THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE LIBRARY OF ALEXANDRIA
ONE OF THE GREAT CENTERS OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE, EVER
In 1960, four novels by the well-known English writer Lawrence Durrell were brought together in one volume and published as The Alexandria Quartet. Described by its author as “an investigation of modern love,” it was set in the Egyptian city of Alexandria before and during the Second World War, and was largely based on Durrell’s own experiences during his time there as a press attaché. The Quartet traced the personal lives of a number of key characters—seemingly based on real individuals, including Durrell’s second wife—from different, competing perspectives. He later claimed, however, that, out of all of the people portrayed and incidents featured, “only the city is real.”
Alexandria was the true hero of the book: an exotic, darkly seductive and sensuous city, fragrant of “offal and drying mud, of carnations and jasmine, of animal sweat and clover.” Durrell painted a picture of a cosmopolitan, Greco-Arab outpost, where East met West in a delicious collision of hotels, hashish cafés, colonial villas and squalid slums, all set between the blankness of the desert and the blue of the Mediterranean. Yet Durrell’s Alexandria was far from a product of the 20th century alone. Instead he called it a “capital of memory,” a place that still held on to the “echoes of an extraordinary history.” It was a remnant and a shadow of a much greater city, one born out of a dream two-and-a-half thousand years old.
In 331 BC, according to the Greek historian Plutarch, after successfully conquering Egypt, Alexander the Great received a vision in his sleep. A “grey-haired man of venerable appearance,” told him of “an island in the much-dashing sea in front of Egypt: Pharos is what men call it.” Alexander believed that this visitation was the Greek poet Homer, communicating from beyond the grave. When he travelled to view Pharos, he declared it to be the perfect spot for a city: a city that would bear his name, and that would become a new capital of the ancient world.