine of the Trinity.

    This confusion was most probably passed on to others, including Al-Qifti.

    Unfortunately all or most of the writings of the 7th century Yahya, and his translator in Arabic, i.e. Ibn Zar’ah, seem to have been lost. Had they been preserved one might have found the story of the burning of the library of Alexandria by the Arabs in it.

    Who knows, the extant writings of Ibn-Zar’ah may contain a germ of the story. Does anyone have a copy of them?

  4. Roger Pearse

    Emily sent me a chapter of her thesis in which she makes the point that “John the Grammarian” is not a term used only of John Philoponus in Byzantine literature. The identification is therefore most probably wrong. One possible candidate would be John of Nikiu.

    That email came through when I was drowning with work, so I didn’t read it that closely, but I must do so again.

  5. Roger Pearse

    Interesting question about Ibn Zarah. I simply don’t know enough about Arabic literature to know who any of these people are. Nor do I know how to find out!

  6. Cottrell

    Hi Dioscorus, I plan to publish here the small chapter I have sent to Roger from my thesis where I give some references about the different Iohannes Grammaticus and some of the others that get confused with him (but I must verify and correct it first). There is a famous article by Cheikho who suggested that Yahya al Nakhwi (John of Nikou) has been confused by the Arabs with Yahya al-Nahwi. For some obvious reason, the further you go east and north the more you have other John-s who get mixed up, such as John of Daylam (as in Bayhaqi’s Tatimmat Siwan al-Hikma, which I dealt with in this small chapter). As for Ibn Zur’a, it seems that the confusion exists alerady in Ibn al Nadim’s time and in the Siwan al hikma, therefore it should be earlier than XIth c. (although Ibn Zur’a is contemporary with Ibn Nadim and with the protagonists/authorities of the Siwan). It is not clear also if John Philoponus did write medical commentaries. Some Latin commentaries on Galen carry this authority but I think it remains debated.
    Ibn Abi Usaybi’a has very interesting additions to our materials… We should translate it too !

  7. Roger Pearse

    Thanks Emily for your comment — you and Dioscorus know what you’re talking about, and I don’t!

  8. Dioscorus Boles

    Cottrell, thank you. I look forward to your publication on this.

    It is possible that John of Nikiu was the person who spoke to Amr ibn al-Ass about the Library of Alexandria, and that he was confused with John al-Nahwi (Philoponus)who had lived in the previous century and had his own views of the Trinity. But the problem wasn’t just the confusion about the two Johns’ identity – the story says “the John” who spoke about the Library to ibn al-Ass actually became Muslim. If what was meant was John of Nikiu then that was a clear fabrication.

  9. Cottrell

    @Dioscorus: Where do you see that John became Muslim ?? Not in IQ nor BH, I think. These might be the other reports about the alchemist John who would have tutored Khaled ibn Yazid ?

  10. Roger Pearse

    Doesn’t Bar Hebraeus say this at the start of his piece?

  11. Dioscorus Boles

    Roger, I think Cottrell is right. I got that wrong.

  12. Roger Pearse

    Obviously I misread it too then! :)

  13. the ancient Library of Alexander's tribute to knowledge

    […] See Al-Qifti’s account and Bar Hebraeus’ account.  The latter is apparently derived from the […]



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