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Shedding light on ancient repository of knowledge

By Debra Dobbins

Alexandria is Egypt’s best-known port city and also well known as the home to one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, the lighthouse of Pharos. I remember Alexandria (also simply called Alex) as a bustling city overrun with donkey carts and Mercedes.

What is not so well known about Alexandria is that it is also the site of one of the world’s earliest repositories of information. An early name for a structure built there in ancient times evolved into what we now call a museum.

As I’ve mentioned before, the ancient Greeks not only roamed all over the Mediterranean, they dominated much of it, as well. Indeed, Greece’s legendary general, Alexander the Great, created one of the largest empires of the ancient world by the time he was 30, according to Wikipedia. His empire went from the Ionian Sea all the way to the Himalayas, it adds.

In Words from History, Isaac Asimov writes that after Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C., Ptolemy, one of his generals, took control of Egypt and made Alexandria his capital. “He … reigned there nearly forty years in splendor and prosperity,” Asimov writes. “His son, Ptolemy II, reigned an equal length of time after him.”

Both men, Asimov continues, were intent on making Alexandria a shining symbol of Greek success … using Egyptian wealth to fund their aspirations, of course.

They created “an institution at which men of learning could labor freely, supported by the state and supplied with all the equipment they needed,” Asimov writes. “In particular, they were supplied with a library that ended as the greatest of the ancient world.”

This institution was first called a Mouseion in Greek, which meant a temple to the Muses, “the nine goddesses of the arts and sciences,” Asimov writes. The Latins, though, spelled it as museum.
Really, then, the Mouseion in Alexandria was more like an early university than a repository for artifacts or works of art, he notes.

The Mouseion was mostly ruined by Christian fanatics in the fifth century and eradicated by Muslim invaders in the seventh century, but the idea of a special building for the accumulation of and understanding of artifacts important to mankind’s understanding of the world still survived, Asimov adds.

“When buildings were constructed to display great deeds in the arts and sciences, or in any aspect of learning, these, too, were called museums,” Asimov concludes.

The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that the “earliest use in reference to English institutions was of libraries (e.g. the British Museum) [in the] sense of "building to display objects" [was] first recorded [in the] 1680s.”

By the way, in the cartoon above the painting is a light-hearted rendition of “The Scream” by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. The actual painting may be viewed at the Munch Museet in Oslo, Norway’s capital city. (It was stolen a few years back, but police recovered it.) The cartoon also spoofs Auguste Rodin’s "The Thinker," the first cast of which is displayed at the Musée Rodin in Paris.

It’s interesting to note that the words both in Norwegian and French also evolved from the Latin word, museum. That’s not particularly surprising for French, since it is a Latin language. It’s a bit more unusual for Norwegian, a Germanic language.

I’m guessing that the French had museums before the Norwegians, and that the Norwegians borrowed the French word when they, too, created museums. It appears that they took “Musée,” dropped the accented e, and added a typical Norwegian suffix. “et.” I could further explain “et,” but that’s a grammar lesson best left for another day.

In 1909 archaeologist Hermann Thiersch drew his rendition of the lighthouse of ancient Alexandria.
Photo of drawing courtesy of Wikipedia

The British Museum’s permanent collection encompasses eight million works.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The Munch Museet is a must-see attraction in Oslo.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia


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