Chapter 13 : The Keepers of Knowledge

In the excitement of my flight across the city there was something I had failed to consider, something which only now arose as a doubt in my mind. Often in my journeys through the desert I had enjoyed the hospitality of strangers. There was something about the emptiness of the landscape which inspired friendship in the most unexpected places, binding hearts and souls, and instilling faith in the human spirit. But in Alexandria hospitality did not arise from scarcity alone; it had to be bartered and paid for like everything else. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of travellers like myself in this city and just as many thieves desperate to sell you a roof over your head, whether it was theirs to trade or not. As the entrance door was pushed open ahead of me and I followed the old man across the threshold, I wondered where I might sleep that night. Perhaps I had been reckless. I did not know the district and had no friends or contacts here. If not careful I could easily become prey for any street hawker determined to cheat me out of a few coins or the cost of a decent meal.

Inside the building the temperature was cool, the atmosphere heavy with the fragrance of balm. It reminded me of stepping into the Temple in Jerusalem for the first time, confronted by the smell of the oils used in sacrifice and ritual. Yet Herod’s Temple was a riotous place, filled with the cries of animals, pilgrims and moneychangers, whereas this room was so silent I could hear my satchel brush against the cotton of my tunic.

As we walked across the stone floor our footsteps echoed behind us. The proportions of the room were so vast I felt like the tiniest insect in comparison. There was no natural light, only a handful of torches on the walls casting flickering patterns against the stone. Eerie shadows loomed over us, and it was almost impossible not to feel a sense of foreboding. On either side of us, colossal pillars formed an avenue of stone. Standing in obedient rows like ancient trees in a forest, they supported the canopy of the roof with enormous limbs.

The old man strode ahead, quite unconcerned. He seemed at ease in this strange temple, perhaps seeing in the darkness things invisible to my eyes. As I followed, I tried to match his pace so as not to be left behind. We reached the far side of the room without encountering another soul. Then somewhere in the darkness we turned a corner and I found myself in a narrow passageway whose walls I could have touched with outstretched arms. Moments later we emerged into a second chamber, much brighter than the first. Rows of wooden tables and stools had been set out around the edges, while a complex arrangement of shelves and drawers covered the walls, spanning the entire length of the room. Many tables were occupied, and a low murmur of conversation filled the space around me. At first glance I counted at least twenty men, most of them dressed in the same dark cloaks as the group I had followed that morning. Feeling self-conscious I slowed my step, but my companion hastened me forwards. We walked past two men seated at opposite ends of a table bent over lengths of parchment. The first was young, roughly my own age. As we approached, he looked up at us briefly before continuing his work, an expression of intense concentration on his face. The second man was much older, his long beard beginning to grey. Laid on the table in front of him were two manuscripts wrapped around wooden staves and partially unraveled. He appeared to be reading from a script, copying it meticulously into his own hand. I slowed down to watch. The letters he traced were beautiful, the movements of his wrist graceful like those of an artist. There was something so utterly timeless about the scene that I imagined him sitting there as years passed and ages came and went, dipping reed into ink and memorising each word like the scribes I had seen in the Temple. I wished I could linger but, as I turned, I saw the old man striding ahead and did not wish to be left behind. As I caught up, he spoke to me in a low voice.

“This is one of several public rooms where anyone may come to read or learn. But there are many more we cannot enter together: study rooms, lecture halls, theatres for performance. These are reserved for students and scholars.”

He took my arm lightly and steered me over to the wall, where wooden shelves crammed with containers climbed steeply towards the ceiling. Clearly built by a master carpenter, they were covered with intricate carvings: vines and flowers, animals and birds, depicted in such detail I could only marvel at the craftsmanship. As I examined them more closely, the old man reached forwards and retrieved something from the nearest shelf. It was a cylinder roughly the size of a water jug, perfectly smooth and carved from the finest olive wood. He passed it to me without a word and I took the object cautiously, turning it in my hands. One end was solid, the other sealed with a linen mantle. I removed this as carefully as I could and tipped the open end into my palm. A scroll, bound with a length of flax cord and sealed with wax, fell out. It looked old and I did not wish to disturb it. Instead, I turned my attention back to the cylinder noticing letters etched into the wood. I handed the container to the old man and pointed at the inscription. He inspected it carefully.

“Do you know what this is?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“ETOIXEIOV Stoikheion,” he read slowly. “It is Greek.”

“What does it mean?”

“The Elements,” he translated for me, “by Euclid of Alexandria.”

He must have noticed my confusion. “Euclid was a mathematician in the time of Ptolemy; an important man. He wrote about geometry and the theory of numbers.”

Like the inscription itself, most of these words were unfamiliar to me. “Is this not a temple then? A holy place?” I asked.

The old man smiled, “Some might call it that.”

“Then where are we if not in a temple of God?”

“You are standing in the Museum, in the famous Library of Alexandria,” he replied.

I considered the old man’s words carefully. “I have never set foot inside a library,” I said eventually. “The only scroll I know is the Scripture our teacher read to us in the synagogue when I was a boy.” As soon as these words had passed my lips, I felt ashamed and embarrassed. I knew nothing of mathematics or geometry. In my experience of the world, knowledge was either taught in the Temple or found hidden beneath rocks or deep in caves and canyons. Knowledge kept you warm when sleeping out on the coldest nights and filled your belly when the only things to eat were hunted with weapons fashioned from sticks and stones.

“You will find your Scripture here on these shelves, translated into Latin, Greek and many other languages. Every letter, every line has been copied meticulously by scholars who have memorised them, dedicating their lives to interpreting the words of God.”

None of this made much sense to me: a building that looked like a temple but was not a temple, shelves filled with parchments, an old man’s words. While he was speaking, I began to feel as though I was slipping into a dream, the ground beneath me no more solid than water. Only hours earlier, I had woken in my bed at the hostelry and the world had appeared much as it always had: the light of the moon shining through the window was the same as on any night, the walls no less solid. Even the noise from my neighbours was proof that the day would unfold much like any other. There had been no reason to question this, just as there was no reason to believe the sun would not continue to shine. But, over the course of just one day, these assumptions had begun to crumble. The world I had stumbled upon was full of wonders indeed, but to my family and the people I had grown up with it would seem as alien as a plough to the ocean. They were farmers, weavers, carpenters. They had no more conception of geometry or mathematics than of a city like Alexandria, where merchants chartered magnificent ships loaded with precious cargo, and children sold loaves in the market to travellers from halfway across the earth.

If I had wanted to question the old man further I did not get the chance. He took the parchment from my hands, placed it back in its container and returned this to the shelf. He then led me to the opposite side of the room where a tall, slender man waited impassively in the shadows. He stood alone with no table or stool in front of him, no manuscripts or ink pot, and he appeared to be watching the room intently. His face was angular, gaunt, expressionless as stone but with eyes that danced here and there, alert to every movement. As we approached, the men greeted each other with a respectful nod and exchanged a few words in whispers. My companion smiled warmly and the tall man nodded again, his gaze resting on me for a moment. He produced a silver key from the pocket of his tunic and indicated for us to follow him. Leading us over to a wooden door set within an alcove, he inserted the key into the lock. We waited to one side as he turned the key and pushed open the heavy door. Then, without a word, he ushered us through.