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Books and Civilization

by Khaled Ahmed

The Library of Alexandria

A new book explores how books and libraries have been targeted throughout history to suppress knowledge and push particular ideologies

Richard Ovenden, the senior executive of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford since 2014, has penned a gripping narrative on the historical penchant to destroy “offensive” books, Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge. His ancient world survey compels us to look at Pakistan’s own handling of books as an ideological state.

Once flourishing under the British Raj, public libraries in Pakistan have declined largely due to ideological reasons. A report prepared by a group of university professors in 2004 made this observation on the state of libraries in Pakistan:

“A new consciousness of communication freedom has opened the window to the global village where the individual is free to access whatever is available on screen. The Internet is a highly private and attractive channel of communication where people are free to see and express themselves on any subject in any manner they deem fit. On the other hand, this censor-free flow of information poses threats to local culture and values. With the help of modern communication technology, developed countries are transforming the social systems of developing countries, and for this reason, some societies have started to oppose the globalization of knowledge. Unless libraries provide a free and competitive environment for knowledge seekers, they will not survive in this new society.”

The daily Dawn, in a report published on Jan. 11, 2002, added: “Inaugurated by Lord Aitchison in 1884, the Punjab Public Library in Lahore was the pride of the city until a few years after Partition, when it fell on bad days. A combination of factors, including perennial shortage of funds, mismanagement, corruption and managerial sloth, pilferage of books and lack of space contributed to the plummeting of standards at this once efficient library.”

Ideology and books

The view of Pakistani academics is significant alongside the general public plaint of libraries in the country not being properly maintained; containing unorganized texts; missing important books due to pilferage or a particular librarian’s prejudice. As happened in the Soviet Empire in the 20th century, an “ideological” slant prevents libraries from coming into their own as founts of knowledge. The lament by university teachers notes that libraries in Pakistan actually look at “knowledge” as a subversive penetration into national environment. Add to this ideological prejudice and the tendency to regard “free inquiry” books as blasphemous, and you have libraries that block knowledge instead of spreading it.

Prior to Partition, libraries flourished in what is now Pakistan. In Karachi, you could find Liaquat Hall Library, founded in 1851; Khaliq Dinna Hall Library, founded in 1856; and the Civil Secretariat Library. For Lahore, there was the Christian College Library, founded in 1866; the Punjab Public Library, founded in 1884; the Punjab University Library, founded in 1908; and the Dayal Singh Trust Library, founded in 1928. Likewise, Peshawar had the Islamia College Library, founded in 1913; Quetta had the Fort Sandeman Library, founded in 1884; and Khairpur had the Divisional Public library, founded in 1903.

These 10 top libraries were proudly acknowledged for decades. However, with the growth of “ideology,” the instinct to “censor” grew.

Mankind started compiling texts into books from around 3,000 BC. Those early archives, and the documents they contain, provide us with a surprising amount of detail on how those societies operated. In other documents, people recorded their thoughts, ideas, observations and stories, which were also preserved in the earliest libraries. This process of organizing knowledge soon required the development of specialized skills, which included the recording of knowledge and techniques for copying.

Over time these tasks resulted in the creation of professional roles loosely similar to those of the librarian or archivist. ‘Librarian’ comes from the Latin word liber meaning ‘book.’ The flip side of this, of course, is that the significance of books and archival material is recognized not only by those who wish to protect knowledge, but also by those who wish to destroy it. Throughout history, libraries and archives have been subject to attack. At times librarians and archivists have risked and lost their lives for the preservation of knowledge.

Destruction of books

Officials in South Africa’s apartheid regime destroyed documents on a massive scale. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was hampered by this; in their final report they devoted an entire section to the destruction of records. They put it bluntly: “The story of apartheid is, amongst other things, the story of the systematic elimination of thousands of voices that should have been part of the nation’s memory.” The report placed blame on the government, noting it was tragic that the former regime had deliberately and systematically destroyed a huge body of state records and documentation in an attempt to remove incriminating evidence and sanitize the history of oppressive rule.

Xenophon in his famous work, Anabasis (The March of the Ten Thousand), recounted the dramatic story of how he led a stranded army of 10,000 Greek mercenaries out of Mesopotamia and back to Greece. In his narrative, he is looking at, in an ancient landscape, the remains of the cities of Nimrud (Larisa) and Nineveh (Mespila). These cities were at the heart of the great Assyrian Empire and flourished under the rule of the famed and formidable King Ashurbanipal. After Ashurbanipal’s death, Nineveh was destroyed by an alliance of Babylonians, Medes and Scythians in 612 BC. Xenophon confuses the Assyrians (who had inhabited the city) and the Medes (who took it) with the Medes and the Persians, the major eastern power at his time of writing.

Greeks as lover of books

The Greeks saw themselves as the pioneers of libraries and by the time Xenophon was writing his book, the Greek world had a vibrant book culture in which libraries played an important part. It would take a further 22 centuries before the great library of Ashurbanipal would be discovered and the full history of his empire (and of its predecessors and neighbors) could be unraveled, both from archaeology of many Assyrian sites excavated since but especially from the documents found in these digs.

From studying these excavated tablets, we now understand that the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal was perhaps the first attempt to assemble under one roof the entire corpus of collectable knowledge of three main groups: literary and scholarly texts, oracular queries and divination records, and letters, reports, census surveys, contracts and other forms of administrative documentation. The mass of material here (as in many of the other ancient libraries discovered in Mesopotamia) concerned the prediction of the future. Ashurbanipal wanted the knowledge in his library to help him decide when was the best time to go to war, to get married, to have a child, to plant a crop, or to do any of the essential things in life. Libraries were necessary for the future because of the knowledge they collected from the past, which could be put into the hands of decision-makers, the most important of whom in Nineveh was Ashurbanipal.

