Ancient Libraries: Power Relations, Political Statecraft & Demise Of Empire

Everyone likes archeology, who would not like to participate in the elite romanticism of the discovery, publication and archiving of the past in exotic regions like Egypt, Iraq or even Central America?  It’s a passion that consumes most adults as they watch the Discovery channel or National Geographic.  Being excessively practical in one’s vocational choice is prudent, especially when you consider the danger and financial burdens that accompany the pursuit of unrealized dreams.  But with a decentralized economy coupled to subsidized formal education, College and Universities are busting at the seams offering glamorous programs fit for Indiana Jones.  Considering the rise of capitalist economies worldwide, the gamble in procuring an academic credential in an exotic field may be worth it, especially given the current state of our economy.

Most adults are just plain fascinated with history, battles and artifacts that reveal decisive information that unlocks mysteries.  With the expansion of english as the primary language within research, most contemporary students are not intimidated by  prerequisites demanding competency in Latin, Greek, or even Mayan or Egyptian Hieroglyphs.  Perhaps the shine has worn off the appeal for wealth creation and the excessive anxiety it produces.  Nevertheless, opportunities are plentiful if a student prepares themselves for admission to Yale, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, University of New Mexico, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge or even some affiliated schools in Egypt.  For those are the primary schools that have both significant wealth and tenured faculty to assure competent instruction.  Upon completion, you can basically choose your place of residence for research and teaching.

I studied enough anthropology, archeology, ancient history, languages that I often reminisce the pleasure of having been born into another time where men like Henry Rawlinson, Livingstone, T.E. Lawrence, Gertrud Katen Thompsen and so many others who wandered off the reservation in search of both treasure and artifact.  But today’s world is giving more opportunities for contemporary students to align themselves to monied governments and programs who wish to explore depths of nationalist remains.

Ismail Seragaldin (pronounced Shara-gal-din) is one such person.  He is the director of the Library of Alexandria, Egypt.  For those without a formal education in ancient studies, it remained throughout the ancient world, the largest library housing hundreds of thousands of manuscripts.  It had rivals in Iraq (the city of Nineveh dug up by Austin Henry Layered) and Pergarmum (Mark Anthony’s gift to Cleopatrah’s ill advised treason in giving up Caesar as her lover.)  Nonetheless, its prestige alone was incalculable.  Their are four rival explanations for its demise.  The most likely is by fire, during Julius Caesar’s punitive expedition in 46 B.C.  There is much literature spilt on executing strategy to divine coherency among the four.  The library itself had extensive reference in letters throughout various reigning Islamic Caliphates, meaning that Islam itself was primarily responsible for the European Renaissance in translating most of Aristotle, Plato and just about all we know of antiquity.

The current Library of Alexandria (Bibleotheca Alexandria) was formally opened in 2002.  Its architecture alone is worth the trip to Egypt.  Most of the premises are open to the public with great lectures, organized expeditions, a planetarium and much more.  Its research, university affiliations are astonishing, for dozens of experts give lectures free throughout the year.

I met Dr. Ismail Serageldon while he was touring New York prior to the opening of the Bibleoteca Alexandria.  He’s a man of great interdisciplinary vision.  This was no mere academic specialist who studied remote irrelevant data in isolation.  He reminded me of the late great John Bagnall Bury (d. 1928) who resided at both Oxford and Cambridge throughout his academic tenure; the editor of fourteen volume series titled ‘Ancient History’ put out by Cambridge University Press (currently running its second edition.)

Bury knew and formally studied with every Near Eastern specialist on continental Europe.  This gave him unparalleled access to material simply unavailable to others.  His personal relations availed him insight that permitted him unqualified stature throughout several fields.  But because he was not committed to any one field in isolation, he was publicly neglected in professional honors and halls unbecoming the afforded stature.

I reveled in briefly engaging Dr. Serageldin upon his arrival in New York, he understood my charmed reference to Bury, both its significance to the Alexandrian library and a reference to the unqualified truth that men like Bury are capable of titanic efforts of resurrecting the greatest library ever known.

I was unable to witness the opening ceremonies.  Usually famous lectures are given priority in that transcripts are provided for those who wish but cannot attend significant speaking engagements.  Immediately following opening ceremonies there was a two month long symposium on various topics covering ancient astronomy, history, archeology, anthropology and many other topics.  I scanned dozens of transcripted lectures to find a mention of Bury.  Specialists throughout the two month symposia never mentioned him.  I wrote to Dr. Serageldin giving him information that I am sure he already intimately knew regarding exactly why the ancient library was built.  Not one expert was familiar with Bury or his insights into that mystery of why.

