The Ancient University of Alexandria (The Mouseion)

The Ancient University of Alexandria (The Mouseion)

by Jimmy Dunn

The Mouseion as imagined by Carl Sagan

Recently, it has been widely reported that Polish archaeologists have unearthed thirteen lecture halls that once belonged to an ancient Alexandrian University in ancient Egypt. The earliest of these reports quotes Dr. Zahi Hawass, noted Egyptologist and now head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, and provides a date of about 30 BC to the discovery. This date corresponds very well with the well known Mouseion, Alexandria's famous ancient University. However, the same reports refer to the classrooms as "Roman-era", which is inconsistent with a date of 30 BC. Other reports, also attributed to the Supreme Council of Antiquities, date the find between the 5th and 7th centuries (AD), which would be rather inconsistent with the famous university's later period, though certainly a part of the Roman-era. Theon is the last known director of the Mouseion, and we can date the death of his daughter who taught at the Mouseion to about 415 AD.

In fact, modern discoveries in the bay at Alexandria appear to include at least parts of the royal quarters and palaces of ancient Alexandria, which were probably toppled into the sea by earthquakes during antiquity. Prior to the recent discovery of these classrooms, some scholars hypothesized that the university may have met a similar fate. Indeed, it is possible that these Roman-era structures were annexes of the original university, which may have, in fact, succumbed to the sea.In fact, the very latest news release on the recent find questions the discovery's university association altogether, believing instead that the halls may in fact be some sort of art center rather than lecture rooms.

A scroll room of the Mouseion as imagined by Carl Sagan

Our only knowledge of the ancient Mouseion comes from ancient texts. The ancient texts tell us that the Mouseion was part of the palace complex at Alexandria, which was believed to have been situated along the northeast angle of the promontory of Lochias, which locked in the harbor on the east. The new discoveries were found near the portico of the Roman Theater in the eastern part of the ancient city. All of the lecture halls, built of limestone, are of identical dimensions. Each contains rows of stepped benches in a form of a semicircle and an elevated seat apparently for the lecturer. The Polish team has dubbed the find as the oldest university ever discovered.

Actually, fans of Carl Sagan, the late American astrophysicist who hosted a popular educational series, Cosmos, may be at least familiar with his idea of the Mouseion. The edifice that he strolled through was no space ship, but his reconstruction of the Mouseion. "This legendary library was the mind and glory of the greatest city on earth, and was the first center for scientific research in the history of the world," he told the audience. "In this Mouseion lived a community of scientists who discovered the sciences of physics, linguistics, medicine, astronomy, geography, philosophy, mathematics, biology and geology. Here scientific studies reached adulthood. Here genius flourished. Here in the Library of Alexandria were the first serious trials to understand the world."

A coin depicting Ptolemy I Soter

The original Mouseion is believed to have been built by the earliest Greek rulers of Egypt, specifically Ptolemy I Soter, adjacent to his palace. This area of Alexandria was at first called the Palaces, and later the Brucheion. Strabo, writing in the first century BC, described this quarter as forming one-third of the main enclosure of the city. The university itself consisted of a public walk, and exedra (a hall or arcade with seats or recesses suitable for lectures and discussions), and a large building to house the scholars who resided there. There were also laboratories, botanical gardens and areas that held various animals, and attached to it was the famous ancient Library of Alexandria, as well as a theater.

A coin depicting Ptolemy II Philadelphus

Properly, the Mouseion was a shrine of the Muses, the goddesses of literature and the arts, and its head was a priest of the Muses, first nominated by the kings of Egypt, and later by the Roman emperors. We believe that the facility was dedicated in about 300 BC, but it was Soter's successor, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who called the most learned men in all fields to come to Alexandria and lecture. They did come, mostly from Athens, the largest number of whom were scientists and philosophers. For many years, illustrious scholars arrived in Alexandria and lived under the patronage of the Ptolemies, free from want and taxes. They studied, wrote, collated manuscripts, researched, lectured and theorized in their respective disciplines. The German historian, Ferdinand Gregorovius wrote that:

"This unique establishment diffused a splendor over the civilized world which lasted longer than any other university, whether Paris, Bologna or Padua. Long after the creative power of Greek genius was exhausted, encyclopedic knowledge and Greek sophistry were to be found in the Mouseion of Alexandria."

