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THE DESTRUCTION OF THE LIBRARY OF ALEXANDRIA BY THE ARABS: THE ACCOUNT OF BAR HEBRAEUS

October 5, 2017

As we have seen in a previous article, it was the 13th century Arab historian of the Ayyubid period, al-Qifti (c. 1172–1248), who first wrote about the destruction of the Library of Alexandria at the hands of the Arabs who invaded Egypt and occupied it in 642 AD. Another writer who wrote about it in the 13th century was Gregory Bar Hebraeus (1226 – 1286), an archbishop of Syriac Orthodox Church in Persia.

Bar Hebraeus wrote in Syriac and Arabic many books. One of his Arabic books on history is called Mukhtasar fî’l-Duwal, which was published and translated into Latin by the English scholar Edward Pococke (1604 – 1691) under the title Historia Compendiosa Dynastiarum.[1] I have translated the passage describing the destruction of the Library of Alexandria in Bar Hebraeus, Historia Compendiosa Dynastiarum.[2] AS the reader will see, Bar Herbaeus takes from al-Qifti. The translation is as follows:

And in this time Yahya[3] who is known to us by the name Grammaticus[4], which means al Nahawi (the Grammarian), became famous with the Muslims. He was Alexandrian and used to believe in the faith of the Jacobite[5] Nazarenes[6] , and confess the beliefs of Saweres[7]. He then recanted what the Nazarenes used to believe in the Trinity, and the bishops met up with him in Misr[8] and requested him to return back from what he was at, and he did not return back to their faith, and he lived until Amr ibn al-Ass[9] conquered the city of Alexandria. Amr entered Alexandria and got to know about Yahya’s position in sciences, and Amr was generous to him; and he heard his philosophical sayings which the Arabs were not familiar with, and he became fond of him. And Amr was sensible, a good listener and thinker; so Yahya accompanied Amr and did not depart from him. Then one day Yahya said to Amr, “You have control of everything in Alexandria, and seized all sorts of things in it. Anything which is of use to you I will not object to it, but anything which is not useful to you we deserve it more.” Amr said, “What things you are in need of?” He replied, “The books of wisdom that are in the royal stores.” Amr said to him, “I cannot issue orders about them until the Amir of the Believers, Umar ibn al-Khattab[10], gives his permission.” And Amr wrote to Omar and told him of what Yahya had said. Omar wrote to him saying, “About the books you have mentioned, if there is something in them that goes along with what is in the Book of Allah[11], the Book of Allah suffices; and if in them there is something that contradicts the Book of Allah, then there is no need for them.” And he ordered that they get destroyed; and so Amr ibn al-As started distributing them to the baths of Alexandria to be burned in their furnaces, and so the books heated the baths for a period of six month. Listen to what had happened, and marvel at it!

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[1] Tārīkh mukhtaṣar al-duwal = Historia compendiosa dynastiarum authore Gregorio Abul-Pharajio ; historiam complectens universalem, â mundo condito, usque ad tempora authoris, res orientalium accuratissimè describens. Bar Hebraeus; Edward Pococke; J E H Thomson (Oxoniae : Excudebat H. Hall celeberrimae academiae typographus, impensis Ric. Davis, MDCLXIII [1663]).

[2] Ibid; pp.180-1.

[3] Yahya is the Arabic form for Yohanna or Yo’annis, which is translated John in the English.  The writer says Yahya is known to us by the name Al-Nahawi. Nahawi in Arabic comes from nahwu, which means grammar, and nahawi means Grammarian (Grammaticus).

[4] John the Grammarian is also known as John of Alexandria and John Philoponus. He is known to have lived in Alexandria in the sixth century (490 to 570 AD). This makes it impossible for him to meet with Amr ibn al-As, the occupier of Egypt in 640 AD. It is, however, clear that Bar Hebraeus does mean this same person as he talks about his differences with the Church of Alexandria in the doctrine of the Trinity, which John Grammarian is known to have held (see: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philoponus/#4.3). My gut feeling is that Hebraeus is confusing two philosophers here.

[5] The non-Chalcedonians, after the split of 451 AD, were known from the six century as Jacobites, because of the influence of Yacoub al-Barad’i (Jacob Baradaeus), Bishop of Edessa (d. 578 AD), who under the guidance of Saweres al-Antaki (Severus of Antioch), the exiled Patriarch of Antioch (512-518 AD) [See for Jacob Bardaeus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob_Baradaeus; and for Severus of Antioch: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Severus_of_Antioch].

[6] Nazarenes is the name given by Muslims to Christians, though to be derived from Nazareth.

[7] See Note 5.

[8] Misr is the name given by the Arabs to Memphis, which corresponds now to the area of and around Old Cairo.

[9] Amr ibn al-As is the Muslim leader who conquered Egypt in about 640 AD, and ruled it twice (in 639-646 AD and 658-664 AD).

[10] Umar ibn al-Khattab is the second successor of Muhammad (634-644 AD). During his rule Egypt was occupied by the Arabs.

[11] Kitab Allah, Book of Allah, is the Qu’ran.

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