Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Ashes from Burning Libraries

…like amnesiacs
in a ward on fire, we must
find words
or burn.

Olga Broumas, Artemis

In the last few weeks, I’ve been watching the circus show of the (now postponed) Qu’ran burning with disbelief. Christians and Muslims have been playing variants of “If you don’t pay attention to my tantrums, I will shoot this dog” that was done far better by the National Lampoon. Government officials and media pundits are seriously suggesting that burning of a book that exists in millions of copies by a sad clown will touch off jihads. Yes, symbols are powerful — but fundamentalists will use any excuse for mayhem and bloodshed, whether they are white supremacists or the Taliban.

The real reason that many Muslims hate the US is because it has bombed two Muslim nations back into the Stone Age, is poised to do so to a third, and continues to pile up civilian casualties at a 100-fold ratio to US soldier deaths, while calling them “collateral damage”. Furthermore, to feed its petroleum addiction the US continues to staunchly support the primary source of militant Islamism: Saudi Arabia, whose deep pockets fund the madrassas that turn discontented, disillusioned Muslims into radical fundamentalists. However, it is equally true that imams and mullahs have issued death fatwas against books and their authors (Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Taslima Nasreen, Salman Rushdie, the Danish cartoonist who depicted Muhammad, to list just a few).

A favorite pastime of such militant religious thugs is destruction of knowledge. Islamists, like the self-labeled “man of God” Terry Jones and the medieval Catholics, burn books, burn schools, burn girls who try to attend school. They smash artworks – sculptures and paintings in the Kabul museum, the Bamiyan Buddha statues – following the example of the 9th-century Christian iconoclasts. People of this ilk burned the libraries of Alexandria. In those days of inscribing by hand, many works existed as single-number copies. As a result of this destruction, most ancient writers, scientists and philosophers are known to us only as names or sentence-long fragments.

This loss, in all its enormity and poignancy, has been portrayed only three times in contemporary popular media. It is the center of Fahrenheit 451 and of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a thinking person’s mystery-cum-novel of ideas. It is also depicted in the recent film Agora, a romanticized version of the life of the legendary mathematician and philosopher Hypatia.

Catholic apologists took Agora to task for inaccuracy and “inciting to hatred against Christians”. This advocacy is odd on its face, given that there was no “Catholic” church at the time, and the Alexandrian Patriarchate went into the Orthodox fold after the schism. Nevertheless, the circling of wagons is understandable, especially since Agora came out at the same time that Belgian authorities finally decided to investigate child abuse cases despite the Catholic church’s attempts to stonewall them. Their hodgepodge “arguments” (italicized) include:

Hypatia’s death was “purely” political; it had NOTHING to do with her gender, religion or occupation — which makes you wonder what their definition of political is.

Alexandrian mobs routinely rampaged and she just got caught in the crossfire. This is routinely followed by the directly contradictory she was killed as a reprisal for the execution of the monk Ammonius (who had stoned the prefect Orestes, as shown in the film). In other words, Hypatia’s murder was not random and had everything to do with what she was and represented.

The loss was small in any case, since Hypatia wasn’t THAT great a scientist/philosopher, she just rode on great men’s toga tails. This “reasoning” is very common (read Watson’s original depiction of Rosalind Franklin or Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing). Conveniently, none of Hypatia’s own writings survived the various burnings. From my side, I could use this argument to point out that her loss far outweighed that of the monk.

The REAL Alexandria library had been burned earlier by Caesar’s troops. The Serapeum library, whose destruction is shown in Agora, was unimportant. This shows interesting value judgments. Furthermore, Theodoros Vrettos, in his book Alexandria, City of the Western Mind, presents convincing evidence that the fire in Caesar’s time happened at the harbor, nowhere near where the main library stood.

There are more of these, but you get the gist. Make no mistake, Agora has its share of stiffness and clunk. As far as I’m concerned, its major error is to show Hypatia young at the time of her death. In fact, she was somewhere between fifty and sixty when Christian fanatics flayed her alive. Although the death of someone beautiful and young may pluck harder at heartstrings, the choice served to render older women once again invisible. Also, Rachel Weisz, radiant though she may be, is single-note chirpy whether she’s teaching upperclass youths, figuring out the truth behind the arbitrary Ptolemaic epicycles, or proclaiming her adherence to philosophy. Helen Mirren, Charlotte Rampling or Lena Olin would have made far more nuanced, haunting Hypatias.

Conversely, I applaud Amenábar’s choice to show Hypatia focused on her work, and not willing to be deflected from it by pretty faces and the security they promise. The fact that all men in full possession of their faculties are shown in love with her is fine with me. It’s a welcome reversal of the usual setting; at least Hypatia deserves such adoration, unlike most male film “heroes”.

However, the film’s title names its true core. Agora means “marketplace”, but it had a more specific meaning in older Greek: it was the place where people met to discuss ideas. The film celebrates love of learning, the beautiful workings of the mind, and laments the fragility of reason at the face of close-minded fanaticism. Hypatia’s death is a coda – as she tells Orestes, the thugs have already won. It is the looting of the library that gives the film its emotional power. It’s the burning of all these irreplaceable scrolls that makes you weep.

