Bar Hebraeus, Abd al-Latif, and the destruction of the library of Alexandria

I’m trying to find some specific sources for the claim that the Caliph Omar ordered the burning of the library at Alexandria.   Yesterday we looked at Abd al-Latif.  The source most commonly quoted is Gregory Bar Hebraeus, also known as Abu’l Faraj, writing in the 13th century.  He was the last great writer of Syriac.

Bar Hebraeus wrote two histories in Syriac; the Chronicum Syriacum, and the Chronicum Ecclesiasticum.  The former is more or less a world history, and was translated by E. Wallis Budge.  The latter is a list of ecclesiastics, of both the west and east Syriac churches, and has only been translated into Latin. 

Late in life, however, he produced a history in Arabic, which was extracted and translated from the Chronicum Syriacum, with additions specific to the Arabic version.  Excerpts from this were printed in Latin translation by the 17th century orientalist, Edward Pococke, in 1650, (an 1806 reprint is here) [1] and then the Arabic text with a Latin translation of the whole by the same editor in 1663 under the title Historia Compendiosa Dynastiarum [2].

In the 1650 text, on p.170-171 he quotes Bar Hebraeus.  But I find that I have a PDF of the 1663 edition, and so I have transcribed the Latin from it.  The following text is on p.114 (p.66 of the PDF).  I would guess that the PDF comes from the Early English Books Online (or EEBO) database, accessible only behind a paywall, but I don’t know.  I would guess that the volume also included the Arabic, which explains a page number of 181; but I don’t seem to have this.


Porro hoc tempore claruit inter Muslemios Johannes, quem vocamus nos Grammaticum, qui Alexandrinus fuit, fidemque Christianorum Jacobiticorum professus Severi doctrinam adstruebat, deinde recessit ab eo quod profitentur Christiani de Trinitate; quare convenientes eum Episcopi in urbe Metsra rogarunt, ut ab eo quod [profitebatur] rediret; cumque redire nollet, eum de gradu suo dejecerunt.  Vixitque donec caperet Amrus Ebno’lAs Alexandriam, et ad Amrum, accessit; qui, cognito quem  inscientiis locum teneret, honore ipsum affecit, audiitque de sermonibus eius Philosophicis, quibus assueti non fuerant Arabes, quod eum a stuporem redigeret, quoque percelleretur.  Fuit autem Amrus intellectu praeditus, ad res percipiendas promptus, conceptibus claris, adhaesit ergo illi, neque ab eo discessit.  Deine die quodam dixit illi Johannes, “Circumvisti tu omnia Alexandriae repositoria, omniaque rerum genera quae in iis reperiuntur obsignasti; quod ad illa igitur, quae  tibi profutura sint, nolo tibi contradicere, at quae nulli tibi usui futura sunt, nobis potius convenient.”  Dixit illi Amrus, “Quid est quo opus tibi sic,” dixit illi;  [p.181] “Libri Philosophici, qui in Gazophylaciis [Bibliothecis] Regiis reperiuntur.”  “Hoc,” inquit Amrus, “est de quo statuere, non possum. Illud [petis] de quo ego quid in mandatis dare non possum, nisi post veniam ab Imperatore fidelium Omaro Ebno’lchatsab impetratam.”  Scriptis ergo ad Omarum literis, notum ei fecit, quid dixisset Johannes, perlataeque sunt ad ipsum ab Omaro literae, in quibus scripsit,  “Quod ad libros quorum mentionem fecisti: si in illis contineatur, quod cum libro Dei conveniat, in libro Dei [est] quod sufficiat absque illo; quod si in illis fuerit quod libro Dei repugnet, neutiquam est eo [nobis] opus, jube igitur e medio tolli.”    Jussit ergo Amrus Ebno’lAs dispergi eos per balnea Alexandriae, atque illis calefaciendis comburi;  ita spatio semestri consumpti sunt.  Audi quid factum fuerit et mirare.  E medicis autem qui hoc tempore floruerunt fuit Paulus Aeginata Medicus, suo tempore celebris: …

I do not guarantee the accuracy of the above, from the wretched PDF.  But it more or less corresponds to the following translation I found online at an Islamic site here.  I have resisted the urge to tidy it up, as this probably originates from the Arabic text rather than the Latin above.