Undoubtedly, many of the scholars came to the university because of the great library, which offered to its privileged fellows, and subsequently to all the scholars of the world, the resources of the first real, and the most comprehensive and innovative, collection of intellectual materials ever assembled during antiquity. Hence, this library became the central attraction for writers, teachers and scientists from every part of the world.

Ptolemy sought to collect and bring to Alexandria "the books of all the peoples of the world", which he estimated would require some five hundred thousand scrolls. Ptolemy composed a letter "to all the sovereigns and governors on earth", imploring them "not to hesitate to send him" works by authors of every kind, including "poets and prose-writers, rhetoricians and sophists, doctors and soothsayers, historians, and all the others too". He gave orders that any books on board ships calling at Alexandria were to be copied, and only the copies returned to the owners. Eventually, the library is thought to have contained some six hundred to seven hundred thousand volumes. This massive collection of books and scrolls was not limited to Greek and Roman works. Oriental writings were translated into Greek and placed in the Library, as were ancient Egyptian texts, the Hebrew Scriptures and writing ascribed to the Persian prophet, Zoroaster. There were 123 plays by Sophocles and others by Aeschylus and Eurepides. It contained a history of the world from the time of the Biblical Flood written by Prossos, a Babylonian monk. Prossos dated the Flood to 433,000 years before his time.

The Ptolemies spared no expense in gathering works for the Library. The legendary physician, Galen, inferred that Ptolemy borrowed the original copy of the works of the great Athenian tragic poets in order to have them copied. Ptolemy was required to make a deposit in the sum of fifteen gold talents, but when the work was completed, he chose to forfeit his money and instead sent back the copies to Athens, retaining the originals.

Another coin depicting Ptolemy I

The Mouseion, the great library and their scholars, who at times even included the Egyptian kings (Ptolemy I Soter, for example, was himself a historian who wrote a worthy first hand account of Alexander's campaigns), became the fabric in which Alexandria was cloaked. Alexandria's history is one of intellectualism, which was integral to its ancient personality. The library's first curator and director was Demetrius Phalereus, a distinguished Athenian scholar who was also instrumental in creating the Mouseion itself. Demetrius was a member of the Peripatic school and a former Athenian politician who sought refuge in Alexandria after his fall from power in Athens. It was he who advised the king to "collect together books on kingship and the exercise of power, and to read them". He became so intimate with the king that he was called "the first of his friends", and was even credited with inspiring the laws enacted by Ptolemy. Thus Alexandria became not only the capital of Egypt, but also of the scholarly world, with the Great Library and the Mouseion at its center.

The Mouseion was thought to be divided into schools similar to modern universities, and in each of these, various scholars produced notable works. It would be difficult to note all of the scholars but, for example, Apollonius (262-190 BC) studied the cone sections (parabola, ellipse and hyperbola) which later helped the German astronomer Johannes Kepler identify the orbits of the planets.

An early drawing of Euclid

In the fields of mathematics and geometry, Euclid (300 BC), in his book The Elements, laid the foundations of mathematics, geometry and mathematical logic. His teachings were still taught up until the 20th century. In time, The Elements was translated into many languages and it is said that after reading the book, the great thinker Isaac Newton was changed forever. In the 20th century another form of geometry was innovated. We now have Euclidian and non-Euclidian geometry.

In medicine Herophilus (335-280 BC), considered the father of anatomy, laid down the scientific bases of medicine. He proved that the brain and not the liver or the heart was the cause of feelings and emotion. He also described and named the duodenum and the prostate. He laid down the basics of gynecology and said that the menses was not a disease but a normal condition. He measured the pulse, and described the thick membranes (dura mater) that cover the brain, and gave his name to a part of it (torcular herophili). Herophilus also described a part of the cerebellum and called it calamus scriptorius, because it looked like a writing pen (the word calamus reminds us of the Arabic word qalam, which means pen, and of the Greek word for squid, calamari, which spurts ink when attacked).

Erasistratus (276-195 BC), known as the father of physiology, described the nervous system and the epiglottis. He also identified, described and named the tricuspid valve of the heart.

In the field of geography, Eratosthenes proved the earth was spherical and measured its circumference by an ingenious but quite simple method. His calculation was within one percent of the present measurement. He noticed that at noon on 21 June of each year, the sun was vertical at Cyene (Syene, now Aswan). At that exact time, the tall obelisks of Cyene did not cast shadows and one could see the sun reflected on the water in deep wells. He assumed that the rays of the sun traveled in parallel paths and that, if the earth was flat, then a planted vertical stick in Alexandria would also fail to produce a shadow. But to his surprise the stick in Alexandria did cast a shadow. From the angle of the shadow and the distance between Alexandria and Cyene he calculated the circumference of the earth. This achievement was his ticket to greatness. Following his discoveries, maps were drawn in a spherical form, allowing later navigators to sail round the world.


