Shadows in the Library of Alexandria

In previous posts Crafty Theatre has explored the possibility that the folkloric heroes of the Greek Shadow puppet theatre, Karagiozis and Hadjiavatis, had a place in the Byzantine world. It began with a simple question, “Why does Hadjiavatis pull his own beard?” Further questions ensued. Why do the Greek shadow puppets with their very definite, prescribed appearances differ so greatly from their Turkish namesakes? Similarities between the surviving works of Plautus, the Ancient Roman playwright, were considered. Character driven situation comedy; the use of a nebulous stage setting that is on the road and in front of closed doors; indoor action related after the event outside; the anti-hero as protagonist; slapstick; and clever word play all feature in Plautus’ adaptions of Menander’s plays and in the Karagiozis puppet theatre. Hadjiavatis with his often limited role in the Greek Karagiozis scenarios seems more of a plot device. Similar to Ancient Greek tragedy’s messengers, he enters the stage providing the impetus for the action and then leaves. So like the Messenger in Sophocles’ Antigone, who begs for mercy from those he brings news to, is Hadjiavatis pulling his own beard to poke fun at the messenger role that he plays?

To answer these questions we need to see more of the lost works of antiquity resurface. Where might you ask? Egypt! Why Egypt?


Ruins at the Oasis of Siwa, ancient seat of the Oracle of Ammon

In 332 B.C.E. Alexander the Great marched his Greek speaking, Greek practicing, Macedonian army into Egypt. He was conveniently declared the son of the king of the Egyptian gods, Ammon, by the Oracle at the Oasis at Siwa. Thus he became Pharaoh. He founded a new port west of the Nile Delta near a village called Rakotis, and called it Alexandria.The Greek written language, Alexander’s language, with its ability for subtle and precise description was used to administer Egypt. Alexandria became the seat of government and in time a major cultural centre.

Head of Ptolemy III

Head of Ptolemy III found in the archaeological site of the now sunken Library of Alexandria

When Alexander died he was succeeded by one of his generals, Ptolemy. Ptolemy became Pharaoh and founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Under the Ptolemaic regime, both Egyptian and Greek cultures thrived independently of each other, salting each other’s experience. The Pharaoh, Ptolemy I, is thought to have built the Temple of the Muses (Museum) with its famous Library of Alexandria. Here science, philosophy, literature, music, drama and scholarly learning was fostered. Here the Ancient Greek Goddesses inspiring science, philosophy, literature, drama, music and scholarly endeavours were worshipped. Ptolemy II brought to Alexandria prominent writers and thinkers of the ancient world including Theocritus, Callimachus and Apollonius of Rhodes. His son, Ptolemy III (reign 246-222 B.C.E), built a second temple / library in Alexandria in honour of the Greek-Egyptian god, Serapis, the  Serapeum

The Encyclopedia Britannica tells us that the scholars who were active in the “Museum” (Temple of the Muses) in the mid 3rd Century B.C.E. onwards were probably responsible for the preservation of earlier Greek texts. It was probably here in the Museum that Zenodotus, the Library’s first librarian, edited Homer. The Museum had lecture halls, meeting rooms, gardens and the incredible repository of papyrus scrolls known as the library.

Papyrus fragment with lines from Homer\'s Odyssey

Papyrus fragment from the Ancient Library of Alexandria with variant lines from Homer’s Odyssey

The library seems to have had a religious mandate: to acquire all of the learning of the Classical world. It procured all of the manuscripts that it could and copied them. Scholars were sent to other ports to collect works to copy and books that arrived in the Port of Alexandria were requisitioned for copying for the library. So industrious were the scribes in their transcriptions that a shortage of papyrus was felt across Europe. As a result, parchment was developed to fill the need.

In 30 C.E., after the death of Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic Pharaoh, Octavian ushered in Roman rule. Egypt saw many changes. The Greek and Egyptian cultures had co-existed under the Ptolemaic Pharaohs by having two law systems, one for Greek speakers and one for Egyptians. Under the Roman rule, the Romans attempted to bring Egypt under a single, decentralized, Roman system. Revolutionizing administration, not scholarship, was the primary concern of the Romans. The Libraries suffered a shift of focus. The Temple of the Muses is said to have suffered two destructive fires in this period.

Change was slow going. It was not until 305 C.E. that Latin replaced Greek as the language used by the Egyptian bureaucracy. When the Roman-Byzantine Empire converted to Christianity in the mid 4th century C.E. more changes were ushered in. Egypt was no longer administered from Rome but Constantinople.

The Serapeum of Alexandria (III)

The Serapeum of Alexandria (III), the Daughter library of the Great Library of Alexandria. It was destroyed by the Byzantine (Coptic) Pope Theophilus in 391 C.E.

By this time the verbal, Coptic language of the people of Egypt was rendered into a written script based on the characters of the Greek alphabet.The Bible and writings of the Holy Fathers now became accessible to all strata of Egyptian society. The Coptic speaking Egyptians embraced Christianity. The Orthodox Church in Alexandria rivalled and perhaps surpassd Constantinople in its fervour and teachings. The monastic ideal of renouncing the material world, imitating Christ in His self-sacrifice and devotion to God, and struggling alone with the temptations of the nous, saw many intellectuals and pious faithful unable to resist the call of the Egyptian desert. The sayings of the Holy Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt still inform the Orthodox faithful today.

Along with these pious ascetics there were also zealots. Zealots with power. The transition from pagan Egypt to Christian Egypt was anything but smooth. By 391 C.E. the Byzantine Church adopted a vigorous agenda to eradicate the Empire of pagan gods, temples and practices. The assiduously created collections of scrolls of now lost and rare knowledge disappeared. This was no ordinary puff of smoke, nor was it a pyre. Luckily, not all of the scrolls burnt. Luckily, papyrus was still a valuable commodity and could always be reused.

Next: Menander Recovered, Uncovered and Unwrapped

The text source for this history of Egypt comes chiefly from the 15th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica:Macropaedia, Volume 6:Earth – Everglades. I have also relied on Wikipedia to fill in the gaps.

The Oasis of Siwa

Photo credit:

Head of Ptolemy III from the site of the Libraty of Alexandria

Photo credit: diffendale / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Papyrus Fragment from the Ancient Library of Alexandria

Photo credit: peterjr1961 / Foter / CC BY-NC

Ruins of the Serapeum of Alexandria

Photo credit: isawnyu / Foter / CC BY