In those days Yahya al-Nahwi, who was known as Grammaticus in our language, enjoyed fame among Arabs. He was a resident of Alexandria and a Jacobite Christian who ascribed to the Savari (?) creed. In his last days he renounced the Christian faith, and all Christian scholars of Egypt gathered around him and advised him to recant, but he did not. When the scholars were disappointed they stripped him of all the offices that he held. He lived in that condition until Amr ibn al As (the Muslim commander of the army conquering Egypt) entered Egypt.

One day Yahya went to see him. Amr came to know about his learning and scholarship and he paid him great respect. He began a discourse on philosophical issues which were unknown to Arabs: His speech made a deep impression on Amr and he became fond of him. As Amr was an intelligent, wise and thoughtful man, he made Yahyaa his companion, never parting his company.

One day Yahya said to Amr, “Whatever there is in Alexandria is in your control. As to things that are useful for you we have nothing to do with them, but as to those which you may not need, my request is that you favour us by putting them at our disposal, for we deserve them more than anyone else.” Amr asked him what they were. He said: “They are the books on wisdom and philosophy that are stored in the state library”

Amr replied that he could not decide the matter himself but had to seek the Caliph’s instructions in this regard. Accordingly, he informed the Caliph of the matter and asked for instructions. The Caliph wrote: “If those books are in agreement with the Quran, we have no need of them; and if these are opposed to the Quran, destroy them.”

After receiving the reply Amr began dismantling the library. At his orders, the books were distributed among the public baths of Alexandria. Thus in a period of complete six months all the books were burnt and destroyed. Believe it, and do not be amazed. [3]

 “Savari” is of course the Severan form of monophysitism.  The translation is rather free, tho, I can see, so let’s return to Pococke’s Latin and look at the key point:

Scriptis ergo ad Omarum literis, notum ei fecit, quid dixisset Johannes, perlataeque sunt ad ipsum ab Omaro literae, in quibus scripsit,  “Quod ad libros quorum mentionem fecisti: si in illis contineatur, quod cum libro Dei conveniat, in libro Dei [est] quod sufficiat absque illo; quod si in illis fuerit quod libro Dei repugnet, neutiquam est eo [nobis] opus, jube igitur e medio tolli.”    Jussit ergo Amrus Ebno’lAs dispergi eos per balnea Alexandriae, atque illis calefaciendis comburi;  ita spatio semestri consumpti sunt.  Audi quid factum fuerit et mirare. 

Therefore having written a letter to Omar, he told him what John said, and a letter was brought to him from Omar, in which he (Omar) wrote, “About the books of which you have made mention: if there is contained in them what agrees (conveniat) with the book of God, in the book of God is what is sufficient, without them; but if (quodsi) in them there is what the book of God rejects, by no means is the material in them for us, order  them to be taken away.”  Therefore Amr ibn al-As ordered to disperse  them among the baths of Alexandria, and to burn  them for heating; so in the space of six months they were consumed.  Listen to what was done, and marvel.

This does not seem to quite say what Omar is generally supposed to say, unless I have misunderstood the Latin.  Unfortunately the words as quoted vary very considerably online: “they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous” is merely one of these.

I wonder just what the English language source is, never mind the ancient source.  I tried to find something in Gibbon, but in vain.

But using these words, I find this page which makes the following claim, helpfully escaping from the morass of hearsay by giving a reference to a real journal article:

We think that Isya Joseph did a thorough investigation of Bar Hebraeus and his role in the narrations about the Alexandria Library destruction by Amr Ibn Al-As on the command of Omar. His research was published in 1911 in The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literature (Volume 27). Here is a link to his research. 

