The Royal Library of Alexandria was one of the greatest library of the ancient world. However it was destroyed during the 3rd century after years of decline.

Was such a library doomed to destruction sooner or later or could it have survived, with a bit of luck, until today ?

To be clear, I am more interested in the content of the library (i.e., the papyrus scrolls) than the building in itself.

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    $\begingroup$ Look into the Timbuktu Manuscripts. It's not a single library, rather manuscripts handed down in families in a single area. Date range is late 13th to early 20th Centuries. $\endgroup$ Aug 23 '18 at 14:24
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    $\begingroup$ The expected lifetime of a papyrus scroll in the antiquity was around a century. Papyrus is simply not a good archival material. The only ways to preserve documents for long time were to write them on parchment (very expensive) or to copy them over and over. The economy crashed in the 3rd century, and then, after the 4th century, the interest in "pagan" works faded; so the copying stopped. When the copying stopped it was only a matter of time until the papyrus disintegrated. The papyrus documents we have from the antiquity are those few which were preserved in a very stable dry environment. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 23 '18 at 14:36

Depends on what you define as "survive".

There are buildings that survive centuries realively intact, even better if they are maintained over time. So there is a possibility of the walls and roofs "surviving".

As for the content, there are literally tens of thousands of clay tablets with cuneiform stored in hundreds of museums. A lot of them were once stored in the Library of Alexandria. Interestingly, the devastating fire that ultimately destroyed the library burned many of these tablets, hardening them and making them more likely to survive intact.

Most scripts were written on papyrus scrolls that would have decomposed under any less than perfect conditions. These conditions can only be achieved by completely sealing the papyri in an airtight container and never opening it again. Keeping content sealed is not exactly what you expect from a library, so it wouldn't have happened.

Since a papyrus scroll wouldn't stay intact forever, you would need to transcribe old scrolls onto new ones. With an estimated 40,000 to 400,000 scrolls stored in the library, you would need an army of scribes to constantly renew scrolls. Add in the fact that language and script change over time. There's the risk that a scribe simply couldn't read or understand a scroll written 300 years ago.

And then there's the content. Society, science and philosophy change over time. Transcribing a papyrus scroll is very time intense, so why would you transcribe a scroll that is hopelessly outdated if you could make your own name by writing your own book / scrolls?

All that is presuming the society at large is very stable and wealthy and in a time of peace.

Over such a long time, there are too many warlords wanting to burn down this symbol of his enemy just to make a statement. A state in financial need cannot employ hundreds of scribes to transfer squiggles and lines from one scroll to another. Natural catastrophes don't stop at the front door of a library.

To sum it up, the Royal Library of Alexandria could have survived as a building, but it's content wouldn't have.

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    $\begingroup$ This isn't even an ancient problem. Many of the digital tapes from the Apollo missions are no longer readable because the machines used for input/output no longer exist, or the programming is no longer used. You can think about the same thing about all the data on 3.5" floppy discs, ZIP drives, Betamax and DAT tapes suffering the same problems. Even decades from now will anyone be able to read DVD or CD's? $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Aug 23 '18 at 16:17
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    $\begingroup$ I had some information transcribed from 5.5" floppies not that many years ago. If a format is popular, there will be services that will work with it for a price for a long time. $\endgroup$ Aug 23 '18 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ "Making your own name by writing a book" isn't how things worked until very recently (some time post-printing-press). Because of the cost of copying, writing a work under your own name wasn't practical unless you had already made a name for yourself; a common practice was to get exposure for your ideas by putting someone else's name on them. See, for example, the number of ancient authors known to modern scholarship only as "psuedo-[name of well-known ancient author]". $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Aug 23 '18 at 22:06

Other answers have focused on the building of the Great library. I will focus on the contents (scrolls, etc.) and the institution (scholars, a centre of learning, etc.). I will assume that taking measures for the preservation of the contents of the library (copying of degraded scrolls etc.) are part of its normal operation. Decay of the material as a possible threat has been discussed in another answer by YElm; allowing this to happen could be a consequence of the failure of the institution as a result of lack of funding, political support, or scholars.

Threats to the continued existence of the contents of the library:

