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The library of Alexandria was the largest and most important libraries in the ancient world. The library acquired many scrolls in its lifetime, up to 400,000, and was regarded as a capital of knowledge and learning. Many of the important and influential scholars known in history up to today took up their studies and worked here during their careers. Unfortunately, it began to decline throughout the centuries, and was finally burned down in a fire due to the wars going on at the time. In this history, The library did not burn down in a fire, but survived to the present day. Empires that came and went all decided that it needed to be preserved, and so took great pains to avoid destroying it. It was treated as a neutral ground throughout the centuries.

The library was the biggest repository of knowledge and learning, but it was far from the only one of its time. Rulers and kings at war with each other would not hesitate to destroy it if it was in their interests, and wouldn't care to protect it just because of books. I need a way for this library to be preserved throughout the centuries, unmolested by wars and fallen kingdoms. How can I make this library valuable enough to be preserved?

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    $\begingroup$ I am not sure you really need to justify this. I’m not particularly familiar with the history of the library, but surely the eventual fire was an accident? It’s eminently plausible everybody in power wants to preserve this enormous collection of ancient knowledge, since what would be the benefit to destroying it? There is even a kind of precedent where an army protects cultural heritage, albeit on a much smaller scale: when Napoleon conquered Vienna he (so not the Austrians) posted guards in front of the building where Joseph Haydn lay dying to protect him from the French attack. $\endgroup$ – 11684 Mar 9 at 13:02
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    $\begingroup$ From your wording it seems you are probably aware of this, but just wanted to make sure since it's such a widespread misconception: saving the library itself would have made little difference to which ancient texts or knowledge survived till today. More detail on this can be found e.g. at talesoftimesforgotten.com/2019/07/03/… $\endgroup$ – Robin Saunders Mar 9 at 20:09
  • $\begingroup$ The Library of Alexandria did survive the fire. What killed the library was mismanagement by the Roman government, budget cuts, and competition from the other libraries in Alexandria: the Caesareum, the Claudianum, and the Serapeum. The next time all the surviving books entered the same library was when the Fatimids moved everything to their new library in Cairo, which was a bad idea because it was sacked in 1068 and the books were taken to a place called "Tilal Al-Kutub" and burned. $\endgroup$ – IKM Mar 11 at 8:18
  • $\begingroup$ maybe not a library but there were small city states like this. look up the duchy of Urbino in Italy. which housed one of the greatest universities of the ancient world and the weird way it was funded. One of the greatest mercenary leaders in Italy who was not paid to fight but paid by nearly everyone not to fight. $\endgroup$ – John Apr 2 at 23:58

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Words have Power

For much of European History during the Middle Ages, churches were seen as sanctuaries with varying degrees of effective protection. That is to say, the willingness of someone to come into a church and either drag out or kill someone hiding in there was directly related to the sense of peity that the dragger felt and the relative political value that the draggee held. In any event, the church was a place where people could go to confess their sins and worship their God, meaning that it was intended as a place of peace and kept secrets.

This worked because even though the kit bag of politics contains some very un-Christian tools, the Christian faith was reasonably ubiquitous at the time and the ruling classes either believed enough to fear demonstrating the use of those tools somewhere that they expected God to be watching, or they feared the public outrage that may ensue from the same.

But, if the library of Alexandria survived, it's also possible that a different religion could have come to the fore; the religion of knowledge. You can invent (handwave) the spiritual aspect of this for your purposes, but for the practical intent of your question the librarians are the equivalent of a priesthood. They do not take sides in the politics of man, are seen as answering a calling from above the needs of man, and are sufficiently organised that no king, tyrant or other form of ruler will ever get their hands on another scientific study or technology upgrade, etc. if they ever violate a single library.

In point of fact, your libraries are effectively the universities of their time, much like early monasteries in Europe hoarded knowledge and scholars. If you want to take advantage of the practical improvements in technique and weapons available, you have to petition the librarians, who then choose to grant or deny your petition depending on your standing with them, which is influenced by your treatment of other libraries and the size of donations you have given to their order recently.