The reader is advised to read pages 335-8. According to Isya Joseph, Bar Hebraeus says that Yahya, a Coptic philosopher, petitioned Amr Ibn Al-As to restore the royal library (Alexandria Library). Amr referred the matter to Omar. Omar ordered him to destroy the library on grounds that if what is in the library agrees with the contents of the Qur’an, then it is redundant. And, if the contents of the library do not agree with the Qur’an, then such contents are heretic. …

The assumption here is that no Muslim mentioned this library incident before Hebraeus. This latter assumption is actually mistaken. There are at least two independent sources that validate Hebraeus’s story. First, Abd-Al-Latif of Baghdad visited Egypt in the latter part of the sixth century. He mentions that the library which was in Alexandria was burned by Umru bn al-As in compliance to Omar’s orders. Second, Jamal Ad-din Al-Kufti, who was born in Kuft in upper Egypt in 565 A. H., and died in 646 A. H. , declares that the library was burned by Umru Ibn Al-As (page 335 of the above linked article).

When I look at this article by Isya Joseph, it begins with the following words:

In his At-târih (ed. 1663, p. 180), Bar Hebraeus says that when Yahya, the Coptic philosopher, petitioned Umru bn-Al-`As, the Moslem conqueror of Egypt, to restore the Royal Library to the public, the latter referred the matter to Omar bn-Al Hattab, the second Halif.  The Halif ordered him to destroy the Library on the ground that if the books were in accord with the Kuran, the Kuran alone was sufficient, and if at variance with it, there was no need of them; therefore they were to be done away with.

The page number agrees with the data above.  This phrase “in accord with the Kuran”, modified to “in accordance with” appears in various places.  Dr Joseph tells us more; that his source is George Zaidan, who he tells us published in 1904 in Cairo a History of Mohammedan Civilization.  He refers to vol. III of this, and continues:

The other authority is Jamal ad-Din Al-Kufti, wazir of Aleppo, who was born in Kuft in upper Egypt (south of Asiut) in 565 A.H., and died in 646 A.H. (op. cit., p. 42). In his Dictionary of Learned Men, a manuscript in the Hidewi Library, dating from 1197 A.H., Ibn Al-Kufti declares that the Library was burned by Umru bn Al-`As.

I don’t know whether we can access the work of Jamal ad-Din al-Kufti, which was clearly unpublished at that time.  My own knowledge of Islamic literature is too scanty to say, and a web search drew a blank.  Does anyone know?

The remainder of Dr Joseph’s article merely summarises material from Zaidan.  Doubtless the book was one difficult to access in America at that period.  I wonder whether Zaidan’s book is online.  I find his name given as Jirgi Zaydan, Zeidan, etc.  A search under the former gives a list of Arab publications.  It seems that Zaidan published in Arabic; volume IV was translated into English by David Margoliouth, and is online here, but of course that does not help us.  So Zaidan is also a dead end.

Returning to the Islamic site al-Tawid, the page also gives a further interesting quote (which it then disagrees with):

4) Ibn Khaldun, in the chapter “On the Rational Sciences and their Kinds” (al-`ulum al-‘aqliyyah wa asnafuha) of his Muqaddimah, says: “At the time of the conquest of Iran many books of that country fell into the hands of the Arabs. Sa’d ibn Abi al-Waqqas wrote to `Umar ibn al-Khattab asking his permission to have them translated for Muslims. ‘Umar wrote to him in reply that he should cast them into water, “for if what is written in those books is guidance, God has given us a better guide; and if that which is in those books is misleading, God has saved us from their evil.” Accordingly those books were cast into water or fire, and the sciences of the Iranians that were contained in them were destroyed and did not reach us.

This he references as “Pur Dawud, Yashtha, vol. ii, p. 20″; but he then rebuts the statement by examining Ibn Khaldun directly who in fact introduces the quote as follows: “It is said that these sciences reached Greece from the Persians, when Alexander killed Darius and conquered Persia, getting access to innumerable books and sciences developed by them. And when Iran was conquered (by Muslims) and books were found there in abundance, Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas wrote to `Umar . . . .”

Is Ibn Khaldun accessible, I wonder?

