1st century inscription mentioning the library at Alexandria

A tweet drew my attention to a monument by a certain Tiberius Claudius Babillus which mentions the library of Alexandria.  There is a Wikipedia article about him here, asserting that he died in 59 AD (we will all be wary of anything in this source I am sure). An image is online at Wikimedia Commons here:


The page gives the following source information:

Source: “Forschungen in Ephesos”, Vol. III, Vienna 1923, p.128.
References: IK-17-01, 03042 = AE 1924, 00078 = AE 1927, +00156 = AE 1933, +00251b = AE 1934, +00001

From which I infer that the inscription is from Ephesus.  The extremely formulaic nature of Roman inscriptions means that the image fills in some of the missing chunks, where these are routine.  There is a clear mention of “(Alexandri)na Bybliothece”

It would be nice to know more about this monument.


A second connection between al-Qifti and Bar Hebraeus

We all know that Bar Hebraeus described the destruction of the library of Alexandria by the Moslems, and we have seen a very similar story at somewhat greater length given by the Moslem writer al-Qifti translated for us yesterday.

Quite by accident I have come across a mention of an example where Bar Hebraeus displays knowledge of al-Qifti’s book On Learned Men.  It’s in Shlomo Pines An Arabic version of the Testimonium Flavianum (1971), which I came across while scanning and throwing out old articles and sat down to read a few minutes ago.  I had, in truth, forgotten how mind-numbingly dull that paper was, interesting tho the subject is.  But then I reached the appendix on p.73, Galen on Christians, according to Agapius.  This reads as follows (bits in [] are me):

In a portion of a book bearing the title Galen On Jews and Christians [Oxford, 1949, p.15-6, 57f., 87-98], Professor Walzer treats of a text attributed to Galen by some Oriental, Moslem, and Christian authors, which refers very favourably to the Christian way of life. All these authors but one state that the text occurred in Galen’s summary of Plato’s Republic. The single exception is Bar Hebraeus, who both in a Syriac and in an Arabic work tells us that the text is extracted from Galen’s summary of the Phaedo. …

[Walzer:] “… it is almost certain that the substitution of the Phaedo for the Republic is due to Bar Hebraeus’ notorious carelessness in such matters and of no significance whatever. In addition, Bar Hebraeus is by no means an ‘independent witness’, since his discussion of Galen’s life is nothing but an abridged copy taken from the History of Learned Men by Ibn al-Qifti (published after 1227 C.E.), who, again, attributes the statement to Galen’s summary of the Republic. Bar Hebraeus can therefore be eliminated from future discussions of this statement.”

If we know that Bar Hebraeus was excerpting material from al-Qifti, then we may reasonably suppose that the passage about the library of Alexandria has a similar provenance, surely? 


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.
[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.


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.


al-Qifti and the destruction of the library of Alexandria

My enquiry in NASCAS brought a note from Prof. Samir Khalil, that the Bar Hebraeus reference is actually just a copy of the statement in al-Qifti.  Dr Khalil published on this in «L’utilisation d’al-Qifṭī par la Chronique arabe d’Ibn al-‘Ibrī († 1286)», in : Samir Khalil Samir (Éd.), Actes du IIe symposium syro-arabicum (Sayyidat al-Bīr, septembre 1998). Études arabes chrétiennes, = Parole de l’Orient 28 (2003) 551-598.

If anyone reading this has a PDF copy of this article, please let me know!


Let’s just do Bar Hebraeus on the library of Alexandria!

I’ve weakened and put out a tender in the NASCAS Christian Arabic group, for a translation from the Arabic of Bar Hebraeus’ words about the library of Alexandria.  I’ve offered $30, which should be ample.  Let’s get a translation made, and have done with it.

In case anyone is interested, a PDF of the pages from Pococke’s edition is here.

We need an accurate translation, made from the Arabic to academic standard.  I’ll just give it away, of course, once it is done.


Butler on Bar Hebraeus and the destruction of the library of Alexandria

A. J. Butler, The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of the Roman Dominion, Oxford, 1902, Chapter 25, p.401 gives the following version of the story from Bar Hebraeus, or Abu’l Faraj, once again not quite in verbatim quotation:

The story as it stands in Abu’l Faraj [1] is well known, and runs as follows. There was at this time a man, who won high renown among the Muslims, named John the Grammarian. He was an Alexandrian, and apparendy had been a Coptic priest, but was deprived of his office owing to some heresy by a council of bishops held at Babylon. He lived to see the capture of Alexandria by the Arabs, and made the acquaintance of `Amr, whose clear and active mind was no less astonished than delighted with John’s intellectual acuteness and great learning. Emboldened by `Amr’s favour, John one day remarked, ‘You have examined the whole city, and have set your seal on every kind of valuable: I make no claim for aught that is useful to you, but things useless to you may be of service to us: ‘What are you thinking of?’ said `Amr. ‘The books of wisdom,’ said John, ‘which are in the imperial treasuries: ‘That,’ replied `Amr, ‘is a matter on which I can give no order without the authority of the Caliph: A letter accordingly was written, putting the question to Omar, who answered: ‘Touching the books you mention, if what is written in them agrees with the Book of God, they are not required: if it disagrees, they are not desired. Destroy them therefore: On receipt of this judgement, `Amr accordingly ordered the books to be distributed among the baths of Alexandria and used as fuel for heating: it took six months to consume them. ‘ Listen and wonder,’ adds the writer.