In this sense, words really do have power and the keepers of those words wield that power in the name of the words themselves. The fact that they also have a monopoly on research and technology helps them preserve that power to be sure, but effectively the libraries act as gatekeepers between the rulers and knowledge, just as the priests acted as gatekeepers between the rulers and Heaven. If you can arrange it so that this monopoly is easy to preserve (like keeping the bulk of humanity illiterate) then you have your reason to keep libraries protected and respect their neutrality.

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    $\begingroup$ Churches were used for protection mostly because they were often built from stone, which distinguished them from the common wood buildings. Churches (and especially monasteries) were often burned and looted during the Middle Ages. In special occasions, e.g. when the wars were based on religion, they could be even the main targets. Also, looters always expected Churches to contain expensive things, e.g. gold. Stealing art was pretty common during invasions. Nevertheless, books were often burned by the Church itself. $\endgroup$ – Sulthan Mar 9 at 14:05
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Belgium was neutral before both WWI and WWII

Not that it helped them much. Unfortunately Belgium is the perfect place for Europe to fight its wars and as such Europe has fought its wars in the region now known as Belgium for hundreds of years.

Switzerland isn't such a good place to fight a battle, it's a really hard place from which to remove an entrenched army and the Swiss army has had a fair amount of time to get their fortifications ready.

Neutrality is about your ability to enforce it, not just a declaration of it. If your library lies in the middle of the continent's favourite battleground, chances are their neutrality won't last long. If your library is high in the mountains and comes with its own army, there's a reasonable chance it might be able to remain out of the fighting.

Alexandria is on the coast, a major port and gateway to the great fertile planes of the Nile valley, it's not a good place to have a library and expect it to survive. Move it either into the mountains or to a reliable oasis in the deep desert.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 Pretty much this. Nobody burnt the Library of Alexandria on purpose - at most some books where expurged if declared heretics. Simply, a fire nearby spreaded out of control and it burnt the Library. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Mar 9 at 11:44
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    $\begingroup$ Good answer, but I wonder about the cause/effect nature of the accessibility and importance of the library. I'd imagine the Library of Alexandria became so notable at least in part because it was located in large population center that drew people and ideas from far and wide. A remote mountaintop library won't draw as much knowledge in, or have its knowledge spread as widely. You could have a library at a desert oasis, but I don't expect it would grow in importance to rival the Library of Alexandria. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang Mar 9 at 14:17
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    $\begingroup$ @NuclearWang as in any such case, accessibility is both an asset and a liability. The greatest library in the world has to be accessible, a temple to knowledge in theory doesn't so much, but it becomes an exercise in careful management to maintain it. Incognito wants to make the former become the latter, and I don't feel it's practical. Perhaps the city could die a natural death as the harbour silts up, the port and the military target moves elsewhere, and the library survives effectively as a monument/monastery. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Mar 9 at 14:26
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    $\begingroup$ A modern example of a physical knowledge store would be a seedbank. They built the Global Seed Vault at Svarlbard all the way up in the high arctic. There were ones that were in countries like Afghanistan, Syria or Iraq, but bad things happened to all of them. $\endgroup$ – Nathan Cooper Mar 9 at 15:03
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    $\begingroup$ This, with the added bit that books/scrolls can be moved. As in, have the library develop and become famous in Alexandria as it really did, and then - at some point before real history tells us it burnt down - give it a very smart librarian with a good sense of what the future could hold, who decides to move the library to a safer place. $\endgroup$ – Martha Mar 10 at 23:05
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Because that's where their heirs are.

The Library is a well-respected place of learning, with an attached university/conservatory. All of the local rulers have sent their heirs there to study, and to establish diplomatic relations with each other. Attacking the Library then leads to retaliation from all the other Kingdoms and Empires. Even withdrawing your offspring without good reason can be seen as a dangerous move.