Specialists abhor synoptic approaches for it marginalizes their passion.  Bury would have cut through that symposia like fire.  Polite admonishment would be insufficient.  In a manner and vein that would easily excite Bury, I wrote to excoriate naive experts in their failure to explain why the library had been built in ancient times.  I only received one reply.  It was from Robert John Weston Evans, the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University.  He was intimate with the life and writings of Bury.

Why was the library built?  Let me explain.

Bury taught that the principal factors in all media impact, especially communicative media on existing social forms are:  acceleration and disruption.  Today with the internet (domesticated electrical devices) the acceleration and disruption tends to be total, ending the problem of space and time as the main problem in social or military arrangements.  Arnold Toynbee, being a student of Bury, learned that for primitive cultures in contact with specialized sedentary adversaries, the acceleration factor becomes the problem of translating the physical (distance of time, space or technological differences) into the moral.  Iraqi and Afghani I.E.D’s (improvised explosive devices) is a case point.  With these two adversaries in contact, social/political/psychological forces will impel traffic mounting the archaic culture into heated pressure only relieved by imaginative use of an adversaries weapon.  A physical problem becomes translated into a psychological one.  Again, witness the use of double agents and suicide bombers!

What has all this to do with Egypt?

Prior to the considerable diffusion of power through alphabet and papyrus in Roman times, the attempts of Pharaohs to extend their rule in spatial terms was limited by both the media they used to either communicate or consolidate and domestic opposition by the priestly bureaucratic class.  Three times in its history, Egyptian society was mortally threatened with both domestic and international challenges simultaneously.  The first political challenge lay with the mounting intrigue of the Priests of Amun Ra at Heliopolis who despised how Akhenaten (ahh-ken-ahh-ten) (king Tut’s father) usurped the  allegiance of Egyptian society in making himself Supreme ruler (it was actually a failed attempt to resuscitate a failing society.)  This act of cultural consolidation led to the murder of the boy Pharaoh Tut. The second mortal challenge had to do with Pharaoh Ramsee’s II military campaigns against the Hittites (modern day Turkey) along a region named Kadesh.  THE BATTLE OF KADESH EXPOSED A FATAL COGNITIVE, SOCIAL, and by extension PSYCHOLOGICAL PROBLEM THAT WAS ONLY RESOLVED BY PTOLEMY II.  Ptolemy II’s was a Pharaoh who reign over managing the challenge of the Roman Empire.

Just what was the nature of this problem?

The complex and unwieldy media of stone inscription made managing both domestic and international arrangements of wide-ranging empires nearly impossible.  The political danger rests within Egyptian culture itself:  its entire visual, psychological orientation was cosmological!  The breach was intrinsic to the very foundation of Egyptian civilization itself.  For how can you manage extrinsic international relations when the dominate media is stone managed by a Priesthood committed to divining astrology.  The struggles between those who exercise power over the hearts of men and those who sought to control the physical resources of nations were intrinsically divided.

Ramesee’s II returned home defeated by his engagement with the Hittites in the battle of Kadesh (it was the worlds largest chariot battle!)  Nevertheless, neither Ramesee himself, his advisors nor the Priests recognized the exposed fatal breech.

With the arrival of paper, along with an individualistic work ethic that composed the Roman Legion came the arrival of new vision, media and power ratios that permitted the Egyptians an attempt to mend this fatal breech by revisiting their relation of how to manage the visual organization of space.

The Priest’s of Amun Ra at Heliopolis and their cosmological temples had been more concerned with the records of the past and with control of inner space than with military conquest or international relations.  THE RIVALRY BETWEEN EGYPTIAN PRIESTS, THE MONOPOLIZERS OF INTERIOR KNOWLEDGE, AND PHARAONIC INTERESTS IN MANAGEMENT OF EMPIRE LED TO THE CREATION OF THE LIBRARY OF ALEXANDRIA!

The huge staff of civil servants and scribes assigned to many specialists tasks was an antithetic and countervailing force to both Egyptian life and priesthood.  The library could serve the political interests and organization of Empire and Civilization that did not interest the priesthood at all.

Bury understood this cultural matrix better than every other formidable specialists.  He was a thinker who thought dynamically, interpersonally and interdisciplinary.  A threat within his own discipline.  A man only at home in a synoptic view that exposed competing relations not archived artifacts in isolation.

John Bury rest in Peace!

About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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6 Responses to Ancient Libraries: Power Relations, Political Statecraft & Demise Of Empire

  1. Pingback: Mental Disorders 101

  2. lisa says:

    Wow, you know your stuff. I’ll link back to this post so the other library lovers can enjoy reading it as much as I did.

  3. Pingback: I love libraries « Milk Fever Blog

  4. Really interesting, can I ask why you wrote this with me in mind?


  5. You’re a historian. You’re formidable. I wanted to write something historically formidable. lol. I hope you like it.

  6. I do like it a lot. I’m not sure if formidable is a compliment…I think I’ll take it as one, but I’m not sure. haha

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