How One Fire Set Humanity Back 1,000 Years...


Hey Thoughty2 here. On 17th March 1930 construction started on what would be the tallest building in the world, the Empire State Building and so the global battle of which country could erect the biggest structure began. America managed two more erections and held onto its trophy for an impressive 67 years. But then Kuala Lumpur came swooping in to take the title with a mighty double erection, the Petronas Towers. Taiwan stole it from them in 2004 with Taipei 101 and finally in 2010 the United Arab Emirates finished construction of the insanely tall Burj Khalifa, taking the crown with an impressive 62% height increase on Taipei 101. And right now in a room somewhere a group of architects hired for their shared love of designing stupidly tall buildings are finishing up the plans for what will be the next monolithic megastructure to take its place amongst the clouds. Scheduled for completion in 2020, Jeddah tower will be the world’s first 1 kilometre tall structure, this thing will be so mind-bogglingly tall, they may as well have named it “compensation tower”.

But all these incredible feats of architecture and engineering have something in common. They are all based on a set of rules, rules that are so vital that these buildings would never have been possible without them, neither would many of the other buildings you see around you every day. These rules are the rules of geometry. These ground rules for the way that shape and space interact with each other, were created over 2,300 years ago by a Greek mathematician named Euclid.

Euclid wrote a series of 13 books which he named The Elements. They created many of the foundations of number theory and geometry that mathematicians still use today. It is said that Euclid’s Elements are the most studied books in the world, after The Bible, another book that is really obsessive about rules, although it seems rules about what one shall or shall not do to thy neighbour’s ox are more popular than shapes and numbers. Euclid’s principles of geometry have without a doubt changed the world, the geometry that Euclid founded is used in thousands of modern day applications from computer graphics to car and aircraft design and the highly unique shape of Donald Trump’s hair. Euclid studied, researched and wrote his 13 books in a very, very special place. A place that held every secret of the ancient world, a true temple of knowledge. It was called the Library of Alexandria.

Built under the reign of Alexander the Great, In the ancient port of Alexandria in Egypt, stood a monolith of knowledge and wisdom. The Library of Alexandria was built on the banks of the Mediterranean sea in 288 BC. It was a structure of epic proportions. Historians believe the library contained reading rooms, meeting rooms, gardens, lecture halls, a shared dining room, an acquisitions department and a cataloging department, thankfully human resources hadn’t been created yet. The Library of Alexandria wasn’t just a place to come to read scrolls to brush up on your knowledge or maybe to rent out a blue scroll of Aphrodite getting it on with Hades, it was also the world’s finest research facility. It was in many ways the earliest example of a fully-functioning university in all of history.

Scholars travelled from all over Ancient Greece and beyond to study and carry out research at the Library of Alexandria. Names such as Euclid, one of the greatest mathematicians of all time graced the halls and rooms of this once great place. As well as Eratosthenes a Greek Mathematician who was over 2,000 years ahead of his time. In 1957 Sputnik was launched, the first manmade satellite to be launched into space, we have since sent many more satellites to forever orbit our planet. Today there are around 1,100 lumps of metal orbiting our planet, collectively costing many billions of pounds to launch and maintain. One of the major reasons we began launching satellites into space was to answer a simple question, what is the circumference of the Earth, how big is this huge lump of rock we live on? Until we had an incredibly accurate measurement of the Earth, technologies such as GPS were impossible. But over 2,000 years ago an ancient greek mathematician who studied and worked at the Library of Alexandria, stuck a stick in the ground at Alexandria and worked out the circumference of the Earth.

Eratosthenes was his name and he didn’t need billion dollar satellites, just fairly basic maths. Using the distance between Alexandria and the nearby town of Syene and the shadow cast on a stick he placed in the ground, he used mathematics to conclude that the Earth’s circumference is 40,000km. And guess what we found out after spending billions of pounds on space technology 2,000 years later, we discovered that the Earth’s circumference is about 40,075 km. That’s right, Eratosthenes was out by just 75km, that’s almost negligible. Well done man with stick, very impressive.

This is just the tip of the many multitude of incredible discoveries, studies and experiments conducted at the Library of Alexandria. But sadly, we cannot see beyond the tip of this iceberg of knowledge and discovery, for it is all lost. You see, The Library of Alexandria was burned down. If you ask any historian which historical moment they mourn the most, the day the Library of Alexandria was destroyed will likely be at the top of their list, right alongside the moment George Lucas decided to make the Star Wars prequels. It is thought that if the Library of Alexandria had never burnt down, the progress of humanity would be 1,000 years ahead of what it is now.

