Egypt: The Antiquities Museum in the Alexandrine Library

The Antiquities Museum in the Alexandrine Library

A view of the New Library of Alexandria

A view of the New Library of Alexandria

Statue of an ancient Library Scholar

In 295 BC, the Egyptian Ruler Ptolemy I Soter, commissioned the construction of the Great Library of Alexandria (one of the cultural wonders of the ancient world).

In the following years, local scientists traveled through the region to purchase books for the library. The Library held many copies of important books of the ancient world as well as the originals of Euripides and Sophocles. All human knowledge of the ancient world was stored in the Library, not just of Egypt or the Greek territories, for Ptolemy I sent his representatives throughout the known world to collect reference works.

In 48 BC, the Library and at least 40,000 scrolls were burnt when Julius Caesar attacked the city (during the Alexandrian war) and a huge fire swallowed up the ancient Library. It would seem that this was the end of the fabled library and thus the end of a legend, but 2,000 years later, after 10 years of planning, the Egyptian government and UNESCO have combined their efforts in order to revive the ancient Library. The Alexandria Library has now risen from the ashes of antiquity so that it might once more lead the world as a cultural center and a focal point for knowledge not only in Egypt, bur for the world as a whole.

As part of the library, a new and very important antiquities museum has been created in order to highlight the history of Alexandria across the ages. It specifically highlights the cultural era of the Hellenistic world, providing exhibits related to knowledge and the arts.

Entrance to the Museum

The museum was ceremonially opened in January 2003. It now contains rare artifacts from the Pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Coptic and Islamic eras. These artifacts are displayed in chronological order, representing the evolution of writing, the birth of scholarship and librarianship, and the ancient arts with informative displays presenting mosaic, portraits, glassware, pottery, coins, textile and much more.

Young Girl being educated at the ancient Library

The museum is housed in section B1 of the Library complex on the ground floor of the main building. After passing through the security gate of the Library, take the stairs that lead down to the ground floor. On the right side of the stairs is the ticket office. General admission costs 10 LE for foreign tourists, and 4 LE for Egyptians. The admission charge includes the services of a guide, who will conduct a tour through the long corridors. The guides are proficient in English, French and German (and of course, Arabic).

Within the museum, one will immediately be astonished by the noticeable harmony between the interior design of the museum and the displays within. Finely coordinated exhibits are well lit and aesthetically pleasing.

The moment one steps inside the museuma beautiful Tableau hanged on the wall catches the eye. It is of a school girl, who sits on a stool copying out her lesson with a wooden stylus on a waxed tablet. It says of the statue that, "Education for girls as well as boys flourished at the ancient Library of Alexandria as attested by this Terra cotta statue dated circa 200 BC".

Lets explore the museum and see what sort of ancient wonders reveal themselves.

Pharaonic Antiquities

In the halls dedicated to ancient Egyptian artifacts, displays teach us particularly about the development of writing. Here, we find various statues of ancient Egyptian scribes and there, a collection of writing tools from the Pharaonic period. There are displays devoted to papyrus with an illustrated history of its use in Egypt as well as documentation on the evolution of writing through the period.

Limestone Fragment of a stela

A limestone Fragment of a stela which bears part of seven columns of hieroglyphic inscription from left to right in praise of the God Amun. The fragment still retains its original colors. It dates to the New Kingdom when the cult of the God Amun spread and flourished and he became the official God of the Egyptian Empire.

Dimensions: H. 40 cm; W. 67 cm
Provenance: El Kurna

Alexandria's Sunken Antiquities

There is also space provided for Alexandria's sunken antiquities. It is believed that, due to a series of violent earthquakes, the northern parts of the city were lost to the Mediterranean sea. Archaeological exploration to recover these antiquities actually began in the gulf of Abu Qir in 1933 and in the Royal district (eastern harbor) in 1961, when the Egyptian Kamal Aboul Sadat reported seeing sunken monuments in the depths of the eastern port area, which faces Qaitbey Fort.

At first, divers retrieved a few pots, but soon they were also bringing up gold coins dating to the Byzantine period. Then they discovered a granite statue of Isis measuring 7.5 meters in height, spurring additional interest. In 1968, the Egyptian government requested assistance from UNESCO in the development of a map of the sunken antiquities in the eastern port area. UNESCO responded positively and the resulting map became the guiding reference for current work in the area.

