The Library of Alexandria and the Rediscovery of Knowledge

If I could go back in history to any time, I would go to the Library of Alexandria during its golden age. The Library was the largest and most significant great library of the ancient world. It functioned as a major center of scholarship from its construction in the 3rd century BC until the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BC when it was burned to the ground.  The little that survived is pure genius and it’s mind boggling to imagine what the world lost in the fire. It was such a loss that we spent much of the following 2000 years rediscovering what was lost to fire and time.

Even now it amazes me how little Europeans and Americans (especially) know of the ancient world. Primary school curriculum is so absurdly skewed toward the awesomeness of us that it’s hard to imagine the world doing much of anything before the European Renaissance. Sadly, the Renaissance of the 14th–17th centuries was unremarkable in the history of knowledge. The word ‘renaissance’ is French and comes from the Latin ‘rinascere’ which means “to be reborn”. The European Renaissance contained very few firsts and was mostly a rediscovery of knowledge long forgotten. Bet your 10th grade teacher never told you that. Here are a few things that you probably did not learn…

  • Aristarchus of Samos lived in the 4th century BC. He proposed that the sun – not the earth – was the center of the universe. This is also known as the heliocentric theory. In school, you most likely learned that this idea was first proposed by Copernicus. Unfortunately, Copernicus was 1,800 years late to the party. As a side note, Aristarchus also predicted the stellar parallax.
  • Eratosthenes was a Greek scholar of the third century BC and the chief librarian of the Great Library of Alexandria. He was the first person to calculate the circumference of the earth. That’s right. He not only deduced that the Earth was round but measured how big it is. He was the first to calculate the tilt of the Earth’s axis (also with remarkable accuracy). He may also have accurately calculated the distance from the earth to the sun. Eratosthenes also created the first map of the world incorporating parallels and meridians. In other words, he invented a system of latitude and longitude. Until Christopher Columbus sailed to America 1,700 years later, many Europeans still believed that the Earth was flat (though it was not as widespread as most people think).
  • Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) lived during the turn of the last millennium, born in 965. He created a theory of attraction between masses. That’s right… gravity. He wrote that a body moves perpetually unless an external force stops it or changes its direction of motion. You know this by the label ‘Newton’s First Law of Motion‘ or F=ma. It took Galileo another 600 years to repeat Alhazen’s work experimentally. Alhazen also created a comprehensive theory of optics that included telescopic lenses. Again, it would take Newton and Galileo several centuries to rediscover this.
  • The the oldest known complex scientific calculator? 1940… 1950? How about early 1st century BC. A device called the Antikythera mechanism was discovered by accident in a shipwreck off the coast of Greece. Technological artifacts of similar complexity and workmanship did not reappear until the 14th century, when mechanical astronomical clocks were built in Europe.
  • James Watt did not invent the steam engine in 1769. It was invented around 200 BC by Hero of Alexandria. It was called the aeolipile. There is some evidence that Archytas of Tarentum invented this even earlier in 450 BC.
  • In 875, Abbas Ibn Firnas became the first man in history (that we know of) to successful fly. He built his own glider, and launched himself from a mountain. The flight was largely successful, and was widely observed by a crowd that he had invited. Although he injured his back landing, his flight time was estimated to run for over ten minutes. The Wright brothers first airplane was also a glider (based on the work of others). In 1902, in what is considered a major milestone, the Wright brothers achieved their first sustained flight. It lasted 26 seconds.
  • In the 13th century, the Chinese invent the first rockets for use as weapons in China. In 1798, Tipu Sultan, the King of the state of Mysore in India, developed and uses iron rockets against the British Army. In 1803, the British develop rockets based on the Indian designs.
  • Steel is not a new invention. The earliest known production of steel is a 4,000 year old piece of ironware excavated from an archaeological site in Anatolia (Kaman-Kalehoyuk). The Haya people of East Africa invented a type of high-heat blast furnace which allowed them to forge carbon steel at 1,802 °C (3,276 °F) nearly 2,000 years ago. Evidence of the earliest production of high carbon steel was found in Sri Lanka around 300 BC. The first steel production came to Europe in the 17th century.
  • Around 1550 BC, the Ebers Papyrus make mention of clinical depression. This Papyrus is the oldest and most important medical papyri of ancient Egypt – circa 1550 BC. It would not be until 1855 that Herbert Spencer published “Principles of Psychology” that the modern era of psychology is ushered in. Though the Ebers Papyrus also contains hundreds of magical formulas and remedies, it also recognized many diseases such as cancer that are still uncured 3,500 years later.
  • In 500 BC the first refrigerator (yakhchal) is invented in ancient Persia. The structure was formed from a mortar resistant to heat transmission, in the shape of a dome. Snow and ice was stored beneath the ground, effectively allowing access to ice even in hot months and allowing for prolonged food preservation. In 1803 modern Europeans invented the “domestic ice box“.
  • The Indus Valley Civilization, situated in a resource-rich area, is notable for its early application of city planning and sanitation technologies. Ancient India was also at the forefront of seafaring technology—a panel found at Mohenjodaro, depicts a sailing craft. Indian construction and architecture, called ‘Vaastu Shastra’, suggests a thorough understanding of materials engineering, hydrology, and sanitation.
  • The Chinese were responsible for numerous technology discoveries and developments. Major technological contributions from China include early seismological detectors, matches, paper, cast iron, the iron plough, the multi-tube seed drill, the suspension bridge, natural gas as fuel, the magnetic compass, the raised-relief map, the propeller, the crossbow, and gun powder.
  • In 1088, Movable type was invented in China by Bi Sheng not in the 15th century by Johannes Gutenberg.
  • The first known astronomical observatory was created in 2000 BC in China. The first discovered in the Americas was the Thirteen Towers solar observatory in Peru built around 200 BC.

I will have to write more later as this list could go on and on. My point is not to diminish the contributions of Renaissance Europeans but to call attention to the fact that in the West students are often given half truths and hagiographies of people like Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, the Wright Brothers, Copernicus, Columbus, etc. The reality is that Northern Europeans were marauding barbarians until recent history. While The Indians, Chinese, Arabs, Greeks and Egyptians were doing all of the amazing things listed above, the average European was … well, I’m not sure what they were doing. I know they sacked Rome and crusaded a lot but it’s not clear what was going on in Europe from 2000 BC – 1400 AD. I’ll have to find out. The reality is that each nation has its own political agenda—it’s clear in our education. If I grew up in Russia, I would have been taught that all good things in the world come from Russia. I encourage you to explore a bit—and in the words of Yoda, “unlearn what you’ve learned”.

I forgot to mention that Christopher Columbus did not discover America. But you knew that already, right?

3 Replies to “The Library of Alexandria and the Rediscovery of Knowledge”

  1. Great material, thank you – and yes, why aren’t they teaching this real history in our schools? I can’t believe they not only ignore such truly enlightening stuff but still conduct “religious instruction” in schools in 2015 , revealing a mind-numbing ignorance… I’ve been re-watching Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” series on DVD, it’s just as relevant and intelligent and inspiring now as when he made it over 30 (?) years ago. He does a piece on the amazing Library of Alexandria – “the brain of the world.” Of course intelligence is what all religions have to abolish, as they did – one after the other destroying the library and its priceless contents. Sadly the Muslims are still at it today.

  2. May I use the painting of the burning of the Library of Alexandria in a high school history class slideshow? It’s a great image, and I’m having a hard time finding the original artwork.

    Let me know please. School starts in two weeks.

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