The Arcanus Project
by Pedro Blas González
The librarian became more animated the more he talked: “We possess the original hermetic and Gnostic texts, as well as the original Papyrus of Ani, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, as it is known today. Here is the very interesting Life of Appolonius of Tyana, a writer who lived during the first century A.D., and whose biography was written a century later by a Greek named Philostratus,” said the man, carefully taking the volume from the shelf.
“The list of our books, Gentlemen, is extensive. Over there we have our clay tablet area,” he said pointing to a far shelf. “There you will find tablets that were discovered in Nippur. These books date back two thousand years before Christ.
“To their right,” he went on, leading us to a tall bookshelf, “that is part of the collection of tablets that belonged to king Sennacherib of Assyria, who ruled from 704 to 681 B.C.
“We also have a great number of works on papyrus. We know from secondary sources that there were extensive papyrus libraries in ancient Egypt. Two well-known sources make references to the library of Amarna, in the 1300’s B.C., and another at Thebes at around 1200 B.C. Those libraries were destroyed. What is not known is that most of their holdings are here.”
I asked him a question about the art of illustrating manuscripts.
“It was customary to make copies of documents, so that in the event of fire, raids, war etc., the works would not become lost. That is also the work of disinterested love. One such important copy is the Harris Papyrus 1 that is housed at the British Museum. Luckily, that is not the only extant copy,” he said, with a proud smile. “We have one identical to the one in England.
“We also have all of the papyrus scrolls of the great library that the Greek ruler, Pisistratus, established in Athens during the 500s B.C. We also have Aristotle’s entire library, the one that existed at the Lyceum, including his dialogues. These works were saved and catalogued by Andronicus. You will find the latter’s writings next to Aristotle.”
This news made me very excited.
“We have good reason to believe that the contents of that library were not sold to the Alexandrian library, as is commonly believed. Instead, those scrolls were recovered from the home of the Roman general, Locus Cornelius Sulla, who took the scrolls to his home after he sacked Athens.
“We also have a large collection of works that have come to us from many private collections of Roman aristocrats. These individuals found it very pleasing to have private libraries.
“In addition, we have collections from the great Roman libraries: the Octavian library, which was built as a result of the plans that Julius Caesar had made. The library was begun in 37 B.C., seven years after Caesar’s death. I present you with the Ulpian library,” he then said, pointing to the shelves to our left.
“Built around A.D. 110 by the emperor Trajan, that library was interesting because it had separate sections for Greek and Latin works. Another is the library that the emperor Hadrian built at the foot of the Acropolis, in A.D. 125.”
The librarian then patiently answered many of our questions.
“As you can see,” he continued, “we have many manuscripts written on animal skins. This was the case when papyrus was either unavailable or had become scarce. This is the case with the The Dead Sea Scrolls. Unfortunately, we do not possess that work.
“However, we do possess other documents from the Essenes, the people who are thought to have written the Dead Sea Scrolls. We have many works in parchment. The longevity of animal skins, as you can witness for yourselves, is already time-proven,” he said, displaying some emotion.
“Legend has it that when the rivalry between the libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum became too intense, the Alexandrians withheld their supply of papyrus to Pergamum. Without papyrus, they had to turn to other resources. This is believed to be the origin of parchment.
“Because parchment fragments cannot be combined like papyrus, the librarians at Pergamum came up with an ingenious way to bind the pages. They folded the sheets of parchment then sewed them. This practice gives us the look of modern books.”
He went on: “There is a very interesting anecdote that I would like to share with you. When the Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, stated in A.D. 378, ‘The libraries are closing forever, like tombs’, he was not aware that the work of this library had begun several centuries earlier.
“Of course, by A.D. 476 the western portion of the Roman Empire was virtually destroyed. Our past librarians were tireless in attaining books from all parts of the world. We have one of the original copies of the Justinian Code of Law. That work is important to the city of Constantinople.
“We were fortunate to come into possession of an early copy of the Suidas, an encyclopedic work. Whatever original works this library was not able to secure, we made copies. We have a scriptorium here. Gentlemen, be assured that everyone that toils here does so as a labor of love. Their zest for knowledge and wisdom is unprecedented and unmatched in our world today. I will now allow you some time to reflect on what you have seen. Explore at ease, please. I will return in a short while.”
My companions and I were left alone. I could not contain my excitement. I turned to Charles. “What do you make of all of this?”
“I’m as lost and tongue-tied as you are. I can’t really gauge what I think right now. I’m numb, to be honest.” he said, shaking his head in total disbelief.