Just to follow up on yesterday’s post, the Islamic web page also quotes Abd al-Latif, whom he describes as a Christian writer, in a somewhat curious form:

Abd al-Latif al- Baghdad, a Christian, refers to it in his book entitled al Ifadah wa al-Nibar fi al-umur al-mushahadah wa al-hawadih al-mu`ayanah fi `ard Misr (the subject of the book is the events and conditions observed personally by the author, and is in fact, a travel account). In it while describing a `tower’ ( `amud) known as `Amad al-Sawari, the previous site of the library of Alexandria, he writes: “It is said that this tower is one of the several on which was erected a theatre, where Aristotle used to lecture and which was an academy, and here stood the library of Alexandria which was burnt by Amr ibn al-`As at the Caliph’s order.”

Whether this version or de Sacy’s is right I cannot say unless we obtain the Arabic text.  Isya Joseph also has a version of Abd al-Latif, referenced to vol. III, pp.41 ff of Zaidan.  He does not quote him explicitly, but says:

In speaking of the past events and remains in Egypt, he says that the Library which was in Alexandria was burned by Umru bn Al-`As in compliance with the order of Omar.

As we saw yesterday, this is almost the words of Abd al-Latif, word for word.  

There are several loose ends in all this.  The lack of modern editions and modern translations is a clear barrier.  I was able to find a short bibliography here.

[1] Bar Hebraeus, (tr. Edward Pococke). Specimen Historiae Arabvm; sive, Gregorii Abul Farajii Malatiensis De origine & moribus Arabum succincta narratio, in linguam latinam conversa, notisque è probatissimis apud ipsos authoribus, fusiùs illus., operâ & studio Edvardi Pocockii. Oxoniae: 1650: excudebat H. Hall. 

[2] Bar Hebraeus (=Abu’l Faraj) (tr. Edward Pococke) . Historia Compendiosa Dynastiarum Authore Gregorio abul-Pharajio Malatiensi Medico, Historiam Complectens Universalem, a Mundo Condito, Usque Ad Tempora Authoris, Res Orientalium Accuratissime Describens Arabice Edita & Latine Versa Ab Edvardo Pocockio. Imprint: Oxford: H. Hall / Ric. Davis, 1663.

[3] According to the website this is Wahid Akhtar (tr), Murtada Mutahhari-quddisa sirruh, Alleged Book Burnings in Iran and Egypt: A Study of Related Facts and Fiction, in al Tawhid vol 14, No. 1 Spring 1997, and an English translation from the Persian. The site refers to Bar Hebraeus as Abu Al-Faraj ibn al-`Ibri.  He introduces the author, mentions the Chronicum Syriacum, and adds “He also prepared a condensed version of it in Arabic under the title Mukhtasar al-duwal. It is said that all its manuscripts are incomplete and defective.”  It references the information as “35. These details are cited from Shibli Nu’mani’s Kitabkhaneh yi Iskandariyyah, Persian trans. by Fakhr-e Da`i, pp. 14-15, 38.” and “36. Ibid., pp. 16-18.” 



23 thoughts on “Bar Hebraeus, Abd al-Latif, and the destruction of the library of Alexandria

  1. Coincidently, we worked on this very subject (the library of Alexandria) two years ago in the context of a class. I remember one group in particular studied various (ancient) theories on the destruction of the library. I will see if I can find the particular sources on the involvement of the Arabs, but I seem to remember that the conclusion was that all the evidence was of extremely late date. In any event, our research left some interesting results, but unfortunately, no definitive conclusions were drawn…

  2. Roger, very interesting topic.
    The topic was discussed by Alfred Butler in his The Arab Conquest of Egypt – And the Last Thirty Years of the Roman Dominion, which was published in 1902, under the title: “The Library of Alexandria”, which can be accessed here:

    … with his translation of the discourse between Amr ibn al Ass, the conquorer of Egypt in around 640 AD, and Omar ibn al Khatab (634-644 AD), the second Caliph during whose reign Egypt was occupied by those Asiatic Arabs.