If the library is also situated on top of a mountain (like some monasteries are) then it also becomes impractical to move troops up or down. The Library is then neither a threat militarily, nor easily assailable - all they need to do when attacked is close the gates and pour boiling oil down the path, turning it into a flash-flooded river. With all of the Library defences being defensive in nature, no one can claim that the Library was attacking them.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wouldn't that in fact make it a very attractive target for those looking for hostages to ransom out? $\endgroup$ – T.E.D. Mar 10 at 16:41
  • $\begingroup$ @T.E.D. It's because there are so many potential hostages that it becomes a bad idea. Unless you have the military might to hold off every country that sent a representative there, it's pretty much the equivalent to "suicide by cop". Imagine, for example, if Iran decided to take a NATO conference hostage... $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Mar 10 at 16:51
  • $\begingroup$ That's not a reasonable comparison at all. NATO has a capability to project force around the world that was simply not available to anyone (no matter how powerful) in ancient times. Try one with ancient societies. (To get you started, I'm picturing a horse-archer based steppe-nomad "horde" culture doing the snatch-and-grab). $\endgroup$ – T.E.D. Mar 10 at 17:00
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@Separatrix's answer is correct: if the library is in the way during a conquest, it'll just be collateral damage, no avoiding it. However, their solution is to move the library into the mountains or deep into the desert.

However, there is a way of keeping the Library in Alexandria but "out of the way", though at the cost of geographic precision.

For that, we need to look at a map of ancient Alexandria.

enter image description here

The Library was a part of the "Museum", which is in the middle of the city and near the harbor. This made it a prime target for collateral damage: even if it isn't directly hit, any nearby fire could spread and destroy it (as actually happened).

So all we have to do is move the Library to another spot. My suggestion would be here:

enter image description here

Looking at the legend, we can see that the waterways marked as 5 and 6 are the ancient and present mouths of the Nile canal. If we handwave that away and pretend those both always existed, we effectively get an "island" separated from the city (with the west side closed off by the city walls).

This "island" is a useless target during a marine attack since it's nowhere close to the harbor, so it wouldn't be used by defenders to mount a defense.

In the case of a land-based assault, this flank of the city is incredibly defensible: attackers would need to either cross the exterior canal (6 on the map) or get funneled into the Library's walls (which, agreed, would be bad for the Library!), get past the walls, and then cross the interior canal. Much easier to attack the eastern walls.

So, with the exception of the case where attackers decide to funnel themselves over the Library's walls, it should be safe from any direct fire (especially if you change its architecture to make it a bad defensive position, so defenders aren't incentivized to make a last stand there). And then we just assume that attackers simply always agreed that any attack from the West flank of the city was suicidal and never attacked from there.

Lastly, all you have to do is make the canals wide enough to work as fire-breaks, so that if the city is on fire, the Library is safe.


Obviously, this solution is hardly perfect: putting the Library so close to the city walls makes it quite vulnerable to attacks on that flank, especially if attackers decide to dam the canal far from the city, eliminating most of the defensive advantage on that side of town, transforming the waterways into poorly designed dry moats. You can either pretend that never happened or change the canal into an actual powerful river, too hard to dam with ancient tech.

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The entire city burned to the ground, all of it...except the Great Library. It stood in pristine condition, the only uncharreted building in miles. It was a miracle, and it was obvious the the library and its vast knowledge were touched by the Gods. The legend spread fast, and soon in every town and city the legend is heard "The gods protect Alexandria", and for kings it becomes wise not to dare attack or come even close of it with conquering intentions, since for a human king another is a rival, but to fight a god is a lost cause. Every baron, emperor and even foot soldier knows that.

But that is not all! the Library becomes gradually a site of pilgrimage, increasing with the passage of time. It's like the Mecca, but for scholars and wise men.

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You put the key point in your question already:

Rulers and kings at war with each other would not hesitate to destroy it if it was in their interests

There's pretty much no practical benefit to burning down a library. If there are no soldiers there, no resources there, no grudge there, then there's no reason to take the fight there.

