Bar Hebraeus on the destruction of the library of Alexandria

Dioscorus Boles has kindly translated the passage describing the destruction in Bar Hebraeus, Historia Compendiosa Dynastiarum. He made it directly from the Arabic of Pococke’s edition — the only edition — p.180-1, and made it as literal as possible.  Here it is.

And in this time Yahya (1) who is known to us by the name Grammaticus (2), which means al Nahawi (the Grammarian), became famous with the Muslims. He was Alexandrian and used to believe in the faith of the Jacobite (3) Nazarenes (4) , and confess the beliefs of Saweres (5) . He then recanted what the Nazarenes used to believe in the Trinity, and the bishops met up with him in Misr (6) and requested him to return back from what he was at, and he did not return back to their faith, and he lived until Amr ibn al-Ass (7) conquered the city of Alexandria. Amr entered Alexandria and got to know about Yahya’s position in sciences, and Amr was generous to him; and he heard his philosophical sayings which the Arabs were not familiar with, and he became fond of him. And Amr was sensible, a good listener and thinker; so Yahya accompanied Amr and did not depart from him. Then one day Yahya said to Amr, “You have control of everything in Alexandria, and seized all sorts of things in it. Anything which is of use to you I will not object to it, but anything which is not useful to you we deserve it more.” Amr said, “What things you are in need of?” He replied, “The books of wisdom that are in the royal stores.” Amr said to him, “I cannot issue orders about them until the Amir of the Believers, Omar ibn al-Khattab (8), gives his permission.” And Amr wrote to Omar and told him of what Yahya had said. Omar wrote to him saying, “About the books you have mentioned, if there is something in them that goes along with what is in the Book of Allah (9), the Book of Allah suffices; and if in them there is something that contradicts the Book of Allah, then there is no need for them.” And he ordered that they get destroyed; and so Amr ibn al-As started distributing them to the baths of Alexandria to be burned in their furnaces, and so the books heated the baths for a period of six month. Listen to what had happened, and marvel at it!

(1) Yahya is the Arabic form for Yohanna or Yo’annis, which is translated John in the English.  The writer says Yahya is known to us by the name Al-Nahawi. Nahawi in Arabic comes from Nahwu, which means grammar, and nahawi means Grammarian (Grammaticus).
(2) John the Grammarian is also known as John of Alexandria and John Philoponus. He is known to have lived in Alexandria in the sixth century (490 to 570 AD). This makes it impossible for him to meet with Amr ibn al-As, the occupier of Egypt in 640 AD. It is, however, clear that Bar Hebraeus does mean this same person as he talks about his differences with the Church of Alexandria in the doctrine of the Trinity, which John Grammarian is known to have held (see: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philoponus/#4.3). My gut feeling is that Hebraeus is confusing two philosophers here.
(3) The non-Chalcedonians, after the split of 451 AD, were known from the six century as Jacobites, because of the influence of Yacoub al-Barad’i (Jacob Baradaeus), Bishop of Edessa (d. 578 AD), who under the guidance of Saweres al-Antaki (Severus of Antioch), the exiled Patriarch of Antioch (512-518 AD) [See for Jacob Bardaeus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob_Baradaeus; and for Severus of Antioch: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Severus_of_Antioch].
(4) Nazarenes is the name given by Muslims to Christians, though to be derived from Nazareth.
(5) See Note iii.
(6) Misr is the name given by the Arabs to Memphis, which corresponds now to the area of and around Old Cairo.
(7) Amr ibn al-As is the Muslim leader who conquered Egypt in about 640 AD, and ruled it twice (in 639-646 AD and 658-664 AD).
(8) Omar ibn al-Khatab is the second successor of Muhammad (634-644 AD). During his rule Egypt was occupied by the Arabs.
(9) Kitab Allah, Book of Allah, is the Koran.

Thank you very much, Dioscorus for making this!  Would you confirm that you release this into the public domain?  I would like people to be able to circulate it around the web, you see.  (He first uploaded this for us all here, but I wanted to make it a main post).

A French scholar has been telling me about a similar passage in al-Qifti, who therefore seems to be the source used by Bar Hebraeus.  She is translating this from the Lippert edition.  I have the first half, and it really is very similar indeed.  When it is done, I will post it.

UPDATE: Discorus Boles has confirmed that this is public domain – thank you! 

A French scholar advises me that “Amr ibn al Ass” should be Ayn-Alif-Sad, usually transliterated `âs.  So I have revised this to one “s” accordingly.

6 thoughts on “Bar Hebraeus on the destruction of the library of Alexandria

  1. The ibn al-Ass (son of al-Ass) thing is interesting – I think it suits him better. Anyway, as with Muhammad his father wasn’t known (and that is derived directly or indirectly from what is in authentic Islamic books)so we don’t know exactly whether it should be ibn al-`âs, ibn al-Ass or something else.

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