  • Natural disasters. Destruction of the building by an earthquake naturally threatens the contents. Directly and also indirectly since with the death of the people working there knowledge of its organization may be lost. Flooding, fire, and probably locusts may also threaten the scrolls.
  • War and conquest threatens the building, its contents and even more so the institution of the library. Especially in pre-modern times, conquerors often made a point of demonstrating their power by destroying what was believed to be indestructible (such as great cities, monuments, etc) and murdering or enslaving populations. It is also possible that valuable scrolls would be removed as spoils of war (although modern conquerors would show more interest in that than ancient ones).
  • Political turmoil is perhaps not quite as vicious as foreign conquest, but may still have threatened the building, the contents and the institution. The library might be viewed as a symbol of a hated regime. The scholars working there may be viewed as working for the oppressors. Either setting fire to the building or driving away the scholars may have put an end to the institution.
  • Changing political attitudes. If a new religion or philosophy views ancient writings as heretical or dangerous, they may attempt to destroy the knowledge contained in those writings. Burning the scrolls, possibly killing the scholars, would be the measure of choice. For examples see the unification of China ("burning of books and burying of scholars") and the conversion of the Roman empire to Christianity.
  • Economic hardship may remove the funding of the institution, possibly even the ability of the society to support this level of shared labour.
  • Changing roles of the cultural institution. A library in ancient times is not the same as a library today. The library was a scholarly centre that existed on the basis of patronage of the Ptolemies and later authorities during roman rule. If this role was fulfilled by a different institution (a library in another city or a completely different institution) the political support for the library would be greatly weakened, the funding may dry up.
  • Random political events may lead to institutions like this one being closed down or suppressed.

The cumulative likelihood of each of these threats materializing at some point rises with time. Specifically for Alexandria in OTL:

  • Natural disasters: Earthquakes in 956, 1303, 1323, etc., floods e.g. from the 365 and 1303 Crete earthquake tsunami and probably regular floods since Alexandria is a coastal city prone to occasional heavy rainstorms and in the Nile delta.
  • Conquests in 269, 274, 619, 642, 645, 1365, 1519, 1798,
  • Political turmoil in 175, 415, and then again well-documented in modern times
  • Changing political attitudes from conversion to Christianity, which actually affected the institution deeply, later rule by Muslim rulers of various degrees of piousness and again Christians in the 1800s. Especially in pre-modern times, the institution would have been at risk.
  • Alexandria declined to the size of a town of 8000 inhabitants by 1800 CE. There is no way a town of that size would have supported the ancient library.
  • Changing roles of the cultural institution follows similar lines as changing political attitudes above. With the decline of paganism, scholarship was shifted from classical academies (see e.g. the Academy of Athens; Theon and Hypatia's school in Alexandria had a similar role) to monasteries and was then focused on biblical scholarship little of which would have been found in the library.

I understand that this is an alternate reality question, but the series of events in OTL may serve as some guidance. All in all, I would say the chances of the library surviving over 2000 years from ancient to modern times are pretty slim. Even abstracting from that concrete example, it would be very very difficult to find an example in OTL where some institution has been mostly stable over that time span at any time in history anywhere on earth. (Perhaps the papacy in Rome gets close, but note that there was quite a bit of turmoil between 400 and 700 CE that changed the face of the city, probably also the structure of the institution of the papacy completely. Possible the rule of the Pharaoh in ancient Egypt and maybe some temple structures in Egypt and the middle East may also get close. But this may have been due to lack of technological progress and overwhelming strength of city fortifications compared to siege technology with contemporary technology.)


In reality, most structures in particular ancient ones, are destroyed. Some causes are well-known: dilapidation, fires or conflict - however in actual fact almost all the cases are simply that they become replaced.

What keeps them intact or replaced is the populace - constantly rebuilding buildings. In fact, perfectly preserved ancient buildings are a rarity, an exception to the rule.

Aldo Rossi, a well-regarded scholar and architect, commented on this over time in his analysis of cities. In certain instances, you can see old remnants of structures become incorporated into modern cities - not as a part of the old structure but simply as a redevelopment into a new upgraded form.

As an example here is an old Roman arena in Lucca that has been converted over millennia into apartments:

enter image description here

So unless the Library was significant economically or culturally, it would likely be replaced in the same manner when it was convenient. The odds are low, as it in fact it is normally forgotten buildings that ironically last.

  • $\begingroup$ Very nice picture ! Yet, I am more interested in the content of the Library of Alexandria (papyrus scrolls) than the building in itself. $\endgroup$
    – user53220
    Aug 23 '18 at 14:10
  • $\begingroup$ Aah! In that case the scrolls I believe some were moved around, however eventually they would likely suffer the same fate that the building that housed them suffers. Many ancient texts were translated (usually in monasteries and universities) into new forms, so although the scrolls themselves may be destroyed, the ideas in them last through the centuries in other forms. $\endgroup$
    – flox
    Aug 23 '18 at 14:14

Of course it could. It's a pretty simple problem, it just requires stability.

The Library of Alexandria was hardly unique, and had a lot of competition , even in its own day and in its own region. Most of these libraries declined along with the wealth and power of the rules/governments/societies that created them.

All you'd need to do to keep the library intact would be to alter history such that there was no decline in wealth and power. It's all about stability, really. Things like libraries get destroyed either on purpose or accidentally as a result of strife between nations. Two thousand years of history involves a LOT of authorities coming and going.

If you create an alternate history where, for whatever reason, there was a lot less warfare, where the centers of power in Egypt, Greece, and Rome never declined, or that their decline and replacement by others was more gradual and less militant, then by extension the libraries would survive also.


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