Hipparchus (190-125 BC) defined latitude and longitude. Claudius Ptolemy (85-165 AD, who was no kin to the governing dynasty, added many details to the geography of the earth in his book, translated in Arabic as Al-Majesty. Yet most of the work of Ptolemy was copied directly from the books of other scientists. Newton would later describe this plagiarism very frankly, calling it "an immoral crime committed against his colleagues and against science".

Eratosthenes compiled one of the first histories that was not colored by superstition and legend.Pappus (circa 320 AD) wrote his famous book Synagogue (meaning "conference", not the Jewish temple) in which he outlined the history of the Mouseion and its scientists.

In Astronomy, Aristarcus of Samos (310-230 BC) was the first astronomer to prove heliocentricity (as against geocentricity). He was persecuted by the religious authorities, who refused to believe that the earth and planets circled the sun and not the other way around. This theory was later proven again by the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. Copernicus admitted in his early writings the effect of Aristarcus's work on his thinking, but later failed to mention it. Archimedes (287-212 BC) spent a good part of his life at the Mouseion, and is considered one of the three greatest mathematicians of all time (Newton and Gauss being the other two). Archimedes added profusely to Integral Calculus, and also laid the foundations of Differential Calculus.

A sttue of Archimedes

He discovered the laws of governing the relation between a sphere and its surrounding cylinder and the measurement of the surface area of a ball. Through his discovery of the rule of floating and sinking objects it became possible to study specific gravity. He also discovered the laws of levers, and determined a more accurate value for , the number that identifies the relationship between the circumference and diameter of a circle.

In its later years, the Mouseion had an important faculty of philosophy. Early on it adopted the philosophy of the Peripatetics, and later that of the Stoics. Platonius started the school of Neoplatonism, later presided over by Hypatia, the daughter of Theon, the last director of the Mouseion and a brilliant mathematician.

Many Egyptians came to study at the Mouseion, and many became staff members. The most famous of these was Manetho of Sebennytos, an Egyptian monk of the early 3rd century BC, during the reign of Ptolemy I and II. In 250 BC, Manetho compiled a three-volume book, Aegyptica, in which he divided the dynastic periods of the ancient Egyptian kingdom (after unification by Menes) into thirty dynasties, the first starting in 3150 BC, and the last ending by the Macedonian conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. Manetho also wrote about the pre-dynastic period but in a rather mythical fashion, including the time when Egypt was ruled by gods, demigods, the spirits of dead and finally the mortal kings. Unfortunately those books were lost, but parts of their material have reached us through later scholars such as the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in AD 60, Christian writers such as Julius Africanus in AD 300, Eusebius in AD 340, and George Syncellus in AD 800. Also, Horapollon the philosopher" originally came from Upper Egypt to study in Alexandria, and later became head of the pagan school. His father too had been a professor at Alexandria before him.

We know very little about the Mouseion's demise, and very little about the end of the famous library, though its loss must be considered one of the greatest sorrows of mankind's history. Some believe that the library may have been destroyed accidentally during the Alexandria War when Caesar set ablaze some sixty ships of Ptolemy's fleet riding at anchor in the port. This fire spread to other parts of the city. This obviously included houses and buildings near the waterfront. It was reported that books were stored in some of these buildings, and apparently the fire may have been fueled by some forty thousand of them. However, the Library was within the palace walls, protected by sturdy stone buildings, and it is doubtful that this fire could have harmed its books. If indeed these books were destroyed, they were almost certainly scrolls destined to be shipped into or out of Egypt.

In addition, the Mouseion certainly survived this fire, and seems to have continued to function in a regular manner, which it probably could not have done had the library been destroyed by Caesar's fire. In fact, most of the writers that recount this story are at least somewhat removed from the time period. Seneca was the first writer to mention it, some one hundred years afterwards, and many writers fail to mention the destruction of scrolls at all. Furthermore, the continued existence of the Library is also supported by an ancient inscription found in the early 20th century, dedicated to Tiberius Claudius Balbillus of Rome (d. 56 CE). As noted in the "Handbuch der Bibliothekswissenschaft" (Georg Leyh, Wiesbaden 1955):

"We have to understand the office which Ti. Claudius Balbillus held [...], which included the title 'supra Museum et ab Alexandrina bibliotheca', to have combined the direction of the Museum with that of the united libraries, as an academy."