While the destruction of Ashurbanipal’s library at the fall of Nineveh was a catastrophic act, the precise details of what happened are unclear. The major library and archival collections may simply have been swept up in the general destruction of the palace complex. Looting was widespread across the site, and we cannot see whether the library was specifically targeted, although there is evidence of the smashing of specific tablets (such as diplomatic treaties).

Finally there was the Library of Alexandria mentioned in the Letter of Aristeas, written around 100 BC. This document tells us that within a short period of its foundation, the library grew to 500,000 scrolls, and that the addition of the Serapeum brought greater capacity. The Roman historian Aulus Gelinus, in his compendium Attic Nights, gave the figure of 700,000 volumes, split across the two libraries. John Tzetzes got a little more precise—librarians tend to feel much happier with precise counts of their collections—stating that the Mouseion held 490,000 volumes and the Serapeum 42,800. We must treat the ancient estimates of the size of the collection with extreme caution. Given the extent of the surviving literature from the ancient world, the numbers quoted for the library cannot be realistic. While these estimates need to be looked at skeptically, they make it clear that the library was enormous, much bigger than any other collection known at the time.

The myth of Caliph Omar as destroyer

A reoccurring myth—that Caesar was responsible for the destruction of the Library of Alexandria in some way—has had to compete through history with others. By 391 BC, Alexandria had become a Christian city, and its religious leader, the Patriarch Theophilus, lost patience with the pagan occupiers of the Serapeum and destroyed the temple. In 642 CE, Muslims occupied Egypt, and one account of the destruction of the library attributes its demise to deliberate destruction by Amr (the Arab military leader who had conquered the city) on the orders of Caliph Omar. This account ascribes a perverse logic to the Caliph: “If these writings of the Greeks agree with the book of God, they are useless, and need not be preserved,” and “if they disagree, they are pernicious, and ought to be destroyed.” This legend describes the orders of the Caliph being “executed with blind obedience,” the scrolls being distributed to Alexandria’s 4,000 baths, where they were used as fuel to heat the water, taking six months to exhaust the supply.

The fact that the library failed to exist beyond the classical period is unquestioned. Exactly why is less clear. Caesar himself reported the burning of Alexandria as an accidental consequence of his war against his great rival Pompey, in 48-47 BC. Ships bringing enemy troops had been docked in the harbor, close to a series of warehouses, and Caesar’s troops torched them. In the conflagration that followed, a number of nearby warehouses were destroyed. Following the city’s instructions that all incoming ships should be searched for books, which were required to be copied for the library, it is feasible that these seized books had been temporarily stored in the dockside warehouses. Material damage was done to the collections of the library, but it was not its end. This ties in with the account of geographer Strabo, who did much of his own research some decades after the events of 48-47 BC, using sources from the library.

Gibbon sets the record straight

Edward Gibbon’s profound statement about the loss of the library was the result of a great deal of careful reading around the subject, and his judgement on the most likely cause of the destruction can enlighten us. He dismissed the idea that the destruction of the library could be blamed on the Muslim conquerors of Egypt, and the instruction of Caliph Omar. This version of events had been distorted by some early Christian writers (such as Abulpharagius), especially the evocative story of the scrolls being fuel for the thousands of hot baths in the city.

Gibbon knew that this account had evoked a strong response in the scholars who had encountered it and deplored the irreparable shipwreck of the learning, the arts. The Enlightenment sceptic was scathing in his analysis of that account: it was scarcely logical that the Caliph would burn Jewish and Christian religious books, which he also considered holy texts in Islam. Moreover the story was implausible on practical grounds as “the conflagration would have speedily expired in the deficiency of materials.”

Muslims as lover of books

Across the Islamic world, although the oral tradition of memorizing the Quran was still dominant, the book became an important intellectual mechanism for spreading the holy book as well as other ideas. Islamic communities learned how to make paper from the Chinese and, according to the 13th-century encyclopaedist Yaqut al-Hallawi, the first paper mill in Baghdad was established around 794-5 CE, and enough paper was produced there for the bureaucrats to replace their parchment and papyrus records.

Harun al-Rashid’s son, the caliph Al-Mamun, established the House of Wisdom in the 8th century as a library and an academic institute devoted to translations. Research and education thus attracted scholars from all over the world from many cultures and religions. Here, the spirit of Alexandria ruled again and teachers and students worked together to translate Greek, Persian, Syriac and Indian manuscripts. Under the caliph’s patronage the scholars at the House of Wisdom were able to study Greek manuscripts brought from Constantinople as well as translate the works of Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, Euclid, Ptolemy Pythagoras, Brahmagupta and many others. Other libraries were created in succeeding centuries, such as the House of Knowledge in 991 by the Persian Sabur ibn Ardashir. It held over 10,000 volumes on scientific subjects but was destroyed during the Seljuq invasion in the middle of the 10th century.

One commentator, the Egyptian encyclopaedist al-Qalqashandi, reported that “the library of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad included books beyond measure that were valuable beyond anything else.” These libraries were to suffer damage, both deliberately and indirectly during the invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century. Islamic scholars also created their own sophisticated scholarship, especially in the sciences, and the collecting of books of Islamic science by European libraries over a thousand years later would help stimulate the creation of new scientific approaches even to this day.

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