Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern Mind


Rating: 5 Stars


I never knew how little I actually knew about Alexandria until I read this book. The first book I read of Pollard's was about Alfred the Great and I absolutely loved it, it was well-researched and beautifully written. The Rise and Fall of Alexandria is no different. It is truly so beautiful and lovely and depressing to read about this great center of academia, and THAT library, and after centuries of surviving, it's just gone. Based solely on the book's content, I would give this a solid four stars, but given my love of all things academic and library-ish, I had to go with five stars.

There are so many directions I might go with this review, so many things to discuss and dissect, to relate to our modern world, I don't think I would have the space or time to even attempt that. So instead I will just touch briefly on some of the things that were most intriguing to me.

The book begins where you would expect - with the founding of the city. There is a solid foundation, figuratively, to build the rest of the book on. We are given a background of Alexander and Ptolemy take-over after Alexander's death. As time went on, the library accumulated more and more knowledge, just imagine all those scrolls, all that history in one place.

"Alexandria was built on knowledge, and at its heart was not a treasury but the greatest library and museum of antiquity" (introduction).

But, Alexandria was so much more than just the library and museums, if that is even possible. Truth be told, that is really all I knew of the great city prior to picking this one up, aside from knowledge too of its famous founder - who did not live long enough to see the glorious crown jewel of his empire reach its full potential.

I found the medical information to be among the most interesting facts (I mean seriously, despite the plethora of mathematicians who lived and worked in Alexandria, we all should know by now how I feel about math. I think it is a testament to how enthralling Alexandria is that I was able to muster through those sections - I am NOT a number gal!) Given my love for all things medieval England/Ireland/Scotland, I was familiar with the idea of the four humors, but did not know much about what they represented or how this information was used. Here the author goes into a bit of detail when discussing medical practices that were developed in Alexandria, including the understanding of anatomy. The disturbing way they came about this knowledge was that doctors were given LIVE condemned prisoners to experiment and operate on, so...not all was perfect in the city.

One of the both high- and low-lights of this one for me was a whole chapter dedicated to Hypatia. It's a highlight because she is such a fascinating figure in history, and while there is not a lot of information known about her, there is enough that tells us she is certainly someone who was held in esteem. The low-light of course would be her cruel and violent death, and the fact that Cyril played such a role in it and that later he was even raised to sainthood. That is a travesty to me.

"With the death of Hypatia, her city also began to die. Philosophers were still to found in the city's streets and the 'Alexandrian school' continued quietly - ever more quietly - to refine pagan Neoplatonism" (page 280). 

Overall, I really loved this one. I can highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in non-fiction. Even if you do not know much about this time period, the people, this city, the library, it is a great starting point. It is also great for those who already have a knowledge of any of those topics, as the detail and research is quite evident.

And oh, what I would not give to see that library in its full glory.

"And what of the books? The fate of the libraries of Alexandria is one of the greatest mysteries of the ancient world. It would still be tragic, but at least convenient, if a single moment of their destruction could be found, a moment at which the curtain came down on the classical world and a new and darker age commenced" (page 281).

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