You could even think of the library as a sort of trophy. Regardless of how often the thing is fought over- keeping it in good condition is a sort of world-wide pissing contest to prove that you're the elite army of the time period.

"Yeah? I could take that city and with three less burned books!"

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    $\begingroup$ Being a trophy alone did not save the library of Alexandria. Also, even disregarding simple accidents that do still happen when you try to sack the city without the intent to burn the library (and you generally don't want to spare the city just to avoid that risk): A big enough one IS a ressource - it generates income through all the 'tourist scholars'. So burning it might very well actually be in someone's interests. $\endgroup$ – Annatar Mar 9 at 10:35
  • $\begingroup$ If there are no soldiers there, no resources there, no grudge there, then there's no reason to take the fight there. but there is a good reason to use it: no soldiers there means my troupes can bunker undisturbed for a while. Besides, it may make a good strategic point to hold - e.g. if it makes the enemy either spend time/effort to get around me occupying the position or suffer losses from my well-defended soldiers. $\endgroup$ – Adrian Colomitchi Mar 11 at 5:38
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Following @Separatrix comment.

I will add Principality of Andorra.

  • Surrounded by mountains with difficult access.
  • Can't be used to cross the mountains easily.
  • Nothing worth pillaging.
  • Good vacation place for the elites of surrounding countries (elites will push against anything that might ruin it)
  • Joint government by both countries that border it
  • No other nearby countries that could remotely be interested on conquering it
  • Indirectly under protection by Rome's Pope, and surrounded by countries that respect Pope's authority.
  • Ethnical, linguistic & historical links with surrounding countries
  • Used for contraband, which is then bought by elites (during Franco's dictatorship, it was a way to get many goods that were lacking in supermarket's shelves). If independence is lost, you lose access to all contraband
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  • $\begingroup$ While this is a great example of a neutral territory, does it apply to the OP's scenario of one specific place with somewhat different attributes? $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Mar 9 at 14:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Zxyrra, I think that a single library is too small to get protected. It should be integrated into a bigger entity (a campus or a city-state or a micro-country). And then the bigger entity should be protected. This will reinforce all the protections that the library has as an individual entity. $\endgroup$ – Enric Naval Mar 12 at 7:20
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Custodians of Ancient Knowledge

You have to build a sacred Order, composed of dedicated intelligent men, which mission is to guard and preserve the knowledge. While discussing and promoting to world leaders the neutral grounds of your library, as a solution for all knowledge, you must have this neutral and independent group of people who, under no other authority except themselves, guard world's knowledge.

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    $\begingroup$ Add to that: Kings were expected to send their sons for education at the Library, and while the eldest usually went home to take up the crown, the second son remained at the library, as a "remote backup" Kings sons were taught history, logistics, warfare, diplomacy while they were there. There was an advantage for the kings to leave it alone. For parallels look at Oxford and the Sorbonne $\endgroup$ – Sherwood Botsford Mar 11 at 14:05
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Make the library a holy place. Though not a library, the unmovable ladder in Jerusalem is a great example of what you're aiming for. Several different religions fought over the church the ladder resides in, and to prevent further conflict they came to the solution that nothing be changed. A ladder was left lying around, but no one dares to move it for fear of a religious scandal. Obviously with your location being a library the unchangeable aspect of the situation would have to be removed, but the rest could be a plausible explanation.

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  • $\begingroup$ Oh my... And I see the story of each time it was moved... Oh my... $\endgroup$ – Renan Apr 2 at 19:18
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I suggest that you take a look at Larry Niven's Known Space series. In that series, there is a race called the Pak, who are constantly engaging in what is essentially high-tech tribal warfare. Due to the destructiveness of their weapons, they would lose all their tech after each war. However, they always managed to rebuild quickly, as they had a huge library that they put all their knowledge in.

Occasionally one clan or another would try to take the Library; however, doing so provoked all of the other clans to genocidally kill off that clan.

