All About History

Which story is true?

We cross examine the three likely culprits



Having pursued his enemy Pompey into Egypt and become embroiled in the dynastic civil war between Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII, Caesar found himself trapped by the Egyptian fleet in Alexandria in 48 BCE. He set fire to the fleet, but the fire spread to the docks and the nearby Library of Alexandria, destroying its delicate papyrus contents.


In 391 CE, under orders of Pope Theophilus of Alexandria, a crackdown on pagan worship, imagery and study was authorised. The Library of Alexandria became a target since it was attached to the great pagan temple of the city, the Serapeum. A mob stormed the building, sending its priests and priestesse­s fleeing for safety. In some accounts the mathematic­ian and philosophe­r Hypatia was killed in the attacks.


In 642 the city of Alexandria was captured by the Rashidun Caliphate as a Muslim army swept through the region and took Egypt. Under the orders of Caliph Omar, the army looked to attack the Library of Alexandria because the contents either contradict­ed the Quran, which would be blasphemou­s, or agreed with it, in which case the content was redundant. The scrolls were burned as fuel for the city’s bathhouses.


Caesar himself described the burning of the ships at Alexandria but made no mention of the fire spreading. Contempora­ry and nearcontem­porary historians didn’t mention it either. Books in storage at the docks may have burned, but the Library almost certainly survived.


For a start, the library of the Serapeum was separate from the great, or royal, library we typically refer to as the Library of Alexandria. If this attack did take place, it wasn’t against the main collection of knowledge in the city. Second, sources make no mention of any library when the temple was converted to Christiani­ty so it may already have been defunct.


There is no discernibl­e evidence for these claims, which are unclear at best and outright propaganda against the Muslims at worst. Not least, it’s based on the premise that the Muslims were somehow against the availabili­ty and study of knowledge outside the Quran, but many of the texts, especially Jewish and Christian works, would be no less sacred to Muslims.

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