In conscious homage to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Agora occasionally zooms out to view earth from space. As it does so, the screams and weapon clashes fade. And that may be the film’s second powerful point: in the vastness of the universe, we are nothing – except what we make of ourselves and our world. We can choose the way of the Taliban, the Teabaggers, the Hareddim, the Inquisitors. Or we can take the path of Hypatia. Between these two alternatives, there is no conciliation or compromise.

Images: top, Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) and Orestes (Oscar Isaac) watch the library burn in Agora; middle, book burnings past and present; bottom, a Hypatia figure in Fahrenheit 451.

Note: This article has been reprinted on Huffington Post.

31 Responses to “Ashes from Burning Libraries”

  1. ZarPaulus says:

    One of my high school classmates’ mother came from Iran, she once said that many Iranians wanted the U.S. to invade them. But then they saw how badly we messed up with Afghanistan and Iraq.

  2. Neo says:

    @Between these two alternatives, there is no conciliation or compromise.

    If humanity chooses extremist ways, we all kill each other shooting and bombing.

    And in a world where off-the-shelf technologies are getting powerful so rapidly, even if we don’t choose extremist way, I dont think world will be safe.

    A corollary of Moore’s law might help to predict the future.
    Every 18 months, the minimum IQ to destroy the world drops by one point.

    Either way, we are doomed.


  3. Sue Lange says:

    Carl Sagan devoted an entire episode of Cosmos to the library at Alexandria and he described at length Hypatia’s contribution and her terrible death. That may be why they gave an homage to him in the film.

    FYI September 26th starts banned books week. This is a good topic for that.

  4. Sue Lange says:

    Adding fuel to your fire, here’s a headline from the WSJ (not that this arm of R. Murdoch is pristine, but there you go):

    Biggest U.S. arms deal ever is going to Saudi Arabia.

  5. Athena says:

    ZarPaulus, that doesn’t surprise me. Theocratic regimes also push nations back into the Stone Age, not just war. Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, though very far from perfect, were working states with decent infrastructure before the mullahs et al took over. The same thing is happening to Pakistan even as we speak. The US essentially birthed the Taliban, when it gave weapons (including advanced kinds, like Stingers) to the mujahedeen to fight the Soviets. It’s called blowback.

    Neo, interesting twist to Moore’s law! However, I think it’s a more cyclic pattern: times of improvement followed by times of regression. But you’re right in one thing. As our technology outstrips our emotional/mental maturity and as we strip the planet of easily usable resources, each regression has the potential to be more destructive until it becomes irreversible.

    Sue, I remember that episode of Cosmos! Because of my background, I already knew Hypatia’s story but I realized it would be news to almost everyone else. Sagan was also taken to task by the religious apologists for “inaccuracies” (as if we don’t know who writes history… besides, I recall that the general outlines of his story were correct).

    As for the US vis-à-vis Muslim countries, I didn’t mention the elephant in the room – Israel, in itself and in terms of US politics and policies. However, that is often discussed whereas the Saudi issue is rarely brought up.

  6. FLJustice says:

    Hypatia’s story has been appropriated by several movements. The 18C Enlightenment thinkers used her story to castigate religionists and the Catholic Church in particular. Voltaire, Fielding and Gibbons wrote about her in this context. In the 19C, the Romantic writers took over using her story to hark back to the wonder of the golden age of Antiquity and mourning the loss of knowledge in the Dark Ages. She shows up in plays, poems and novels. Charles Kingsley’s mid-Victorian romance is the most egregious of those. 20C feminists adopted Hypatia. She shows up as the name of a philosophy magazine; a “plate” in Judy Chicago’s feminist art project “The Dinner Party”; and in books on women scientists and mathematicians, and–one of favorites–“Uppity Women of Ancient Times.” Carl Sagan and Amenabar seem to have harked back to the Enlightenment era.

    For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography by Maria Dzielska called Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard Press, 1995). I also have a series of posts on my blog on the events and characters from the film – not a movie review, just a “reel vs. real” discussion. There’s also a post on what happened to the Great Library of Alexandria–it wasn’t destroyed by Caesar or Theophilus.

  7. Athena says:

    Indeed, Hypatia served as a symbol to many causes that used whatever aspects of her life and personality served their purposes. This amenability to being shaped is helped by the fact that none of her own writings survived. More generally, I was actually surprised by how many things Agora did get right, given that it’s essentially a toga epic (with a nod to contemporary issues).

    I saw Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party when it came to Boston. I enjoyed the concept and execution, including the shock value of the vulva-shaped plates.

  8. Neo says:

    If I remember correctly, that corollary of Moore’s law was from Eliezer Yudkowsky’s writings…


  9. Athena says:

    That’s one person whose writings I won’t ever read.

