Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bishop Theophilus is innocent

In a recent speech, author Philip Pullman compared the eagerness of some local authorities to close down public libraries to the Bishop Theophilis who Pullman claims destroyed the Great Library of Alexandria.

“The government, in the Dickensian person of Mr Eric Pickles, has cut the money it gives to local government, and passed on the responsibility for making the savings to local authorities. Some of them have responded enthusiastically, some less so; some have decided to protect their library service, others have hacked into theirs like the fanatical Bishop Theophilus in the year 391 laying waste to the Library of Alexandria and its hundreds of thousands of books of learning and scholarship.”

Philip Pullman's reference to Theophilus is obscure. Did the fanatical Bishop really burn down the library at Alexandria? These days, it is possible to verify faux intellectualism with a quick search on Wikipedia. It would appear that Pullman unjustly maligned the poor Bishop.

Like Dave Brent discovering a few random facts about the life of Dostoyevsky, I learned that there are four competing theories about the destruction of the library. Several reliable sources report that Julius Caesar accidentally burned it down in 48 BC, although there is some dispute about whether he destroyed the library itself or a storage depot.

Nothwithstanding Caesar's pyrotechnics, Wikipedia reports that some form of Library was maintained in Alexandria until the third century. Unfortunately, this library was destroyed in 270–275AD when Emperor Aurelian was suppressing a revolt by Queen Zenobia of Palmyria.

Then we come to Theophilus. In 391, he closed down the Serapeum - a pagan temple located on the site of the library. Unfortunately for Pullman, none of the contemporary witnesses make any reference to the destruction of books. Indeed, no one is sure whether the original library was in existence in the time of Theophilus.

Finally, there are Arabic accounts suggesting that in the seventh century the invading Muslim armies of Amr idn al 'Ass destroyed the library. Since these accounts were written some 500 years after the events they describe, their veracity has long been doubted.

Paraphrasing that great Jurist - Johnny Cochrane "if the flame wasn't lit, then you must acquit". The evidence against Theophilus seems, to say the least, quite unconvincing. Instead, the Romans seem the most likely culprits.

That's the great thing about the Internet. In the past, a poser like Pullman would go unchallenged. Now, obscurantism can be easily exposed.

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