Famous Knowledge Centers and Libraries That Were Horribly Destroyed

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We use a number of words to describe wanton destruction of educational literature and educational material: ‘iconoclasm’ for when it is religious in nature, ‘biblioclasm’ when specific books are targeted because of their content and ‘libricde’ when centres of learning are destroyed in physical and symbolic acts of intellectual assault. The meaning is often to replace one ideology with another and destroy all traces of the other. The following were deliberate and malicious acts.

1. Great Library of Alexandria

Arguably the most famous act of libricide, nobody is entirely sure who burned it down. Largely blamed on religious fanatics (the most likely suspect), it was the largest library anywhere in the ancient world. It’s likely that it was attacked several times throughout its history but each time, copies or originals of the texts were saved at the Serapeum elsewhere in the city. It was apparently completely destroyed under the orders of Coptic Pope Theophilus in AD391. Yet, later texts refer to the Muslim conquest as finally destroying what was left of the collection in AD641

2. University of Alabama

Though it stands today having been reconstructed in the 1870s, the first campus in the state was burned down by Union troops during the US Civil War as it had turned out a large number of important officers on the side of the Confederacy. The event took place just five days before General Lee surrendered to the Unionist forces so it was hardly viewed as a desperate act of war ‘ victory was almost assured at that point. However, once the two sides were reconciled, the government granted compensation to the university and it reopened in 1871

3. Imperial Library of Constantinople

The last of the great libraries of the ancient world survived as long as it did by virtue of the fact of existing in the Eastern Roman Empire ‘ better known to history after the fall of the Western Roman Empire – as The Byzantine Empire. Located in the imperial capital of Constantinople (today called Istanbul). It had survived various attacks and accidental fires but finally succumbed to iconoclastic Ottomans when Byzantium fell in the 15th century. However, it’s likely that the building itself was destroyed in 1204 with ‘the library’ merely remaining a collection of books until the arrival of the Ottomans.

4. Institut d’Egypte – Egypt’s ‘Temple of Knowledge’

The wanton destruction of cultural artefacts and literature is not something limited to a less enlightened past. Sadly, they can also be destroyed through acts of non-political random acts of vandalism of groups looking to make a political point. When Egypt overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the building burned out when a Molotov cocktail passed through the window and set fire to the manuscripts. Though the collection was largely destroyed, in 2014 reconstruction work is ongoing and a number of local important figures have promised to donate personal objects when it reopens.

5. Jaffna Library, Sri Lanka

Another building that was not completely destroyed, it was attacked in the Sri Lankan civil war by the Sinhalese on one night in 1981. The destruction was so extensive that it took until 2001 for the institute to reopen. Many works of ancient literature were lost and never replaced. The library has slowly built up a new collection for visitors to enjoy and study. The library had previously been one of the largest collections anywhere in Asia.

6. Institut   Sexualwissenschaft, Berlin

The Nazis were known social conservatives with all the sexual illiberalism that went with it. Prior to the rise of Hitler, it was the world’s primary research institute into the science of sex and sexuality. It is famous for finally accepting homosexuality and for its penetrating research into sex lives of people both gay and straight. Its director Magnus Hirschfeld had acquired decades of critical research but sadly, much of the collection ended up on Nazi bonfires along with important Marxist and Jewish works. Most ironically, the institute had copies of Heinrich Heine’s ‘Almansor’ which has the famous line: ‘Where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people.’

7. Nojpeten, Guatemala

This was not the only Mayan collection or library destroyed when the Conquistadors invaded Mesoamerica, but this represents the final destruction of a large collection of Maya codices. Nojpeten and its other associated centres of learning, were largely destroyed under the orders of one man (Bishop Diego de Landa) who said following an attack in Yucatan: “We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil. We burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.”

8. House of Wisdom, Baghdad

Considered the world’s first university, it was established during the Islamic Golden Age. It became a centre of learning and a meeting place for important scholars of the medieval Islamic world. It became not just a study of religious texts, but also for astronomy and the humanities and it welcomed Persian, Arab and even Christian scholars. It was in many ways, ahead of its time. It was a fire from the east, and not Christian enemies from the west, that was the cause of its destruction though. The Mongol ‘Golden Horde’ invaded Iraq and besieged and then attacked the city. The House was amongst those buildings destroyed.

9. Nalanda, India

It is terrible when books are put to the torch but it is even more horrific when the teachers are put to the torch with their learning materials. This is what happened in Bihar in the 12th century, considered Buddhism’s primary centre of learning, functioning rather like a modern university. It was attacked by Mamluks in 1193 and its book collection is reported to have been so vast that the fire burned for three months.

10. Worcester Priory

Between 1536 and 1538, King Henry VIII following his cessation from the Roman Catholic Church, set about systematically dissolving monasteries and other religious institutions such as Guilds (but trade guilds were untouched) in a power struggle to seize control of the church in England. Sadly, many of these priories and abbeys had accumulated priceless manuscripts over hundreds of years. At Worcester, it is believe the institution lost somewhere in the region of 600 works going back hundreds of years. Iconoclasm, it seems, is not just limited to supplanting one religion with another but also between sects of the same religion.


Accidental destruction is one thing, but when there is a deliberate move to destroy centres of learning and the works contained therein as a result of cultural aggression, many consider this an act of war and there has been some talk since the Arab Spring, to include destruction of cultural property as a war crime. Sometimes, killing symbols and the culture of a people is considered far more aggressive as an action than killing its people.

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