The Library of Alexandria contained a lot of scrolls. It is estimated there were around 700,000 scrolls stored within the walls of this once great place. These scrolls would have held almost all the secrets of the ancient world and filled numerous gaps of historical knowledge that we have today. They covered every topic from maths to medicine, science to history. The incredible things we could have learnt from this library boggles the mind. But the way the Library gathered such an incredible collection of knowledge is somewhat barbaric.

The very purpose of the Library of Alexandria’s existence, the reason it was built, was to collect and catalogue all the world’s knowledge in one place. You see the city of Alexandria was a trading port and every day hundreds of ships would dock in its harbour to conduct trade. It was mandatory that every ship that docked in Alexandria would be searched from bow to stern, by the authorities upon arrival. But they weren't looking for gold and treasures, oh no, they were looking for scrolls and any other bits of knowledge they could find.

Any scrolls would be seized and taken to the Library where they would be hand copied, word for word and then the original would be stored in the Library of Alexandria and only the copy would be returned back to the owner of the ship. On a royal mandate library officials were also tasked with traveling to all the markets and book fairs from Rhodes to Athens and hoovering up any scrolls or documents they could obtain. The result of all this was one of the greatest collections of knowledge the world has ever seen. There is no doubt that the library contained masses of knowledge and history of the ancient world that we could only dream of knowing today. It was the ancient version of the Vatican Secret Archives but many times grander in scale and content, also quite a bit less secret.

But then one day a man in a toga came along and accidentally burnt this great library to the ground. How do you “accidentally” burn down a humongous library you may be thinking, well that’s a very good question.

That silly man in a toga was Julius Caesar. Caesar was an obsessive conqueror, on an average day he conquered at least two cities before his morning muesli. So the seat of knowledge within the Greek Empire that was the port of Alexandria was a lovely looking cherry sat atop his world map. And it was juicy enough for Caesar to attempt an invasion. But in 48 BCE when he rocked up at Alexandria’s harbour with his small fleet of roman ships he knew that the Egyptian fleet docked at Alexandria were far greater in number than what he had brought with him. So in true Julius Caesar style, he had his troops set alight to them all and burned all the egyptian ships to smithereens.

He only intended to burn the ships but the fire got out of control and it quickly spread to the Royal Quarter of Alexandria, where the Library was. The fire soon engulfed a large section of the great library, forever destroying many thousands of scrolls, it’s estimated that after the fire the collection went down from 700,000 scrolls to around 200,000. Julius Caesar was a great admirer of books and literature, historians insist he would have been rather remorseful that his fire had inadvertently destroyed part of the greatest library of all time. But Caesar can’t take all of the infamy for this great institute’s eventual demise.

After the fire there were a number of efforts to keep the library going, it was extended and moved but due to a succession of wars and invaders it was eventually destroyed piece-by-piece and sadly so was almost every piece of literature within its walls. Throughout its time the Library was actually set fire to three times, it was getting to the point where they should have started taking bets on when it would next burst into flames. Due to mixed reports of the events, historians aren’t exactly sure who finished off the library after Caesars accidental fire, but three names continuously pop up throughout textbooks as potential suspects. The first suspect is Roman soldier Tenagino Probus under the orders of Roman Emperor Aurelian in 270 CE, the second suspect is Theophilus, the pope of Alexandria in 391 CE as part of a Christian crusade to destroy scientific literature, because you know, science has caused so many wars and endless suffering worldwide, religion has never been responsible for anything like that. And finally in 640 CE the once great but now dying library was reportedly finished off by Caliph Umar when his muslim army captured Alexandria and the rest of Egypt. It is written that when he captured the city he said “If those books are in agreement with the Quran, we have no need of them; and if these are opposed to the Quran, destroy them.”

It has been said that the destruction of the Library of Alexandria set human progress back by 1,000 years. If it had survived we could today be living in a world of self-driving flying cars, frequent space travel, superhuman AI and a knife that toasts bread as you slice it. There has been much debate over this claim and it may be quite exaggerated, but whether the loss of what was once the greatest library in the world really did hinder human progress or not, the fact remains that it was one of the greatest tragedies of all of history, and there are many historians who would kill to read just 5% of the scrolls it contained. Well historians aren’t really known for their killings, perhaps I should rephrase that to there are many who would pay a very reasonable amount of money.

But as with all tragedies there is a lesson to be learnt. Knowledge is humanity’s single greatest achievement, scientific achievements have saved millions of lives and every day, knowledge is built upon all around the world and is used to keep us all safer, provide transport, food and water to those who need it most. So as a society may we never let another book burn, unless it’s Fifty Shades of Grey. Thanks for watching.