    The whole book of Butler can be got from here:

    Interestingly Butler did not think the Arabs burned the Library of Alexandria. His argument is not convincing. Admittedly, all the references to the conversation between Amr and Omar are from writers who wrote in the Middle Ages; however much of Muslim history and religion is written by late writers. What would make learned Muslim writers create lies about their idols?

    Here is a list of the writers who told the story with their books:

    1- عبد الطيف البغدادى ( الإفادة والإعتبار فى الأمور المشاهدة والحوادث المعاينة فى مصر )
    2 – أبو الحسن على بن القفطى ( أخبار العلماء فى أخيار العلماء )
    3 – أبى الفرج المالطى ( مختصر تاريخ الدول )
    4 – المقريزى ( المواعظ والاعتبار فى ذكر الخطط والآثار ).
    5 – ابن خلدون ( مقدمة ابن خلدون )

    1. Abdel Latif al-Baghdadi: Al Ifada wal i’itibar fi al omour al moshahada wal hawadith al mo’ayana fi misr
    2. Abu Al Hassan Ali ibn al Qifti: Akhbar al ulama fi akhyar al ulama
    3. Abi al Faraj al Malti: Mokhtasar tarikh al dowal
    4. Al Maqrizi: Al mawa’iz wal i’itibar fi zikr al khotat wal athar
    5. Ibn Khaldoun: Moqadimat ibn Khaldoun

    Bulter’s book contains valuable biographies of these Muslim writers.

  3. Ibn Khaldoun, who was Berber from Tunisia, had very bad opinion on the Asiatic Arabs. He writes about them in his Muqadima:

    ” العرب إذا تغلبوا على الأوطان أسرع إليها الخراب والسبب فى ذلك إنهم امة وحشية باستكمال عوائد التوحش وأسبابه فيهم فصار لهم خلقاً وجبلة … ”

    “Whenever the Arabs overcome a country desolation and destruction are quick to set foot in it since they are a savage and uncivilised nation by reason of the savage conditions in which they live, which made savagery in them like a second nature.”

  4. Dioscorus, thank you very much indeed for this information about Arabic writers, which is really interesting! These I must look into. I also appreciate the link to Butler, which I will look at in a day or so (slightly tied up this week).

  5. I’m looking at Butler, and he tells us that in vol. IV of Bury’s edition of Gibbon, p.454, note, there is discussion of the Ibn Khaldun material. This volume can be found here but is not the right one. The passage on Bar Hebraeus and the library can be found on p.64 of this edition.

  6. The writer you talked about is Ǧurğī Zaidān or Jurji Zaydan (d. 1914). He was a greek Lebanese but later moved to Egypt. He wrote a famous book in Arabic called “Tarikh al-Tamaddun al Islami” (History of Islamic Civilisation)” [Cairo, 1901 – 1906]. In this book he talked about the burning of the Library of Alexandria by Arabs.

    A biography of him is to be found at:

    I am not sure if his book is available in English translation, though I think it most probably is, since I know he is much hailed by the Orientalists. Anyway, it is available in its Arabic origin in the internet, such as at Those who are interested in it can llok at that address for تاريخ التمدن الإسلامي.

  7. Hi, I came across this conversation a bit late, but thought I’d add the following thought: Is the key question of interest (i) the time and nature of the destruction of the library, (ii) the veracity of the story concerning Omar’s order; or (iii) whether or not the islamic conquerers were responsible for the destruction, or someone else?

    I do not think the veracity of the story can be determined. Like the story of Archimedes’ brief exchange with the soldier reputed to have slain him, it will remain entombed in amber, resistant to direct inquiry, but for various reasons held closer to the realm of myth than history, simply because there is no credible link between the original text of the purported conversation and any of the extant sources.

    If the conversation is doubted but not dismissed entirely, (ii) cannot be resolved. We do not seem to have any independent direct witnesses allowing us to say anything further about (iii). However, I think we can say quite a bit more about (i).