Legend also has it that the Library found its end in the Arab invasion. However, by this time, it is believed that the great books collected by the Ptolemies had probably already been lost, and many believe this account to mostly be an early Christian propaganda attack on the Muslim invaders. Also this was refuted 200 years ago by, among others, Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, when he asserts that the tale was invented 600 years after the supposed event by an apologist for Salaheddin, the chronicler Abdel-Latif Al-Boghdadi. On his victorious entry into Cairo in 1171 Salaheddin had burned Shi'ite books, and had consequently been scorned for destroying sacred literature. Gibbon believed that the library- burning story was planted to prove there had been a precedent for Salaheddin's iconoclasm.

In fact, the Muslim invasion was not, strictly speaking, Egypt's first Arab invasion. During the Roman times of Aurelian, Queen Zenobia, an Arab from Palmyra who claimed descent from Cleopatra, had captured Alexandria, only to lose it again to the Emperor Aurelian. However, in the course of Aurelian's campaign, the Royal Quarters were seriously damaged. A few years later, the city was completely sacked by Diocletian. Hence, many scholars believe that if the Muslims did destroyed any books, they may have only been second rate replacements of earlier lost editions. In fact, many believe that, rather than destroying the scientific books they found, the Arabs preserved many of them until they could be translated into Arabic. After all, during the dark age in Europe, the Arabic world became the center of enlightenment.

In reality, there is a growing consensus among historians that the Library of Alexandria likely suffered from several destructive events, but that the destruction of Alexandria's pagan temples in the late 4th century was probably the most severe and final one. The evidence for that destruction is the most definitive and secure. One certainty is that the "Daughter Library" at the Serapeum (the Temple of Serapis) was sacked during the Jewish revolt of 115 AD, and again destroyed by the monks of Theophilus in 391. It is entirely possible that the Great Library may have fallen victim to the same campaign, though we know with certainty that the Mouseion functioned for some time afterwards.

Civil wars, decreasing investments in maintenance and acquisition of new scrolls and generally declining interest in non-religious pursuits likely contributed to a reduction in the body of material available in the Library, especially in the fourth century. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that many of the scrolls could have been sold off or otherwise moved to other locations.

If indeed a Christian mob (there were no shortages of mobs of every kind in ancient Alexandria) was responsible for the destruction of the Library, it is to be expected that such an act embarrassed later generations, who may have decided to alter or not to preserve the historical records in order to conceal it. In any case, both the contradictions in the historical record and the lack of a definitive account of the destruction of the Library in pre-Christian times are striking, given that it was the goal of Christian writers such as Orosius to highlight such evidence wherever they could find it. As for the Mouseion, Mostafa El-Abbadi writes in Life and Fate of the ancient Library of Alexandria (Paris 1992):

"The Mouseion, being at the same time a 'shrine of the Muses', enjoyed a degree of sanctity as long as other pagan temples remained unmolested. Synesius of Cyrene, who studied under Hypatia at the end of the fourth century, saw the Mouseion and described the images of the philosophers in it. We have no later reference to its existence in the fifth century. As Theon, the distinguished mathematician and father of Hypatia, herself a renowned scholar, was the last recorded scholar-member (c. 380), it is likely that the Mouseion did not long survive the promulgation of Theodosius' decree in 391 to destroy all pagan temples in the City."

Of course, stone buildings and the scholars who inhabit them cannot be destroyed or displaced as easily as books. Undoubtedly, the end of the Mouseion itself is wrapped up in the stories of Hypatia and the Christian patriarch Cyril, together with the Alexandria infamous mob. Hypatia was initiated early into her father's studies, including philosophy and mathematics at the university. She was a brilliant student who later assisted her father in his voluminous writings on Euclid and Porphyry. She eventually became the recognized head of Neoplatonic studies, and students from every corner of the world competed for her classes. It is also said that, in addition to her searing intelligence, her eloquence and rare beauty made her remarkable and legendary for her time.

However, various evidence suggests that she devoted much of her efforts to astronomy and mathematics, and that even her philosophical opinions embraced the intellectual rather than the mystical side of Neoplatonism.

