It’s third century BC. The King of Egypt has sent bands of men on a special journey. They are riding through the lands with a secret mission from their King. They are laden with gold.
This is the beginning of Irene Vallejo’s book, Papyrus: The Invention of books in the Ancient World. Vallejo says the men were after their prey, and their prey was books. Books to fill the King’s great library in the dominant city of Alexandria. This was not just any library. This library would hold within its walls ‘every single work by every single author since the beginning of time’.
In the opening of her book, Vallejo asks us to imagine what these men must have gone through to fulfil their task. They carried great riches into lands torn by war, peppered with bandits who could strike at any moment, or vast numbers of towns struck with terrible plague. They faced the ravages of weather while pulling their carts. They would collect written works, no matter the cost. Either to themselves or others.
Alexandria was Egypt’s main port city at this time. It was also the city which housed the world’s greatest library. Vallejo tells us that any boat that docked in Alexandria’s port would be meticulously searched. The officials from the city were hunting any written documents. As they found them, the crew would be forced to hand them over. They were collected and taken away, and each document carefully copied onto a new papyrus. The officials would return the copied document to the ship and keep the original which would be added to the shelves in the city’s library.
Ptolemy II had a feverish passion to fulfil his most grand dream. He sent messages to all the kings on Earth asking for copies of everything they had, ‘all the works of the poets and prose writers of their kingdom, the orators and philosophers, the doctors and seers, the historians, and everyone else.’
It’s fascinating to learn that this launched a black market for books or written works. As bands of men, all laden with bursting purses of gold to buy the largest quantities of books they could, began their journey, word travelled of their quest. This in turn encouraged the opportunistic forgers and conartists. Counterfeit works began to be created and offered to the King’s men. Documents and works were collated to make them more valuable. Even if the men were sceptical of their worth, they felt forced to purchase. The Pharoah would not treat them well if he found out they had missed an opportunity.
Vallejo tells us the King would regularly inspect the scrolls in his collection and enquire of his librarian, Demetrius of Phalerum, as to how his library was growing. ‘There are now more than twenty dozen thousand, oh King; and I endeavour to add what we need to reach five hundred thousand.’
What a wonderful book this is. It is so interesting, packed full of insights as Vallejo charts the role of the book, beginning in Greece. We discover how the book has played a role in building the world as we know it today.
You have to wonder at the audacity of King Ptolemy II.
The King was a man of vision obviously, but to think he could achieve what he did is astonishing. Although, I imagine when you are one of the most powerful men in your world, you believe you can do anything, and then simply do it. Anything is possible in that world of obscene wealth and power. By building such a wonder, his city became a hive of activity, attracting the great scholars of the time from around the world. It created a golden age.
I always thought that the Great Library of Alexandria burnt down, lost to the world in a moment of time. Not true it seems.
The great scholars drifted away and it declined over the centuries. In the time of the Romans, the library was not funded well. There were, of course, invasions that dealt it blows, with it eventually facing destruction, now lost to time.
In relative terms, I expect that the book industry in the time of Alexandria was a multibillion dollar one, as it is today. And books still help us share knowledge, encouraging us to think, empathise with our fellow humans, and even just to enjoy for a moment.
Looking at the books on my shelves, I have to ponder about this journey of all these collections of pages. How the collection of a written work has reinvented and revived itself over time, all the while staying pretty much the same.
How many things can you think of that have been sustained in its same, or very similar form, for so long? Simply, a book. Simply the perfect invention.
And Baxter. Itchy! Grrrr…