    In casual reading some time ago I came across a cited Vatican document of a most mundane variety, an order for resources to be provided for the upkeep of the collection in the Alexandria Library. I do not recall the source or the exact date but if memory serves it was within a century or so of the Islamic conquest, or so was my impression at the time. A search of Vatican archives might turn the reference up.

    It occurred to me that this settles the question of whether the Catholics destroyed the library by order of Rome (first, such an order is not found — only an order to destroy a nearby derelict pagan shrine which had been used at some point to house some of the Alexandrian collection, and second, how is it that the Vatican would on one hand deploy resources to maintain the library and on the other order it destroyed?).

    Further, it seems that it gives us pretty good control over a window of time in which the library was destroyed. Apparently it was maintained by the Catholics up to a time not long before the Islamic conquest, and not heard of directly thereafter except in the form of stories explaining the disappearance of the library, centuries later.

    It would follow that the final destruction of the library must have taken place approximately at the time of the Islamic conquest or within a century or two afterwards.

    This does not negate the other two classical explanations for the prior destruction of the library, it only shows that neither of them could have entailed the complete destruction of the library. Islamic sources refer to 700,000 volumes, which would indicate that at the conquest there was a significant facility in place.

    I think the story of Omar and the Alexandrian Library too closely parallels that of the Persian book destruction — It is natural to infer that it was a fanciful adaptation of that story to explain the Alexandria event.

    But the window of time is strongly suggestive that the event took place at approximately that time. It is unlikely that Coptic (or Jacobian, etc) resistance burned it in defiance of the Islamic conquerers — why destroy their own cultural artifacts? What kind of point does that make? It seems that the most reasonable assumption is that the library was destroyed by deliberate action of the ruling muslims or because of an accidental fire.

    While the actual story of the conversation with Amr seems suspect, it remains credible, even likely, that the destruction of the library happened immediately after the conquest, under the caliphate of Omar, though perhaps without his knowledge or direct order. And I suspect that is all we’ll ever be able to say about the matter.

  8. Hello,

    Thank you for your comment!

    The issue on which I blogged is in fact none of these. Rather it arises from the approach which I have found it necessary to take to all controverted historical questions. That is, to assemble all the primary sources in one place, to verify them when I see them quoted, to see what story they tell, and then, and only then, to read modern authors. I don’t tend to try to resolve impossible questions — rather to do what can be done, which is to work with the sources.

    If you read anything about the library and its destruction, you quickly come across references to Bar Hebraeus. Now I know something about Arabic Christian literature. For instance I know off-hand that the text in question — the Compendiosa Historia Dynastiarum — has only been printed once, by Pococke in the 17th century, with Latin translation, and that no modern language translation exists. I also know that almost no-one knows any Christian Arabic.

    All this raised my suspicions right there and then. When people talk confidently about what Bar Hebraeus says, how do they know? They can’t consult the source. The most that anyone can do is translate the Latin translation. And Pococke is a very rare book. Until it came online, how could most people even see that? The conditions were right, therefore, for hearsay to circulate.

    Sources are my thing. So I decided to address this. At least THAT would not be a problem, once I was done. I think I saw stuff in the Wikipedia article, which I therefore pointed here.

    My first task was to locate the text, and get it translated from the Arabic directly into English. In the process, I learned of Abd el-Latif, that Bar Hebraeus was just pasting stuff from this earlier Arabic source. So I addressed this also.

    This is what you get, once you start to look seriously at sources. All that reams and reams of stuff on whether we should take the account of Bar Hebraeus seriously — all based on ignorance of the actual text, and utter ignorance of the fact that he was repeating Abd el-Latif. What value, then, in reading any of it?

    Of course there is probably more to be found in Moslem sources. Here my knowledge and ability to work runs out. I have no access to Brockelmann’s massive list of Moslem literature.

    But I think I have taken the subject forward.

    Whether or not the library was so destroyed I do not know. I feel no particular need to decide.

