Something tragic happened in Tripoli, Lebanon, last Friday: the historic Al-Saeh library that housed up to 80,000 books was burned to the ground, leaving two-thirds of its contents destroyed. According to an AFP report, it was torched by “unknown assailants” who were angered by a pamphlet “discovered inside one of the books at the library that was insulting to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.”
The image of flames licking the walls of the library and the heated sense of panic in the atmosphere in Tripoli reminded me of the destruction of the Great Library in Alexandria during Cleopatra’s reign (exact dates differ amongst scholars). The library was considered the largest and the best of the ancient civilized world containing works by the greatest minds, such as Socrates and Plato. It was in Alexandria that “the circumference of the earth was first measured, the sun fixed at the center of the solar system…the foundations of anatomy and physiology established,” writes Stacy Schiff, author of Cleopatra: A Life. More than just a knowledge bank, it was a symbol of Egypt’s prowess and embodied the Egyptian soul.
Many scholars suggest that the destruction of the Great Library might not have been one single event but a slow, painful deterioration of the institution during a volatile era. In fact, Schiff points out that by the time Cleopatra was queen, the library was “no longer in its prime.” Could it have been that the fate of the Great Library perhaps ran parallel to the demise of ancient Egypt before it fell into Roman hands?
The fact that the destruction of the library in Alexandria is considered historically significant highlights a very important lesson: a library is not just a collection of books. For ancient Egypt, the Great Library was the lens through which to explore the world and a symbolic representation of that civilization.
Today, around the world, “a library is a different kind of reality, which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal,” as author Zadie Smith put it in her poignant, beautiful defence of libraries. They are not economical, and they shouldn’t be. Nor are they convenient, considering that almost every book can be found online and on the go. Yet they still have an intrinsic value. Libraries are collections of culture and history; they are spaces with access to centuries of wisdom, fantasies and knowledge; they are sanctuaries that offer respite from the daily grind. The very existence of a library within a community indicates that its people value the profound and moral, rather than just greed, power and status. For Tripoli, the loss of the Al-Saeh library means not just a loss of a landmark but also the loss of social cohesion. And the lack of social cohesion then leads to social upheaval, chaos and animosity.
Not many media institutions picked up on this incident. The logic is if no one is injured, it’s not newsworthy. I strongly disagree; the loss of a library destroys where a civilization is coming from and confounds where it is going. The loss of a library is the loss of a fruitful, peaceful society.
This post was originally published on Thinking in Practice.