Reconstruction of a map of the known world around 194 BC. according to Eratosthenes, by John Murray.
Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Irene Vallejo’s ‘The infinity within a reed‘ (El infinito en un junco. La invención de los libros en el mundo antiguo) The invention of the book in the ancient world. At the moment, there is no English translation (!), so we will share in the coming days a few excerpts we will translate into English for you, good patrons and readers, so to behold an impression of Irene Vallejo’s story-telling talent and skillful scholarship. This one being the fourth excerpt. From the French translation of Anne Plantagenet, Editions de Belles Lettres, 2021.
Translation is the heir of a concept that Alexander, in a certain proportion, did invent and that we still call by its Greek name: Cosmopolitanism. The best part of the megalomanic dream of Alexander-Its undertaking, like in all self-respecting utopia, was obviously ill-fitted- was about giving life to the sustainable union of the people living in the ‘οἰκουμένη, oïkouménê, the land that is being occupied’, setting a new political form able to ensure to all the human beings peace, culture and laws. Plutarch writes: ‘Alexander did not treat the Greeks as leaders and the others, the barbarians, in a despotic way like Aristotle had advised him. He also did not behave with them like they would have been plants or animals. On the contrary, he ordered that everybody should consider the world like home, the kind people as family and the bad people as strangers‘. This is probably an hagiographic summary that carefully hides the more problematic aspects of the Greek imperial adventure. Nevertheless, through the distorting prism, it reflects the exceptional process of globalization undertaken by Alexander.
The project to create a kingdom that stretches unto the limits of the inhabited world perished with the young Macedonian, but his conquests open the way to a wider range of human relations. The Hellenistic civilization was, in fact, the greatest network of cultural and commercial exchanges that the world had known till then. And the new cities, founded by Alexander and his successors as a living celebration of his glory, inaugurated a new way of life during the decline of classical civilization. While in the European Greece life was still happening in a traditional manner, in the busy and crowded streets of the great Alexandrian cities of the Middle East and of Asia Minor, the daily blending of people with diverse origins, customs and beliefs opened the way to hybrid and audacious ways of life.
Many specialists think that the one person that embodied at best the Hellenistic new horizons was Eratosthenes, who was invited by king Ptolemy the Third to manage the Library of Alexandria. The new director corrected the old geographical map that was made according to the information gathered by Alexander’s expedition. According to the scholar, Luca Scuccimarra, ‘Eratosthenes expressed, with an unprecedented map, the full acknowledgement of the ethnic and linguistic diversity of human kind.’ The Alexandria that this cartographer of the new global reality knew was a projection of the future world: A Greek city in Africa, the most extraordinary Babel, the most prodigious meeting point for ideas, arts, and beliefs of our good old world.
There, on the shores of the Mediterranean sea, was born the first culture eager to welcome the knowledge of all humanity. Such a fantastic ambition was the fruit of the desire to communicate with others, is exactly what Herodotos felt all his life, and what stimulated Alexander in his frantic race up to the end of the world. As, master George Steiner recalls, Herodotos raised that question when he said: ‘Every year we send boats to Africa, facing great dangers for our lives and at great costs, to ask you: ‘Who are you? How are your laws and your language? They, on the other side, never sent boats to ask us these very questions.‘ Hellenism foresaw and developed the idea of knowledge travel, under two forms: Physical motion-with caravans, on boats, in chariots or horseback-and motionless, the reader foreseeing the vastness of the world in the trails of ink of a book.
Alexandria,symbolized by the light-house and the Museum, was the symbol of this double course. In the city-crucible, we find the foundations of a Europe, which-with its lights and shadows, its tensions and delusions, including its inclination for occasional outbursts of sheer violence-never lost its appetite for knowledge nor its desire for exploration. In ‘View from the seabed’, Raphael Argullol claims for himself a simple epitaph in two words: ‘He travelled!’ and he adds: ‘I travelled to escape and to try to see myself elsewhere. When we achieve to see ourselves elsewhere, we contemplate life with more humility and insight than when, like a fool encouraged by other fools, we imagine that we are the best and that our city is the most beautiful, and what we call life is the only way to consider.‘ Alexandria, in its ambiguous status of Greek city beyond Greece and seed of Europe outside the European territory, initiated the external view of one-self. At the apex period of the Library and in the trails of Alexander, the Stoic philosophers dared to teach for the first time that all individuals are the members of a borderless community and that they should respect humanity in any places and under any circumstances where they find themselves.
Let us remember the Greek city of the Delta as a place where this magma was boiling, where foreign languages and traditions started to be significant, and also where the perception of the world and of knowledge was a shared territory. In these aspirations, was discovered the fore-runner of the great European dream of a universal citizenship. Writing, the book and its integration in libraries were the technologies that made possible this utopia.
Usually, we witness oblivion, the disappearance of the legacy of words, chauvinism and language barriers. Thanks to Alexandria, we became utterly weird: Translators, cosmopolites, granted with a deep memory. I am truly fascinated by the Great Library-me, the little left-out schoolgirl in Saragossa-because it invented a homeland of paper for the stateless people of all time.
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