Head of Serapis

Above: A white marble head of the god Serapis with inlaid eyes and a hole on the top for fixing a Kalathos. At left is the statue as it appeared when first discovered underwater, while at Right it is now in the Alexandria Library Museum.

Dimensions: H.57 cm W. 35 cm Provenance: Abu Kir

In 1993, The European Marine Institute, a French expedition under the direction of famed under water excavator Frank Goddio, began work in both the eastern port area and at Abu Kir. The expedition was comprised of thirty Egyptian and French divers, and their work revealed thousands of items in the shadows of the Qaitbey Fort, including Pillars, crowns and statues. Jean Yves Empreur, one of the French archeologists, explains that the finds were almost certainly the remains of the ancient Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria, which was one of the wonders of the ancient world, toppled by one of Alexandria's ancient earthquakes.

Head of Octavius

Above: A huge Royal head of Octavius in Gray granite wearing the Nemmes headdress. It dates to either the very end of the Ptolemaic (Greek) Period or the beginning of the Roman Period. Dimensions: H. 59 cm L. 59.5 cm. Provenance: Eastern harbor.

Many of the artifacts from these underwater excavations are now in the museum's collection. These artifacts require special treatment due to their submergence in salt water which results in salt accumulations in the epidermis (skin) of the stone. After being removed from the sea, they are immediately placed in water tanks with the same solution of sodium as in the seawater. Then the sodium solution in the tank is gradually reduced, which results in the sodium within the artifacts slowly being released into the fresher water. Eventually, after about six months, the artifact is cleansed of its salt content and the process is complete. Only then can the piece be exposed to the open air without damage.

Greco-Roman Antiquities

Of course, the Alexandria Library was at the center of the Greco-Roman world, hosting both scientist and philosophers. Here, Archimedes invented his pump still in use today and known as Archimedess screw. Euclid wrote Elements (the base of Euclidean geometry) and Optics (a treatise of geometrical optics). They were not alone and many famous scholars worked to, for example, isolate the function of the heart, calculate the circumference of the earth and even develop the concept of the leap year. In fact, the loss of the library in ancient times basically resulted in the loss of the combined knowledge of the ancient world.

Head of a scholar named Xenfon

Above: A white marble bust of Xenfon, which bears his name in Greek and dating from the Greek Period. Dimensions: H. 59 cm Below: A gold wedding Ring discovered at Abu Kir and dating to the Byzantine Period.

Gold wedding ring from the Byzantine Period

Within the Greco-Roman section of the library we find many statues of the most important Greek philosophers, orators, writers and historians, together with other artifacts of the period. Here, there is a glass cabinet which displays a collection of Golden Jewelry, rings and coins discovered at Abu Kir (1999-2000), some of which date back to the Greek Period.

Painted funerary mask

Above: Two masks with the eyes painted black. Remains of the head bands can be seen on the forehead. These are funerary painted masks dating back to the Roman period. Painted masks were a part of Roman funerary customs. These masks were widespread in Egypt from the first Century until the fourth Century. They were inserted inside the sarcophagi between the wrapping of mummies, over the face

Terra cotta cinerary urn (Hadra, Hydrae)

Above: Terra cotta cinerary urn :(Hadra Hydrae) were used to keep the ashes of deceased. They are named after the place where they were originally discovered in a region called El Hadra at the southern boundaries of the ancient city. They date back to the fourth century AD. The oldest of these Hydrae had a white background and this was also found in Athens, Rhodes and Cyprus where other Ptolemaic monuments came to light. Hydrae were manufactured in Alexandria and were usually decorated with geometric and floral designs, theatrical masks, mythological scenes and representations of deities in relief. Some of those vases were inscribed with the name, date of death and title of the deceased.

Lid of a sarcophagus depicting a reclining child

Above: The lid of a sarcophagus, which depicts a child lying down on his left side, putting his left hand under his head and wearing a dress with folds in high relief. This piece dates to the Roman Period.

Coptic and Christian Antiquities

Coptic Christian fabric

Textile were the most distinguished product of Coptic Christian art. Thousands of pieces of textiles were found in Egypt, dating back to the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic eras. Most of them were woven of wool and flax and were characterized by the richness of their decorations which comprised geometric, floral designs, human figures, Christian motifs and even scenes from mythology.