    One point you make gave me deep pain: you wrote, “In casual reading some time ago I came across a cited Vatican document of a most mundane variety, an order for resources to be provided for the upkeep of the collection in the Alexandria Library. I do not recall the source or the exact date but if memory serves it was within a century or so of the Islamic conquest, or so was my impression at the time. A search of Vatican archives might turn the reference up.”

    Ouch. You know, you do need to track this down? Give us something? As it stands, your comment is how hearsay gets started — an authoritative-sounding reference to an unspecified and untraceable source. I can just imagine reading stuff derived from it in the future! Now I mean no offence, and I’m sure you post in good faith — but as stated this idea does not sound at all likely. Please … get the specifics. If you can resolve this down to something solid, that would be better. But remember, in the 8th century Italy was a ruin. The Popes of that period did not spend their time worrying about pagan monuments a world away. They spent their time trying to stay alive.

  9. Hi. Thanks for the quick comeback. I see your purpose a bit more clearly now. Sorry to “give you pain”, as you say, concerning this bit of hearsay (and I agree that it is only that, coming from me … I haven’t the best memory of things of which I read snippets and then recall years later). Although I am a scholar of sorts it is not in this field or anything related to it. I only read history casually; I do not footnote my memories of what I read in this field.

    It struck me that if my claim was even close to being true it would be an extremely valuable document simply because it was not intended to be historical. Clerical records are intrinsically worthwhile sources of history simply because they have no axe to grind — they are generally clear of agendas that incline toward bias. All the sources that say something about the actual destruction of the library seem to have an agenda, and therefore must be read with caution; the unintended meaning in them must be gleaned. For instance, from the Abd el-Latif clipping one can infer that Abd understood a need to explain the disappearance of the temple within a certain window of time. There’s a lot about this that we can’t infer, but it does mean, for one, that the library would have been totally obliviated by his time, and that to him and his contemporaries, some aspect of of his story made the most credible explanation. To be more direct, we can infer that the library wasn’t destroyed in the 13th Century, for example, because they were busy explaining its disappearance in the twelfth. In the same way we can be pretty sure that Caesar’s fire didn’t destroy the thing because of later references to the library whose purpose wasn’t to discredit the Julian story, but as byproducts of something else they were saying.

    As to the unlikeliness of the document, I see your point, but I must say that the Roman Catholics have always had a certain reverence toward literature, and the Church has never been known for conservatism in its use of funds when it came to artifacts and sites it considered to have value. Regardless of the origin of the Library — was it really pagan as you say, or largely secular in nature despite the nearby pagan shrines? — it does appear that the Vatican considered it a possession and was concerned over centuries with its upkeep, so can we really judge with confidence that they would trim it from their budget in a time of austerity? While this would make practical sense I’m not sure it is a foregone conclusion based on Vatican behavior.

    But now I’m motivated to see whether I can track that document down again, or a reference to it. If I do you’ll be sure to hear from me. Thanks for the interesting discussion.

  10. One of the reasons why I blog is that it gives me somewhere to note down interesting things I come across. At least that way, if I need to know them again, I know that a Google search will find them.

    Do see what you can find. I’m just an interested amateur myself.

  11. excellent, well informed discussion! You may have found your pdf online by now; the text is now open on Google Books, Historia Compendiosa Dynastiarum, Volume 1, 114
    By Barhebraeus, Edward Pococke (1663)

    In “Audi quid factum fuerit et mirare” Gibbon reads sit instead of fuerit; in a high rhetorical phrase he doesn’t even believe, , I don’t get the practical difference between the third-person singular present active subjunctive and the third-person singular perfect active subjunctive

  12. Indeed I have, but I appreciate the link. The Arabic texts remain as inaccessible as ever, tho.

    “Audi quid factum fuerit et mirare” is translated “Read and wonder”. Literally: “Hear (audi, imperative) what (quid) was done (perfect as complete action, subjunctive as verb of subordinate clause), et (and) mirare (wonder, imperative).

    I don’t think Gibbon renders “quid factum fuerit” at all. “Hear what is done (sit) and wonder” would again become “Read and wonder” in English.