Turning to the two guides, Charles asked them, “You men have obviously known about this place for a long time. Tell us what you know.”
“I have known for several years,” said Sayyid, Charles’ one-time archaeology student. “I was told by the main curator of the Cairo Museum, who summoned me to his office one day after a dig. We’re not supposed to talk about it.”
“How many people know about this place?” I asked.
“It is hard to say. Some serious thinkers and scholars. Mainly orthodox believers. The librarian has not mentioned it yet; the idea for the library was from the start a sanctuary to cultivate purity of the soul. This, I was told, was the main reason to build the library. They believe that the same way there are national security concerns, there are also secrets of knowledge, wisdom and human essences that are only useful to the pure of heart. They are terrified that if the press catches hold of this, there will be an explosion of people coming here. Thrill-seekers. They know that will be disastrous.”
When we had been looking at manuscripts for about about half an hour, the tall librarian returned.
“Gentleman, as you can see for yourself, our world in here,” he said referring to the library, “is incommensurate with the values of the modern world. If we make the existence of the library public, we will undoubtedly destroy any value that the library has in serving seekers of knowledge and wisdom.
“The idea of the founders of the library was to foster something constructive and of lasting value to share with posterity. Genuine knowledge is unchanging, and serves man for eternity. Such understanding naturally leads to wisdom, and wisdom to purity of the soul.
“Sadly, these are truths that couldn’t be given away even if one tried. This is the great engine of human history. People who seek salvation do so no matter what; everyone must do so on their own. These are some of the truths that the founders of the library wanted to safeguard.”
After answering several questions, the librarian said: “The founders of the library were never interested in the present nor the here and now, as we are today. We beg you to remain discreet and understand the importance of the library to those who can truly benefit from it the most. We do not want to become the victims of mundane curiosity. It is not our wish to make the library into a modern-day circus.
“Now, if you do not have further questions, I will show you our next section. In many respects, what I am about to show you now is even more fascinating than our manuscripts,” he said, beginning to walk.
We followed the librarian through another winding, semi-dark corridor, at the end of which stood a heavy wooden door. He opened the heavy door and stood aside.
“Gentlemen, I am now proud to show you our crypt.”
I stared into a large, semi-dark room that contained between thirty to forty above-ground tombs, each containing some modest sepulchral decorations. These contained the remains of founding fathers of the Catholic Church, mystics, writers, and philosophers.
“Here are the tombs of Theophrastus and Andronicus of Rhodes, both disciples of Aristotle,” the librarian said, walking over to the sarcophagi.
“Please, come closer. Here is Aristotle the Stagirite.”
“Aristotle?” I asked, not being able to contain my surprise.
“Aristotle, yes. The philosopher. Allow me to share with you how his body came to us. It really has to do with his wife, Phylias. She was very much in love with him and made it her wish to be buried alongside him. Here she is next to him,” he said showing us her tomb. “After Phylias died, Aristotle had an illegitimate son, Nicomachus, with Phylias’ handmaiden, Herphyllis. It was Herphyllis who made sure that they were not separated at death.”
Still shocked, I read an inscription at the foot of Aristotle’s sarcophagus that read: “It is best to rise from life as from a banquet, neither thirsty nor drunken.”
“Aristotle’s final years were not easy ones. He moved about a great deal. He finally succumbed to some kind of stomach malady in 322 B.C., at age 62, just one year after the death of Alexander the Great.”
Charles and I looked at each other, shocked.
The librarian summoned four men. “Gentlemen, we have gone through the trouble of bringing you here because of your devotion to immortality and transcendence that human essence affords those who are pure of spirit. You have been highly recommended. We are very pleased to share in the exemplary lives that you lead. That is why you were chosen to come here.” When he finished talking, the four men began to remove the lid from Aristotle’s sarcophagus.
“Come closer,” the librarian said proudly. “I present you Aristotle.”
Nothing had prepared us for what we witnessed next. His body was supremely preserved. His hair and beard were kept tidy. He wore a champagne colored tunic that was clean and well kept.
“With the assistance of ancient Egyptian embalming techniques, we have been able to preserve him for posterity. Some people speculate that his pristine preservation is the result of his strong conviction regarding the immortality of the soul. Either way, there he lies before us, the privileged few.”
[Author’s note] This story was published in 1979, in Perennial Philosophy, a very small magazine that is published annually by an Aristotelian-Thomistic society of monks, most of whose members reside in seclusion in the desert outside of Giza, Egypt.
Copyright © 2012 by Pedro Blas González
[Editor’s note] A review of Lionel Casson’s Libraries in the Ancient World appears in this issue.