Coptic textiles had many uses during Egypt's Christian period, including bed sheets and covers, towels, napkins, tablecloths and carrying sacks, while in churches and other public buildings, these decorative fabrics were used for curtains and hangings.

Most commonly, textiles during the Coptic period were used for clothing which, during that time period, most frequently took the form of a tunic, or rectangular shirt-like garment which was usually fastened at the waist by a belt. Textiles were also used for belts, cloaks and shawls. The tunics of Copts was most often made of plain wool or linen and adorned with either a single vertical band (clavus) that ran down the center of the garment, or two vertical bands (clavi) that fell over each shoulder and ran down to the knee or the bottom of the garment on both the front and back.

Islamic Antiquities

Ancient Mosque lamp

The Library of Alexandria's Museum also contains items from the Islamic Period. This was a period when Alexandria experienced its loss of status as the Capital of Egypt to what would eventually become Cairo. The museum contains collections of Arabesque wooden windows, carpets, tablets and lanterns.

Notably, in the seventh century AD, glassmaking flourished in Egypt and glassmakers inherited many of the techniques of their forbearers in the Byzantine and Sasanian empires. These included glassblowing, the use of molds, the manipulation of molten glass with tools, and the decorative application of molten glass. Islamic glass production from the seventh through the fourteenth century was also greatly innovative and witnessed glorious phases, such as those of superb relief-cut glass and spectacular gilded and enameled objects, that established its supremacy in glassmaking throughout the world.

Antiquities of the Bibliotheca Alexandrian Site

Prior to building the new Library of Alexandria, excavations were conducted on its future site in 1993. From this archaeological investigation, several unique Mosaic pieces immerged.

Moasic floor

Above: This is a fragment of a mosaic floor dating to the Greek Period (second century AD). The central part is in the form of a circle, which is rare. It depicts a dog beside a Bronze Greek cup (askos). The details of the scene and reflection of light on metal (bronze) represent a high artistic standard attributable to the mosaic workshops of Alexandria, which produced wonderful work, especially those made for the Greek royalty. The style was derived from the Alexandria literary legacy established during the first three centuries BC for which Alexandria became famous.This artwork is called opus vermiculum, incorporating very small colored marble and limestone cubes. Dimensions: 1.35 by 1.35 m

Mosaic floor from the Greek Period

Above: A fragment of a mosaic floor decorated with a combat scene between two gladiators, one black and one white, in a gymnasium or in a public bath. Beside them a fountain which dates the piece to about the second century AD. The scene represents the athletic life in Alexandria which brought together various human races Dimensions: 3.25 by 2.75 m

The Hall of the Afterlife

For the first time, in the Alexandrian museum, there is a hall devoted to the mummification process which not only provides information on ancient Egyptian mummification, but on this funerary practice in Predynastic times and during the Greek and Roman Periods.

Currently this hall has on display three mummies from different eras (ancient Pharaonic, Ptolemaic and Roman). One is the coffin of an individual known as Aba, son of Ankh-hor, who was the governor of Upper Egypt and head of its treasury. This wooden coffin is decorated with colored designs and hieroglyphic inscriptions including the Book of the Dead. It still retains much of its original colors. The mummy was brought from the excavation carried out by the Belgian mission at Asasif Necropolis (part of the Tombs of the Nobles) on the West Bank of ancient Thebes (modern Luxor). The exhibit includes four canopic jars that were used to preserve the organs of the deceased.

Funerary figurines

A second wooden coffin belonged to a Greek woman, who was also mummified. It is decorated with colored representations as well, including depictions of a winged goddess Isis. During this period, we know that it took only forty days for the mummification process, as opposed to the seventy days required during more ancient times.

The third mummy, without coffin, is that of a Roman woman wrapped in linen bandages and covered with five pieces of cartonnage.

There is also a collection of small funerary figures. These are often referred to interchangeably as Shabti, Shawabti and Ushabti, though in reality each of these terms refers to certain types of funerary figures specific to a time frame or location.

Initially, these magical figures were believed to act as a substitute for the deceased himself, although later they came to be regarded as mere servants in the afterlife. Hence, at first they were sometimes fashioned either as mummies or as living persons dressed in fine linen garb, but in later periods their appearance changed more to that of servants. A spell for this purpose appeared in the Middle Kingdom Coffin Texts, and from the New Kingdom the figures were inscribed with Chapter six of the Book of the Dead.

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Original Research by Nermin Sami