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THE DESTRUCTION OF THE LIBRARY OF ALEXANDRIA BY THE ARABS: THE ACCOUNT OF THE ARAB HISTORIAN AL-QIFTI

October 5, 2017

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An artist’s imagination of the Library of Alexandria

Roger Pearse, an English scholar and blogger on Late Antiquity and Patristics, has published a translation into English of the account of the Muslim historian al-Qifti on the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. The translation was made by a French scholar, Emily Cottrell, and she based it on Julius Lippert’s edition.[1] It seems the first translation into English of the first account of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria.

Al-Qifti[2] (c. 1172–1248)[3] was an Egyptian Arab scholar and an Ayyubid vizier. He wrote several books but his book Ta’rikh al-hukama’ (History of Learned Men),[4] is what made him famous. It contains 414 biographies of physicians, philosophers and astronomers; including that of Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī. The book was translated into German by the Austrian scholar Julius Lippert (1839 – 1909) but never into English.

It is in the biography of Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī that ibn al-Qifti tells us the story of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria at the hands of the Arab invaders of Egypt in the seventh century on a direct order by the second successor of Muhammad, Caliph Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭab (634 – 644 AD), to his emir, ‘Amr ibn al-ʿĀṣ. Al-Qifti is the first one who tells us about this.

I include the biography of Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī by al-Qifti here, in its English translation by Cottrell, accompanied by her footnotes:

Ibn al-Qifṭī [i]

Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī [ii] the Egyptian, the Alexandrian, disciple of Severus [iii]. He was a bishop in the church of Alexandria in Egypt and he advocated the Jacobite way of the Christians [iv], but later on he rejected what was believed by the Christians about the Trinity after having read philosophical books, and it became impossible for him [to believe] that the One had become Three and that the Three would be One. When it was discovered by the bishops of Egypt that he had rejected [his faith] they were furious, and they gathered to discuss his case and organized with him a dispute. They refuted him and his view was declared wrong. His incapacity pleased them and they sought to be reconciled with him, displaying a friendly attitude and asking him to retract his view and to stop saying what he had wanted to prove and establish to them. But he did not, and they dismissed him from his position, after some public discourses.[v] He lived until the conquest of Egypt and Alexandria by ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ. And he came to visit ʿAmr, who knew his reputation in knowledge and his position [on the Trinity] and what had happened to him with the Christians. ʿAmr honoured him and gave him a position. He listened to his speech about the impossibility of the Trinity and he was pleased with it, and he also listened to his speech about the cessation of the world [vi] and he was amazed by it; although he was using logical proofs. He listened to his philosophical expressions with sympathy although the Arabs did not know them [before] and he became fond of him. And ʿAmr was sensible, a good listener and thinker; so he took Yaḥyā [into his company] and did not like to depart from him.

Then one day Yaḥyā said to ʿAmr, “You have control of everything in Alexandria, and have seized all sorts of things in it.” “Anything which is of use to you I will not object to, but anything which is not useful to you we have a priority over you,” said ʿAmr to him, (adding) “What do you want of them?” (Yaḥyā) said, “The books of wisdom which are in the royal stores; they have fallen under your responsibility, but you don’t have any use for them, while we do need them.” (ʿAmr) said to him: “Who gathered [vii] these books, and what is (so) important about them?” and Yaḥyā answered him: “Ptolemy Philadelphus, one of the kings of Alexandria; in his reign, science and the people of science were in esteem, and he searched for the books of knowledge and ordered them to be collected, and he dedicated a special store-houses to them. They were assembled, and he entrusted the responsibility to a man named Zamira [viii]; and he supported him in order that he could collect them, [after] searching for them and buying them and inciting sellers to bring them and he did so. And in a short time he had assembled 54,120 books.

When the king was informed of the [successful] collection and verified this number he told Zamīra: “Do you think that there is a book remaining in the world that we don’t have?” And Zamīra said: There are still in the world a great mass [of books], as in Sind, and in India and in Persia and in Jurjan [ancient Hyrcania] and in Armenia and Babylonia and Mosul and among the Byzantines [ix]. And the king was pleased with this and he told him: “Continue in pursuing [your duty]; and so he did until the death of the king. And these books are until today kept and preserved as the responsibility of the governors working for the kings and their successors. And ‘Amr started to wish [to have] for himself what he was hearing from Yaḥyā and he was impressed with it, but he told him: “I cannot make any order without first asking the permission of the Prince of the Believers [x] ‘Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb; and he wrote to ‘Umar, informing him of Yaḥyā’s speech as we have reported it and asking for his instructions about what to do. And he received a letter from ‘Umar telling him [what follows]: “As for the books you mention, if there is in it what complies with the Book of God [Q’uran], then it is already there and is not needed and if what is in these books contradict the Book of God there is no need for it. And you can then proceed in destroying them.” ‘Amr ibn al-‘Āṣ then ordered by law [xi] that they should be dispersed in the public baths and to burn them in the bath’s heaters. And I was told that at that time several public baths used [the books] for heating, bringing some fame to new public baths which later on were forgotten afterwards and it is said that they had enough heating for six months. One who listens to what has happened can only be amazed!

Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī was a prolific writer and he wrote commentaries [xii] on Aristotle, which we have mentioned earlier in the Aristotle entry at the beginning of our book. He also wrote a Refutation of Proclus [xiii] who had claimed the eternity [xiv], which is in sixteen volumes.[xv] And a book on the fact that everybody is finite and that its death [xvi] constitutes its end, in one volume. A book [called] Refutation of Aristotle, in six volumes; and a book of explanation [xvii] on book Lambda of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.[xviii] A book of Refutation against Nestorius; a book where he answers people who did not accept [faith][xix], in two chapters; another book like this, in one chapter[xx]. And his books of commentaries on Galen, which are mentioned in the chapter on Galen. Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī wrote [the following] in the fourth chapter of his explanation of the Physics of Aristotle, while commenting on time, where he brings an example where he says “as in our year, which is 343 of Diocletian the Copt.” [xxi]

The physician ‘Ubayd Allāh ibn Jibrīl ibn ‘Ubayd Allāh ibn Bakhtishū‘ said that the real name of Yaḥyā was Themistius.[xxii] And he says that he was good at grammar, at logic and in philosophy but did not attain the rank of these physicians, that is to say, the famous Alexandrians such as ANQYLAWS (for Antyllos?) and Stephanos and Gesius (JASYWS) and Marinus. And it is them who organized the books [i. e. Galen’s books]. Some people say NQLAWS (Nicolaus?) instead of ANQYLAWS. This is what he said. But if he meant Yaḥyā, indeed [Yaḥyā] commented on a good number of medical books, and because he was strong in philosophy he became considered a philosopher because he was one of the famous philosophers of his time. The reason he became strong in philosophy was that he was working on a boat which carried people. And because he loved knowledge, when people from the House of Knowledge and the schools[xxiii] that were on the island of Alexandria were crossing with him, and were discussing the last lesson and the views exchanged, he would listen [to their conversation] and he started to love knowledge, and when his intention to study became stronger he thought by himself and said: “I have reached the age of forty-odd years and I have never started anything for myself, the only thing I know is seamanship, so how could I undertake anything in the field of sciences?” and as he was thinking, he saw an ant which had loaded [onto her back] the stone of a date and was carrying it, ascending her path with it, when it fell [from her back]. So she returned, took it up again, and continued in such a way until she had attained her goal and arrived where she was intending. When Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī saw that from her efforts she had reached her goal, he said, “if this weak animal can reach her goal by efforts and struggle, then of course, I would necessarily attain my goal by [putting in] some effort.” He went out and sold his boat and attended the House of Knowledge. And he started with grammar[xxiv] and language[xxv] and logic, and he became excellent in these fields[xxvi] because they were the first he learned and he adapted himself to them and he became famous in these and wrote a number of books on them, commentaries and others.