  10. Neo says:

    Dear Athena,
    There is a saying in Nigerian.
    Not to know is bad. Not to wish to know is worse.

    Faithful Follower of Your Blog

    P.S. I knew you wouldn’t like him, though I’ve to admit that I like the way you fume about things(or people) you don’t like. 🙂

  11. Walden2 says:

    Here is the clip from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos about the Library of Alexandria and Hypatia:

    Here is a clip from Agora where they talk about that Aristarchus and his crazy idea about Earth circling the Sun:

    I must see this film. A great review, Athena. Sad that what Hypatia was all about has not changed in 2000 years by which I mean that the debates over science and superstition have certainly not gone away.

  12. Athena says:

    Actually, Neo, I read enough from/about Yudkowsky (and his acolytes) to form an opinion. A person who acts as a Messiah is distinctly unlikely to appeal to me. I don’t need to read all of Hitler’s Mein Kampf or of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight to decide I don’t like the works or the authors’ views. Hell, I don’t have the time to read all the stuff I like — why should I waste my very finite life reading Yudkowsky’s trite vaporings? If I want to read stale science fiction, I can read Leaden Age moldies. And if I want to read religious tracts — well, I don’t want to read religious tracts.

  13. Athena says:

    Glad you enjoyed it, Larry! As I said, the film is far from perfect. But it does tackle important issues and reminds us that, indeed, we still haven’t solved the fundamental dilemma of knowledge versus superstition.

  14. Walden2 says:

    Okay, THIS is the section of Cosmos Episode 13 where Sagan goes into detail about Hypatia and her demise:

  15. Athena says:

    Larry — you’re so exact(ing)!

    Neo — :).

  16. Walden2 says:

    Well, I realized that Cosmos Episode 1, while it talked a fair deal about the Library, only gave a brief mention to Hypatia. It was the last episode of the series that talked more about her.

    Did you know Hypatia is depicted in Raphael’s famous painting, The School of Athens:

    Here is an article on Hypatia which declares that worse than her death at the hands of a mob, she has become a symbol for whoever needs her:

  17. Athena says:

    I knew that she was depicted in School of Athens (and elsewhere), but I much prefer this version of her. It looks far more authentic than the Quattrocento Florentine beauty of Raphael’s, while just as beautiful. Faith, an earlier commenter, mentioned the same thing as you do about Hypatia becoming a convenient symbol to various causes.

  18. Walden2 says:

    Athena, are you aware that some people are actually afraid to see this film?

    Yes – they suffer from Agoraphobia.


  19. Athena says:

    As they say, Larry, there are bad puns and worse puns! I’ll leave it to you to guess to which category yours belongs! *laughs*

  20. Walden2 says:

    Could – not – resist!

    By the way, there was (is?) a journal titled Hypatia that is “the only journal for scholarly research at the intersection of philosophy and women’s studies and is a leader in reclaiming the work of women philosophers. It is an indispensable tool for anyone interested in the rapidly expanding and developing scholarship in feminist philosophy and provides the best single access to the latest research.”

    Many of the issues are available online here:

  21. Walden2 says: 9/19/10:

    “Hypatia and the Clash of Civilizations in Late Antiquity”

    “When the Greeks spoke of ‘agora,’ they meant a place for political discussion, jury trials, and a market. In other words, agora was the center of Greek life.

    In October 9, 2009, the Spanish movie producer, Alejandro Amenabar, released a film he pointedly named ‘Agora,’ in which he zeroed in the clash of Greek and Christian civilizations in the fourth and fifth centuries in Alexandria, Egypt.

    The violent Christianization of polytheistic Greece even redefined agora as just a place for trade, eventually becoming the ‘free market’ of today.”


  22. Walden2 says:

    Nick Nicastro reviewed Agora here, which is apparently on home video now:

  23. Athena says:

    Good review! Takes the bull by the horns.

  24. Walden2 says:

    The same review above is also on Nicastro’s film review page, in case that first link disappears:

    Athena, you might find some of Nicastro’s novels of interest:

    I wrote a review of his book on Eratosthenes titled Circumference, though I cannot find it online. Here is another review on this work:

  25. Walden2 says:

    A documentary about the Library of Alexandria I found on YouTube:

  26. Walden2 says:

    A new book on another famous woman from ancient Alexandria:

  27. Athena says:

    The problem with Cleopatra is that so few sources are extant from her side. Almost everything we know about her comes from Romans, to whom she was “everything that a woman should not be” — which included being sole ruler of a country.

  28. I was able to see Agora now that it came out on DVD. I thought it was excellent. I’m surprised much of what it depicted did not make me more frustrated, it ended up just building up emotion throughout until my tear ducts exploded at the end. Thanks for letting me know it existed.

  29. Athena says:

    I’m very glad you liked it. It’s an unusual film, and not perfect. But it expresses an unabashed love of ideas, intelligence, civilized discourse — and the loss at the end is palpable.

  30. Walden2 says:

    Another online documentary about Hypatia and Alexandria here: