25 September 2008

Sappho, Cleopatra, and the Pope

I see how fine he is, how rare, this creature called Lung Book or Mortal Book because of his strange organs of breath. His lungs are holes in his body, which open and close. And inside the holes are stiffened membranes, arranged like the pages of a book — imagine that! And when the holes open, the pages rise up and unfold, and the blood
that circles through them touches the air, and by this bath of air the blood is made pure . . . He is a house of books, my shy scorpion, carrying in his belly all the
perishable manuscripts — a little mirror of the library at Alexandria, 

which burned.

We were having a drink under the platan trees by the trout ponds in Naousa. A man joined us, we exchanged introductions, and he said, "You think you are scholars and you know everything about history. But you don't know what really happened to the Library of Alexandria." And then he explained that the library had never burned, as everyone assumed, but that the Pope had taken it away, and all the priceless Greek manuscripts were locked away in the Secret Archives of the Vatican. This sounded like good news to us: it meant that priceless manuscripts still survived, but for him it was the crowning proof of papal perfidy. Considering the Fourth Crusade and Ferrara-Florence, a fragile case might be made for his view, but not here.

It might be thought a bit of perfidy that Alexandria had some of its Greek manuscripts at all. Ancient Athens required that a copy of each play presented at the Dionysia be deposited in the Metroön, the building that housed official city archives. That would have been nearly 400 plays collected across the century under which the system of drama was maintained. A hundred years after that century was over, Athens became involved in the Chremonidian War, an effort of Greek states to throw off Macedonian control. Athens was not what she had once been, and asked to borrow war funding from Ptolemy II of Alexandria, who agreed in exchange for receiving the complete collection of plays as pledge on the loan.

In an act that can only chill the stomach of anyone who has sailed in the Mediterranean, Athens put the manuscripts of a thousand plays on a galley and sent them across the water to Egypt. Ptolemy sent the money. In time, Athens asked to redeem the pledge. Ptolemy, in effect, said, "Keep the money."

More history happened. In the course of Julius Caesar's siege of Alexandria in 48BC, warehouses in the harbor area in which books were stored caught fire. There was much outrage about burning the library -- if the books did indeed belong to the library.

A patriarch named Theophilos is said to have burned the library in 391 AD on the grounds that if the books contradicted Holy Writ, they should be destroyed, and if they agreed with it, they were extraneous and unnecessary. In 640, the Calif Omar took over the city of Alexandria and when asked what should be done about the library, made, by the most amazing coincidence, the same response as Theophilos. These burnings of the library cannot be demonstrated to have happened although there were burnings, and in the course of conquests and revenge books do get burned.

There may have been other burnings that did or did not happen. The real problem is, we cannot establish that there was actually a Library of Alexandria in the time of Caesar, let alone by the time of Theophilos or Omar.

What we do know is that over the course of the 8th and 9th centuries, mathmatical and medical documents from Alexandria ended up in Persia. And we know that Egyptians took manuscript rolls, sliced them like jelly rolls into little strips, and wrapped their mummies with them. Most of the Sappho that exists today comes in partial lines from fragmented ribbons of mummy wrappings, although not the poem above.

In that fragment neatly copied on papyrus, Sappho says to a group of young girls that they have the gifts of the Muses, and ends by saying that, being human, there is no way not to grow old. Cleopatra of Egypt, who loved Caesar for a while and could not have loved a book-burner, given the choice, would have gladly responded to that with her famous "Make it so!"
For the whole poem about the scorpion, http://nauplion.net/Diana.html

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