Libraries on fire – Part I


How they met their fate


The motive of the conquerors to burn the libraries was to deprive the vanquished people of the knowledge in order to subdue them and eliminate any resistance against their political hegemony


The institution of library indicates the advancement of any civilisation because it is repository of social, political, historical and cultural knowledge which is preserved in shape of books, documents and manuscripts. Rulers, aristocrats and scholars in any civilisation labouriously collected the precious manuscripts in order to retain and maintain the intellectual traditions of the past. The institution of library emerged during the Bronze Age civilisation when the spoken language was written down in scripts. The writing system transformed the oral knowledge and preserved it for the coming generations. The archeologists excavated the first great library in the palace of the Assyrian King, Ashorbanipal (r.668 –c.627 BC) which contained thirty thousand (30,000) books on clay tablets including the famous legend of Gilgamesh.

However, on one hand libraries were founded to protect knowledge and linked the past with present, on the other hand, the libraries were set on fire by the conquerors, religious zealots and followers of some ideology. The motive of the conquerors to burn the libraries was to deprive the vanquished people of the knowledge in order to subdue them and eliminate any resistance against their political hegemony. The religious zealots and fanatics, believing in the absolute truth, hostile to other beliefs and zealously made attempt to wipe out any trace of rival religion. The followers of any ideology were afraid of challenges, rooted out any trace of rival thoughts. Therefore, we find from time to time that these elements put on fire the libraries and burnt books, manuscripts, documents and papers.

It happened in history, that whenever the libraries were burnt, the affected society consequently lost the accumulated knowledge which was created by the past generation. Sometime it became impossible to the society to retrieve the lost knowledge and sometime if the society had energy and intellectual vibrancy, it made efforts to recreate and reconstruct the lost knowledge and continued its intellectual traditions. In this essay, we will give details of those libraries which were burnt on the basis of political, religious and ideological reasons. As a result, the world civilisation suffered immensely by loosing the collective knowledge of different cultures.

In ancient China, the philosophy of Confucius (d.479 BC) played an important role in the working of State Institutions. There was also a period known as ‘the age of hundred philosophers’. It was the tradition that philosophers used to go from State to State, teach the rulers how to govern and treat their subjects. The rulers were also very conscious about their rule and employed historians to record the events of their reign. As a result, the Chinese civilisation produced large number of books on political, social, cultural and economic aspects. The corpus of literature provided guidance to the rulers and aristocrats how to behave and retain their status and domination.

Some historians also accused the Arab invaders who conquered Egypt in 640 AD causing to burn the library. However, there was no sufficient evidence available in this behalf

When Qin Shi Huang, (r.247-220 BC) the ruler of Chin dynasty ascended to the throne, he after defeating the small States united China as an imperial power. After completing this task, he and his special advisor decided to undertake the project to wipe out the historical and literary roots of defeated States in order to eliminate their local identity and integrate them into imperial structure of the Chin dynasty. Therefore, the government issued a royal edict ordering people to surrender all books and manuscripts with the warning that any violation would be treated as capital offence. When the books were collected, the officials had to preserve two copies of each book for the royal library and also separated the books on agriculture, medicine, forestry and astrology and rest of the books were burnt to ashes. Justifying this act, the Li Si, the special advisor to the ruler, explained that books were burnt because they were harmful to the Chin dynasty, especially the books on history which contained the knowledge of the past contrary to the hegemony of the Chin dynasty as it could become an obstacle to its rule. It was necessary to remove such literature and pave the way for a united China that would integrate the people politically and culturally after eliminating their local loyalties and identities.

The library of Alexandria was founded by Ptolemy II, (r. 283 to 246 BC) who collected the rare manuscripts and books wherever he could find and kept them in a spacious building which contained enough space for the book shelves to facilitate the scholars and readers. Most of the books were on the Papyrus which were scrolled and preserved for the use of researchers. Its librarian used to be a renowned philosopher and book lover. The library first suffered as a result of fire when Julius Ceaser invaded Alexandria but it suffered partly and recovered its loss afterwards.

The second time the library was burnt by the Christian fanatics, who became intolerant to find the books and manuscripts of Pagan philosophy and literature which contradicted their faith. The crowed of the religious extremists not only burnt the library but also stoned to death its librarian, Hypatia (d.415 AD), who was the last great woman Pagan philosopher. They not only killed her but also burnt her dead body in order to satisfy their religious zeal.

Some historians also accused the Arab invaders who conquered Egypt in 640 AD causing to burn the library. However, there was no sufficient evidence available in this behalf. It is the tragedy that the world lost the collective and accumulative knowledge of the centuries which was created by the pre Christian philosophers and scholars. These books were burnt because religious fanatics did not tolerate any ideology or thought which could challenge the authenticity of their faith. It shows that how religious extremism completely blind a community not to see any alternative truth.

The next victim of religious fanatic was the library of Nalanda University. The university was founded during the rule of Gupta period in the city of Raj Garh, Bihar of India. It was the center of Budhist learning and knowledge and therefore attracted large number of students from India and China. It is said that nearly 10,000 students were enrolled to study the Budhist religion and its philosophy. Its library consisted of three blocks which were known as ‘Dhram Ganj’ (the treasure of knowledge). One of the slaves of Muhammad Ghauri, Bakhtiar ud Din Khilji, while invading Bengal, burnt and destroyed the university and its library in 1193 AD. It is said that the fire continued for many months which completely destroyed the books and the building of the university. As a result, rare knowledge was lost and the existence of university also came to an end which deprived of scholars to an institution of learning and research. Recently, the Indian government is making attempts to revive the Nalanda University and renew its lost reputation.

To be continued…