  13. I may have come to this post rather late, but I am surprised that the authoritative work by E. A. Parsons, The Alexandrian Library (Amsterdam: The Elsevier Press, 1952) has not been consulted, for it answers most of the questions in this post. The source of the famous Bar Hebraeus quote was Ibn al-Qifti (referred to above as “Jamal ad-Din al-Kufti”) in his work History of the Wise (referred to above as Dictionary of Learned Men). Parsons includes a long excerpt (pp. 390-92) specially translated by Dr. Hussein Mones, assistant prof. at Fouad I Univ., Cairo. The key portion is as follows:

    Amr felt that what Yahya said was important and kept wondering about it and said: “I cannot dispose of these books without the permission of Umar ibn al-Khittab.” He then wrote to Umar, telling him all that Yahya said and asked him to instruct him as to what he should do with them. Umar in his answer said “…and as for the books you mentioned: if their contents agree with the Book of Allah [the Koran] we can dispense with them, as the Book of Allah is — in this case — more than enough. If they contain anything against what is in the Book of Allah, there is no need to keep them. Go on and destroy them.” Amr began, upon receiving these instructions, to distribute them among the baths of Alexandria to be burnt in their stoves [also heaters]. The number of these baths was well known, but I forget it. It is related that he baths took six months to burn them. Hear what happened and wonder!

    There is also an alternate translation by Gergy Zeydan (referred to above as Jirgi Zaydan) in Appendix A (pp. 416-7). The discussions by both Parsons and Zeydan are well worth consulting for they discuss other Arabic sources as well, and address the issue as to whether the burning actually occurred. They both conclude that it did, though the latter took “a few decades,” after “constant research,” to change his opinion.

  14. Roger, just so you have it, here’s Pococke’s Arabic (p. 180-1 in Pococke’s Arabic text, as you surmised). I’ve included the side notes. Note Pococke prints yā’ for tā’ marbūta and doesn’t print hamzas:
    وفي هذا الزمان اشتهر بين الاسلاميين يحي المعروف عندنا بغرماطيقوس اي النحوي [Johannes Grammaticus] اسكندرانيا يعتقد اعتقاد النصاري اليعقوبية وبشيد عقيدة ساوري ثم رجع عما يعتقده النصاري في التثليث (؟) فاجتمع اليه الاساقفة بمصر وسالوه الرجوع عما هو عليه فلم يرجع فاسقطوه عن منزلته وعاش الي ان فتح عمرو بن العاص مدينة الاسكندرية ودخل علي عمرو وقد عرف موضعه من العلوم فاكرمه عمرو وسمع من الفاظه الفلسفية التي لم تكن للعرب بها انسة ما ماله ففتن به وكان عمر عاقلا حسن الاستماع صحيح الفكر فلازمه وكان لا يفارقه ثم قال له يحي يوما انك قد احطت بحواصل الاسكندرية وحتمت علي كل الاصناف الموجودة بها فما لك به انتفاع فلا اعارضك فيه وما لا انتفاع لك به فنحن اولي به فقال له عمرو ما الذي تحتاج اليه [قال]|[181][Dyn. IX] قال كتب الحكمة التي خزاين الملوكية فقال له عمرو مالا يمكنني ان امر فيها الا بعد استيذان امير المومنين عمر ابن الخطاب وكتب الي عمر وعرفه قال يحي فورد عليه عمر يقول فيه واما الكتب التي ذكرتها فان كان فيها ما يوافق كتاب الله ففي كتاب الله عنه غني وان كان فيها يخالف كتاب الله فلا حاجة عليه فتقدم باعدامها [Bibliotheca Alexandrina quod fatum sortita] فشرع عمرو ابن العاص في تفريقها علي حمامات الاسكندرية واحراقها في مواقدها * فاستيقدت في مدة ستة اشهر فاسمع ما جري واعجب
    Pococke’s 17th C. Arabic fount is a little unclear occasionally, but I’m using my own copy of the 1663 edition so there’re no scanning issues. I can send you photos if you’d like to proofread the Arabic.

Leave a Reply