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The main problem you have is that if you want library to change hands often (as it seems from the question), it is incredibly likely that one of the parties will want to burn it down. For example, conqueror doesn't want to destroy the library so they could learn from ancient scrolls or profit from scholars coming to their city ... but then defender might want to ruin it just to prevent that. Or make a last stand in the library itself. You can try to introduce religion or whatever else, but throughout history it didn't work all that well - the only religion that really exists is power and wealth, and it isn't compatible with peaceful change of ownership.

So the most realistic solution might be that the library itself is never captured, just the surrounding area is. There are tons of solutions, like islands, mountains etc.

I am partial to mesas, they look mythical and therefore very suitable for the mega library. The library is on a huge mesa and is self-sufficient (at least with water, and enough food storage to last several years). A single narrow path leads up from the city below the mesa. Path (and all mesa edges) is heavily defended by the library military while the library is in the middle of the mesa, few kilometers away from the edges.

Island is a viable solution too, and it doesn't require a large change of Alexandria landscape either. Put the library on a large self-sufficient island, few kilometers from the nearby city. Use whatever fortifications are required to prevent invasion. This is much harder to defend and library would fall to a massive invasion (mesa and mountains might not), but nobody would waste half their fleet to get library admission fee when they can already get almost all of the tourism income from scholars staying in the city.

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  • $\begingroup$ There are problems with holding out on a mesa, as the defenders found out at Masada $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Mar 10 at 12:01
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The Library is knowledge. All other legal libraries are part of it and under its protection.

All empires must come to deal with the library to content with an ever changing world. Some come to figure out how to grow better crops, or what they can do to prevent their crops from failing. This resource is becoming hard to get (say sulfur), is there another source or can it be replaced (depending on requirement charcoal?).

As The Library know's its position of power, they make sure to guard it. If they become under attack ever again, they will again destroy their knowledge, leading all to suffer. So of course in history this has to have happened at least once, and the results dramatic enough to ward off future attacks.

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  • $\begingroup$ All empires must come to deal with the library to content with an ever changing world. Yeah, like monopoly is gonna work (not!). If I can't get access to the information the way I need it, I might as feel that I'm no better either way: with or without that information - so the holding place of that information becomes valueless. If the access is granted but the cost of accessing it is too high - e.g. travel cost - I'd take the first opportunity I have to copy that info and bring it closer. After which, the original holder of that information becomes valueless for me in any practical sense. $\endgroup$ – Adrian Colomitchi Mar 11 at 5:45
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The library is sitting on top of a gigantic bomb of greek fire

It is operated by an angry order of suicidal priests deeply devoted to the knowledge deity, to whom the maintenance of the quiet, contemplative and stimulating academic environment of the Library is a matter of paranoid holy devotion.

It wasn't always like this. The Sacred Order of the Pen and Compass has been maintaining academic grounds around the known world for centuries. They have always done as they were asked, diligently dissemitating knowledge and learning. Monarchs and Commanders came with them to design engines of war, to break cyphers and to accept their children as temporary disciples, so that they may walk amidst the learned men of their time. And the Order acquiesced many times, only wanting for its holy sites and doctrines to be respected within their sanctums.

Nevertheless... Many of them has seen their share of libraries being burned and sacked, brothers being slaughtered and violence desecrating their holy sites. Often by the operation of the very engines of war they helped created, on the hands of the very heirs they allowed in their midst.

Irritated that the holy sites were acceptable collaterals in the conflicts brought by the mercurial environment of allegiances in the ancient times, Artorios, The Mad, then the Grand-Master of the Order, decided do something about it. He ordered the High Priests to plant gigantic, huge ass, crazy big bombs at their respective holy sites, the schematics of which were devised by Artorios himself.

Any whiff of fire so much as touched library walls, and the Head Priest of the site was required to activate the bomb, and to send the city into oblivion. Any hint of violence comming their way, and once again the armies, commanders, the city and anything in the blast radius goes into gas phase.

The order went through troubled times as it shifted the attitudes and training of their priests to suit the new directive but eventually it became much more paranoid, suicidal and obssessive about neutrality.

