Lest We Forget

Looking toward our cultural fascination with the ‘lost’ Library of Alexandria for answers, I ask - how do dead buildings keep on living?

In times of great cultural loss, it is easy to lose faith in the power of history, but I would be the last to suggest that there is any ill logic in this. Hope is difficult to sustain when centuries of strength are turned to ashes within a day. Despite this, we must remember that though structures may eventually fade from existence, buildings are more than their physicality; they are sustained by word, by pen, by memory. To affirm this, we need only look at countless examples of destroyed (or ‘vanished’) buildings throughout history, those which were allowed to pass from physical being into the stuff of lore. One such famous example of a tangibly ‘lost’ structure is that of the Library of Alexandria; part of the great port city of the same name, it was irrevocably damaged in a war-related blaze in 48 BC and has been considered ‘lost’ ever since. Despite the immense physical loss over two millennia ago, the library is still a source of great intrigue to this day; so what can we learn from it? In a time of cultural grief, I ask – how do dead buildings keep on living?

The short answer (and one which requires a much longer explanation) is that in order to survive, a building has to actually live in the first place. Humanising the narrative of the Library of Alexandria is all too easy; it begins right at its naissance in 331 BC, whereby Alexander the Great fell in love with the edge of the Mediterranean Sea and cultivated life in its midst. Its fruition, the seaport of Alexandria, flourished for centuries under the guardianship of the Egyptian Pharaohs, until a combination of dire intellectual circumstances and ruinous wars (over the course of hundreds of years) brought about the ultimate physical demise of historical Alexandria. Much like the human condition, its narrative entails a chronology of birth – life – weariness – sickness – death, in the most zealous manner conceivable; and over the course of its story, the Library itself becomes as familiar a figure as its occupants. If you are willing to personify a building, eventually you will have to brace for its funeral.

Optimism is difficult to maintain after any loss; but in any good eulogy, hope is expressed for the values we might learn from the deceased. And it was the values of the Alexandrian Library, rather than its fabric, that stood to foreground it; not only within the city itself, but from the countless other libraries that existed already across the world at that time. It was not the first library on Earth, and it was by no means the last; but it was its keepers’ incredible thirst for knowledge, and innovative application of it, that gave an unprecedented edge to the place. The city’s library and museum were inextricably linked, and as such an enormous wealth of intellect was both created and housed between each structure. It is this extraordinary collective knowledge, rather than the buildings themselves, that is primarily mourned in the modern age. But what is the use in mourning irrecoverable content? We should lust, instead, after the pure ardour with which the Library’s scholars sought that content; a huge proportion of the Library’s estimated 400,000 scrolls was either copied or outright stolen from visiting ships’ collections (although copyright of intellectual property is a much bigger deal nowadays than it was two thousand years ago – whether this is a curse or a blessing is a personal standpoint to take). The entire concept of the Library was driven by a need to discover and to document, and the goal was to achieve complete coverage of all existing written content; in Alexandria, knowledge truly was considered power.

Unfortunately, the growth of the collection began to stagnate toward the beginning of the Christian era, when the thirst for deeper knowledge had diminished and scholarship at the Library turned toward the practices of criticism and consolidation. Despite the wealth of knowledge available at their fingertips, occupants of the library had failed to learn from its history, and the fruits of its reputation of intellectual innovation dwindled. Key scholars began to leave the city, and shortly afterward the first of several devastating wars moved in on Alexandria and the once-great library. It plays out like a true Shakespearean tragedy; and perhaps this plays a key role in our sustained interest. The tragic hero – the library itself – struggles with its own inner turmoil as it loses touch with its intellectual values, then is sieged by the evils of war; the play culminates in a tragic waste of centuries of knowledge, brought about partially by the library’s own collective hamartia (essentially its Achilles heel or fatal flaw). We adore Shakespeare’s tragedies because their narratives are so emotive; the story of the Library at Alexandria is so renowned for much the same reason.

What is fascinating in this case, and in most similar cases, is the fact that we do not primarily remember the Library for its physical architecture. Granted, we cannot ignore the fact that Alexandria also housed the colossal Pharos Lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world; but whilst the lighthouse is revered for its structure, the library is arguably mourned more acutely. There is a history, and an entire ethical standing, behind the Alexandrian Library that resonates with us even now in the 21st century; its rich narrative and embodied hunger for discovery serve to sustain it not just as a building, but even as a sort of parable. We remember the Library because its story enables inspiration and sorrow in equal measure; the same rings true for any building throughout time with a personality extending beyond its physical fabric. A structure becomes iconic when we talk about it like an old friend rather than an acquaintance; it is difficult not to take old friends for granted, and even harder not to mourn their loss. So mourn – for any and every building lost to the elements – but when the dust has settled, ensure you tell their stories.