Revival of the Alexandrian Library

By Paul Johnson

The future relevance of the theosophical heritage is confirmed by a plan recently announced for the rebuilding of the Alexandrian Library. Library Journal for February 1, 1988 reported:

The rebuilding will take place close to what archaeologists believe is the original site; the complex will include a conference center, a research library, a school of information studies, and housing for visiting scholars. The project, constructed on 48,000 acres with an unobstructed view of the Mediterranean Sea, is expected to be completed in 1995.

An international appeal for funds similar to those made for the preservation of the Acropolis and the treasures of Venice has been launched by UNESCO. The American Library Association passed a resolution of support of the revival of the Alexandrian library at Council in San Francisco last summer. — 113:2:13

What relevance does this have to the future of theosophical values and teachings? Alexandria can be regarded as a precursor of the modem theosophical movement, as indicated by H. P. Blavatsky in her discussion of Ammonias Saccas and his eclectic theosophical system. Alexandria is one likely source of the basic synthesis of Eastern and Western wisdom which is the foundation of all HPB's teaching. The Library at Alexandria was the most celebrated library of the ancient world, and its repeated destruction the greatest blow to preservation of the ancient wisdom which could possibly have been dealt.

The Library, which flourished between 300 B.C. and 400 A.D., is believed to have been founded by Ptolemy I Soter (reigned 323-285 B.C.) in conjunction with a Museum which served as an international academy. The Library's collection included Greek works as well as works translated from other languages. Under Ptolemies II and III the Library was expanded and a subsidiary library added. The total collection exceeded 500,000 papyrus rolls before it was damaged by fire during the siege of Alexandria by Julius Caesar in 48 B.C. In a civil war during the late third century A.D., the main library was ravaged, but the auxiliary collection at Serapeum lasted until 391 A.D. "when Christians, following the edict of Emperor Theodosius, destroyed the temple and its literary treasures" (Encyclopedia Americana 1:544). Whatever was left was finally destroyed when the Muslims sacked Alexandria in the year 645 A.D.

In both Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, HPB asserts that this was a temporary setback, rather than a permanent defeat, for those who valued the wisdom of the ancients:

There are strange traditions current in various parts of the East — on Mount Athos and in the Desert of Nitria, for instance — among certain monks, and with learned Rabbis in Palestine.... that not all the rolls and manuscripts, reported in history to have been burned by Caesar, by the Christian mob in 389, and by the Arab general Amru, perished as is commonly believed; . . .
No more do sundry very learned Copts scattered all over the East in Asia Minor, Egypt, and Palestine believe in the total destruction of the subsequent libraries. — Isis II:27-28

In her Introductory to The Secret Doctrine, HPB elaborates:

It has been claimed in all ages that ever since the destruction of the Alexandrian Library, every work of a character that might have led the profane to the ultimate discovery and comprehension of some of the mysteries of the Secret Science, was, owing to the combined efforts of the members of the Brotherhoods, diligently searched for. It is added, moreover, by those who know, that once found, save three copies left and stored safely away, such works were all destroyed. In India, the last of the precious manuscripts were secured and hidden during the reign of the Emperor Akbar.
It is maintained, furthermore, that every sacred book of that kind, whose text was not sufficiently veiled in symbolism, or which had any direct references to the ancient mysteries, after having been carefully copied in cryptographic characters, such as to defy the art of the best and cleverest palaeographer, was also destroyed to the last copy. SD I:xxiii-xxiv

Perhaps it is naive to regard the project of the Egyptian government as much more than a symbolic gesture. All the king's horses and men cannot restore what was lost in the destruction of the Alexandrian Library. Yet, as HPB insists, evolution proceeds from within outward. Was not the entirety of her lifework a rebuilding of the purpose and spirit of the Alexandrian Library? The modern theosophical movement was intended in large part to reimbody the Alexandrian synthesis. If we dismiss the rebuilding of the Library on the physical plane as an intellectual achievement alone, we are denying ourselves the joy of celebrating a symbolic fulfillment of our deepest yearnings as theosophists. HPB clearly states that the destruction of the Alexandrian Library marked the beginning of an era when the "mysteries of the secret science" were deliberately hidden from unworthy humanity. Her work, then, was the partial unveiling of long-hidden truths. Can we see the rebuilding of the Library through international cooperation as a powerful statement that humanity is once more ready to accept and appreciate the ancient wisdom we call theosophy?

Even in the century cycle of modern theosophical history, we can discern a pattern of destruction and rebuilding. HPB's unique role in history has been misinterpreted through reductionism on the one hand and mythmaking on the other. The world at large has dismissed her as unworthy of serious interest, while theosophists have not yet convinced it otherwise. But as we approach the end of the century, there is a rising tide of interest in HPB and theosophy. Could the revival of the Library at Alexandria be inspired by the same inner current? The centrality of Egypt in HPB's association with these "very learned Copts" in her early years would make it an apt setting for an event of such theosophical

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1989; copyright © 1989 Theosophical University Press)

Back Issues Menu