Footnotes

[i] “Ibn al-Qifṭī,” or “al-Qifṭī,” although the latter applies rather to his father, who held from Qifṭ (ancient Gebtu) in Upper Egypt. As our author was a Muslim official who spent most of his life out of Egypt, and became the vizier in Aleppo of the Ayyubid ruler al-Malik al-‘Azīz, he cannot exactly be called “the one who held from Qifṭ” as in the Arabic usage of the kunya, or the nickname formed on the place of origin. Thus, although the use of al-Qifṭī or al-Nadīm instead of Ibn al-Qifṭī and Ibn al-Nadīm seem to be supported by some of the manuscripts carrying their names (and are adopted by an authority such as Ayman Fu’ād Sayyid in his latest edition of the Fihrist, under the title “The Fihrist of al-Nadīm” [London: al-Furqān, 2009]) I will refrain from doing so here and simply refer to the use of these two names (i.e. Ibn al-Qifṭī and Ibn al-Nadīm) by Ibn Abī Uṣaybi’a in his Ṭabaqāt al-aṭibbā’ when quoting from their books.
[ii] “al-Naḥwī” means “the Grammarian.”
[iii] Severus is transliterated here as Shāwārī.
[iv] “Madhhab al-naṣārā al-ya‘qūbiyya.”
[v] By Yaḥyā or by his opponents is not clear.
[vi] The expression “inqiḍā’ al-dahr” literally means “end of time”. “Dahr” carries the meaning of fate and time, and for this reason probably it is used here rather than Arabic ‘ālam, “world” which may be restricted to a physical connotation. The discussion about the “eternity of the world” does not address eschatological questions, as a modern reader could wrongly understand it but rather the question of time and eternity in relation to creation, whether creation came after a “big bang” or if time is eternal and cyclical. The Greek word translated as Lat.  “mundi” in the title of Proclus’ treatise De Aeternitate Mundi (which was refuted by John Philoponus) is “kosmos.” There was an ongoing discussion among Platonists on the cosmology of the Timaeus which was later on continued among Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.
[vii] The word “jama‘a” may also mean “to edit, to publish” in this context.
[viii] Probably Demetrius of Phalerum.
[ix] al-Rūm.
[x] Amīr al-mu’minīn.
[xi] Shara‘a.
[xii] Shurūḥ.
[xiii] “Radd” means refutation, or simply “answer.”
[xiv] “al-Dahr” – i. e. the eternity of the world.
[xv] Ibn al-Nadīm, Fihrist, p. 179 ed. A. F. Sayyid, reads 18 books, which agree with what we know of the number of Proclus’ arguments.
[xvi] Ibn al-Qifṭī reads “mawtuhu” (his death) while both Ibn al-Nadīm and Bar Hebraeus read “quwwatuhu” (its ‘potentia’). John Philoponus was known to have written a commentary on the De Generatione and Corruptione (see Ibn al-Nadīm, s. v. Aristotle, transl. Dodge, p. 604).
[xvii] Tafsīr, i. e. commentary.
[xviii] I have emended the text which does not give any satisfactory meaning otherwise. Ibn al-Nadīm reads: “kitāb tafsīr mā bāl li-Arisṭāṭālīs al-‘āshir” [al-‘āshir, the tenth, may indicate here that Lambda was considered the tenth book, which remains a possibility if some books were missing, see A. Bertolacci, ‘On the Arabic translations of Aristotle’s Metaphysics,’ in Arabic sciences and Philosophy, 15.2, 2005, 241-275 (available here: homepage.sns.it/bertolacci/Art.16_2005.pdf)]. Ibn al-Qifṭī has “kitāb tafsīr mā bāl li-Arisṭāṭālīs,” which I emend as follows: “kitāb tafsīr mā ba‘d L li-Arisṭāṭālīs”. Bar Hebraeus does not mention a bibliography.
[xix] I correct Ibn al-Qifṭī’s text with the help of Ibn al-Nadīm. Ibn al-Qifṭī reads “lā ya‘rifūn” where Ibn al-Nadīm reads “lā ya‘tarifūn.”
[xx] Or “epistle, treatise” (maqāla).
[xxi] See B. Dodge (translation), The Fihrist of al-Nadīm, New York 1970, p. 613, n. 174: this is year 627 AD.
[xxii] It seems that here a marginal note mentioned Themistius as the actual author of a commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics Lambda, while John Philoponus is not credited with one in Ibn al-Nadīm’s entry on Aristotle’s commentators.
[xxiii] Bayt al-‘ilm wa al-madāris.
[xxiv] Naḥw, probably here for ‘rhetoric’.
[xxv] Lugha, came to designate linguistics but may here be used for grammar.
[xxvi] Umūr.

A24

Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī must not be taken as John (Yo’annis in Greek and Yaḥyā in Arabic) the Philoponus (also, John the Grammarian), the known Jacobite Alexandrian, who was passed as heretic by the Jacobite ecclesiastics of Alexandria, because of his beliefs on the Trinity, died in the sixth century. He could not have lived until 642 AD as he is known to have lived between 490 and 570 AD. The Arabs must have confused somebody who lived in the 7th century at the time of the Arab invasion of Egypt in 642 AD with John Philoponus. Who this Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī mentioned in al-Qifti’s book is not clear. However, we know that Arabs have many different people given the name of Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī.[5]

Whatever the identity of this “Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī”, al-Qifti’s story of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria by the invading Muslim Arabs sounds credible. It must have been based on an earlier source; and one would hope that that source becomes available in the near future. One theory is that al-Qifti’s “Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī” was actually John of Nikiu, the Coptic bishop of Nikiu who wrote his famous World Chronicle,[6] and who was contemporaneous with the fall of Egypt in the hands of the Arabs.[7] John of Nikiu speaks in the last third of his book about the Arab occupation, but this part is not complete. It is possible that he included the story of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria in his book, and that this part is lost to us.

For the benefit of the reader, I publish below the section about Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī by al-Qifti as it is in Lippert’s edition:

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______________________________

[1] T’arīḫ al-Ḥukamā’ by ʻAlī ibn Yūsuf Qifṭī; edited by August Müller and Julius Lippert (Leipzig, Dieterich, 1903); pp. 354-357.

[2] He is nicknamed ‘al-Qifti’ as he was born in Qift (Coptos) in Upper Egypt.

[3] His full name is: Jamal al-Din abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Yusuf ibn Ibrahim ibn Abd al-Wahid al-Shaybani.

[4] Full name is: Kitab Ikhbar al-‘ulama’ bi-akhbar al-hukama’.

[5] See: Yahya al-Nahwi in the Islamic Medical Manuscripts at the National Library of Medicine.

[6] The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu, trans. by R. H. Charles (The Text and Translation Society, Oxford University Press, 1916).

[7] The theory was put forward by Louis Cheikho (1859 – 1927), the Jesuit scholar and Chaldean priest. He suggests that al-Qifti ws talking about Yahya al Nakhwi (John of Nikiu).

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