Such is the story as it makes its appearance in Arabic literature. Abu’l Faraj wrote in the latter half of the thirteenth century, and he says nothing about the source from which he derived the story : but he is followed by Abu’l Fida in the early fourteenth century, and later by Makrizi [2]. I t is true that `Abd al Latif, who wrote about 1200, mentions incidentally the burning of the Library by Omar’s order, and, giving no details, seems to take the fact for granted. This allusion seems to show that in his day the tradition was current.  …

Let us, however, examine the story as it stands. It is undeniably picturesque, and the reply of Omar has the true Oriental flavour. This really is the strongest point about it. But unfortunately precisely the same reply of Omar is recorded in connexion with the destruction of books in Persia [3]…

[1] Ed. Pococke, p. 114 tr. and 180 text. Renaudot thinks the story has an element of untrustworthiness: Gibbon discusses it rather briefly and disbelieves it. Pococke translates only the Arabic abridgement of Abu’l Faraj. In the Nineteenth Century for October, 1894. there is an article on the question by Vasudeva Rau, who alleges (po 560) that the story is not in the original Syriac, and probably was a later interpolation.The abridgement, however, was written by Abu’l Faraj himself, and the suggestion of interpolation is a mere conjecture. Nor would the fact, if established, be material. The article generally is based rather on a priori argument than research, and consequently is not of much value.

[2] This author, like `Abd al Latif, reports the story by way of allusion, taking it for granted. Thus speaking of the Serapeum he says, ‘Some think that these columns upheld the Porch of Aristotle, who taught philosophy here: that it was a school of learning: and that it contained the library which was burnt by `Amr on the advice of the Caliph Omar’ (Khitat, vol. i. p. 159).

[3]  See Prof. Bury’s ed. of Gibbon, vol. v. p. 454 n., where Ibn Khaldun, quoted byHaji Khalfah, is given as the authority. I may add that the feelings of the Muslims towards the books of the idolatrous Persians would be very different from their feelings towards the books of the Christians. In their early history at least the Muslims disliked the destruction of the written name of God.

This gives us the text of Makrizi, which is good, and yet another inaccurate translation of Pococke, which is not.  I begin  to think that what we need to do is collect the Arabic text of all the witnesses, and get them translated afresh and accurately.


Gibbon on Bar Hebraeus and the destruction of the Alexandrian library

I have now located the passage where Gibbon discusses the destruction of the library of Alexandria by the Arabs, as recounted by Bar Hebraeus, and thereby gave rise to a large progeny of English-language quotations of the words of Omar given in it.  It may be found here.  Unfortunately I haven’t found a reliable volume/page number reference.

I should deceive the expectation of the reader, if I passed in silence the fate of the Alexandrian library, as it is described by the learned Abulpharagius. The spirit of Amrou was more curious and liberal than that of his brethren, and in his leisure hours, the Arabian chief was pleased with the conversation of John, the last disciple of Ammonius, and who derived the surname of Philoponus from his laborious studies of grammar and philosophy. (115) Emboldened by this familiar intercourse, Philoponus presumed to solicit a gift, inestimable in his opinion, contemptible in that of the Barbarians – the royal library, which alone, among the spoils of Alexandria, had not been appropriated by the visit and the seal of the conqueror. Amrou was inclined to gratify the wish of the grammarian, but his rigid integrity refused to alienate the minutest object without the consent of the caliph; and the well-known answer of Omar was inspired by the ignorance of a fanatic. “If these writings of the Greeks agree with the book of God, they are useless, and need not be preserved: if they disagree, they are pernicious, and ought to be destroyed.” The sentence was executed with blind obedience: the volumes of paper or parchment were distributed to the four thousand baths of the city; and such was their incredible multitude, that six months were barely sufficient for the consumption of this precious fuel. Since the Dynasties of Abulpharagius (116) have been given to the world in a Latin version, the tale has been repeatedly transcribed; and every scholar, with pious indignation, has deplored the irreparable shipwreck of the learning, the arts, and the genius, of antiquity. For my own part, I am strongly tempted to deny both the fact and the consequences. The fact is indeed marvellous. “Read and wonder!” says the historian himself: and the solitary report of a stranger who wrote at the end of six hundred years on the confines of Media, is overbalanced by the silence of two annalist of a more early date, both Christians, both natives of Egypt, and the most ancient of whom, the patriarch Eutychius, has amply described the conquest of Alexandria.(117)

115. Many treatises of this lover of labor (=philoponus) are still extant, but for readers of the present age, the printed and unpublished are nearly in the same predicament. Moses and Aristotle are the chief objects of his verbose commentaries, one of which is dated as early as May 10th, A.D. 617, (Fabric. Bibliot. Graec. tom. ix. p. 458 – 468.) A modern, (John Le Clerc,) who sometimes assumed the same name was equal to old Philoponus in diligence, and far superior in good sense and real knowledge.

116. Abulpharag. Dynast. p. 114, vers. Pocock. Audi quid factum sit et mirare. It would be endless to enumerate the moderns who have wondered and believed, but I may distinguish with honour the rational scepticism of Renaudot, (Hist. Alex. Patriarch, p. 170: ) historia … habet aliquid ut απιστον ut Arabibus familiare est.

117. This curious anecdote will be vainly sought in the annals of Eutychius, and the Saracenic history of Elmacin. The silence of Abulfeda, Murtadi, and a crowd of Moslems, is less conclusive from their ignorance of Christian literature.

It is remarkable that this does not involve a verbatim translation of Pococke’s text.  But such a translation seems elusive.  Could it be that few people can work out who the Severan monophysites were, so omit the words?


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.” 



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.