Within Alexandria, a division took place that on the one hand, included the Roman prefect, Orestes, who was in fact a Christian, although his supporters included not only Christians and high government officials, but also the esteemed Jewish leaders of the city, many of whom had been students of Hypatia. On the other side stood the Christian patriarch, Cyril and his staunch adherents, including the orthodox faithful of the city and the hundreds of Nitrian monks under his jurisdiction. In the following account, there is perhaps some bias. Cyril is not always looked upon with such harshness as these events might indicate. For any shortcomings he might have had, he nevertheless played a very important role in the early Christian Church.

An artist's depiction of Hypatia

Hypatia was much loved in the city, and even glorified. She was bestowed with many civic honors and was considered one of the pillars of Alexandria, while Cyril was scorned and mocked from the day he was chosen patriarch. An envious man, he began to spread vicious lies portraying Hypatia as a witch with powers of sorcery and black magic. He even managed to convince many of his followers that the Roman prefect Orestes was the first person victimized by her spells. It seems that Orestes had curtailed some of his daily devotions as a Christian and was often seen in her company, along with many of the Jewish citizens.

Cyril began by focusing his attention on the Jewish citizens. Some of the Jews were attending the theater to watch performances rather than celebrating the Sabbath, and Cyril stationed agents there to keep watch on them, which rankled the crowd. The Jews even accused Orestes of allowing Cyril's informers to spy on them and create problems.

In retaliation, the Jews began raiding Christian homes and launching secret attacks. On one evening the Jews even ran through the streets of the city shouting that the Church of St. Alexander was consumed in flames. When the Christians hurried to save their church, the Jews attacked and killed many of them. Of course, this really inflamed Cyril, who ordered his army of supporters to the Jewish Quarter of the city, where they plundered the synagogues, set fire to Jewish homes and chased many of them completely out of Alexandria.

Orestes attempted to halt the marauding clergy, but was silenced when he passed through the streets with a small column of soldiers. He was easily dragged from his carriage by a band of 500 Nitrian monks, and even though he proclaimed his Christianity, was nevertheless stoned to unconsciousness on the street. Among those who stoned him was a fanatic monk named Ammonius, and a few brave citizens of Alexandria came to the prefect's rescue, in the process beating Ammonius to death. Cyril commanded the body of Ammonius to be transported to the cathedral in a solemn procession, and had his name changed to Thaumasius (the Wonderful). His tomb was decorated with the trophies of martyrdom, and the troubles continued.

Next, he turned his attention to Hypatia, who he despised, and he passed on to his clergy these feelings. On a day during the holy season of Lent, Hypatia was pulled from her carriage, stripped naked, dragged to the cathedral and butchered by a young reader named Peter and a fanatical mob of Christian monks. Afterwards, they scraped the flesh from her bones with broken pieces of tile and threw her limbs to the flames. Upon her death, the spirit of Greek intellectualism seems to have died in Alexandria, and with it, the famous Mouseion.

While we know much about the scholars and their work at the ancient university, much also remains unknown. We have little idea how the Library functioned, even whether the scholars taught or lectured there. The new discoveries in Alexandria currently raise more questions, if dated between the 5th and 7th centuries, than provide answers, but perhaps, just perhaps, such finds may eventually lead us to at least a few of the marvels of ancient Alexandria.

Today, a new Library of Alexandria has been raised from the dust of the old, with the high intentions of setting ablaze once more the beacon of intellectualism known from Alexandria's ancient past. Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which includes a museum, was dedicated with much pomp and ceremony, and with not a small amount of media attention, the new facility is already becoming a focus of our beloved and revived, Alexandria.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Alexandria, City of the Western Mind Vrettos, Theodore 2001 Free Press, The ISBN 0-7432-0569-3
Alexander to Actium (The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age) Green, Peter 1990 University of California Press ISBN 0-520-05611-6
Christianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100-400 MacMullen, Ramsay 1984 Yale University Press ISBN 0-300-03642-6
Coptic Saints and Pilgrimages Meinardus, Otto F. A. 2002 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 692 6
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Egypt in Late Antiquity Bagnall, Roger S. 1993 Princeton University Press ISBN 0-691-1096-x
Egypt, Greece and Rome (Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean) Freeman, Charles 1996 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815003-2
Vanished Library, The (A Wonder of the Ancient World) Canfora, Luciano 1987 University of California Press ISBN 0-520-07255-3

Last Updated: June 13th, 2011