Only the top tier ranks of the priesthood knows about this. So how come the kings fear this information, if they do not know what is going on? Well, In the past the Hungarian library of the same Order was caught at the wrong side of an invasion and Hungary had to change its capital and most of its government officials... But the world gained a new hole. So people with armies started to care whether or not they would piss these priests off.

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International Laws

The neutrality of library buildings (and similar heritage) can be achieved with international laws and the laws can be enforced by a powerful nation/organization. However, in real-world, regulation of protecting cultural heritage during war times emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century. It would have been more difficult to enforce rules in olden times. Additionally, even the laws didn't prevent of the destruction of libraries.

Here is a relevant excerpt from the book The Settlement of International Cultural Heritage Disputes (By Alessandro Chechi):

...The latter treaty proclaimed that museums, monuments, and scientific and cultural institutions were to be considered as 'neutral and as such respected and protected by belligerents'. Article 56 of the Regulations Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land annexed to the 1907 Hague Convention (1907 Hague Regulations) declared:

'The property of municipalities, that of institutions dedicated to religion, charity and education, the arts and sciences, even when State property, shall be treated as private property. All seizure of, destruction or wilful damage done to institutions of this character, historic monuments, works of art and science, is forbidden, and should be made the subject of legal proceedings.'

Moreover, Article 23(g) established that, during hostilities, monuments and buildings dedicated to art and science ought not to be attacked or bombarded, unless necessary for military reasons...

Unfortunately, these coded norms did not prevent widespread damage and destruction during the two world wars, such as the destruction of the Rheims Cathedral, the burning of the library of Louvain, and the bombing of Dresden and London.

Mountain Vault

Or, just store the archive in a mountain vault with granite rock guarding the tunnels from above. For the modern version, there can be reinforced entrance doors that can able to withstand a nuclear blast like the "Granite Mountain Vault":

enter image description here enter image description here

Since 1965, Granite Mountain has safeguarded the Mormon Church’s genealogical library. The library is buried 600 feet beneath the mountain, where it contains 3.5 billion images—from census records to immigration papers—on microfilm... The facility is naturally climate controlled, but is also protected by armed guards and a 14-ton, nuclear-blast-resistant door. Chances are, somewhere inside, there’s a record with your name on it.

https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/31219/9-worlds-most-ridiculously-secure-safes-and-vaults

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All the answers here are missing an important point, some are also incorrect stating that the Library had no military value and that there wasn't a good reason to destroy it. But the truth is that the stronger the culture of a people the more difficult it is to subjugate them. A lot of times conqueror decided to obliterate in one way or the other the culture or the conquered people. A lot of times the capitals of the falling empires were razed to the ground. This is the most straighforward way to weaken their resistance. There have also been cases of conquerors with strong culture who decided to take nonetheless the tough approach like the Conquistadores who obliterated the Aztech culture.

The Romans didn't destroy the Greek culture because they had a different approach. The colonists placed in big numbers represented the iron fist, but they also had the velvet glove of liberal policies toward the conquered people. They were so much open minded that eventually they ended up saying Graecia capta foerum victorem cepit. But the Romans were an exception most of the other people took a different approach towards the people they conquered.

Your hope of saving the Library falls on the case of several open minded conquerors in a row which is unlikely. A possible solution might be a library placed by an earlier conqueror containing a culture not appreciated by the local people.

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We already have a library like that: The Vatican library. It's just very, very closed and very, very specialized. Imagine if it wasn't.

The dominant religion cares about knowledge

Which is to say, the dominant religion isn't frightened by scientific discovery nor broad propagation of knowledge... but instead embraces knowledge wholeheartedly. Which means they're good librarians.

The dominant religion is politic enough to stay out of wars

They recognize the secular powers and "let them have their little wars", but glide above them. They focus on being beloved by the citizenry, and an instrument of faith, even to the Reformation types.

Take the Vatican, which is the bastion of Catholicism, the opposite side of the religion from the various Protestants.

That's the power of religion and diplomacy.

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