Suburban Soliloquy #86

Great Secret

In January of 1989, I met Benjamin Moses Kagan, a retired Professor of Semitic Languages and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania and Assistant Curator of the Near East Section of the University Museum. He was married to a distant cousin and we met at a family affair in New York. We hit it off; he was a splendid storyteller and on a subject close to my heart, ancient history. We also shared a common enthusiasm for wine. He claimed he was getting old and it was time to deplete some of his wine cellar. To this end he invited me and my wife, Ms Keogh, to come visit him and his wife in Philadelphia. Since we lived on the outskirts of Philly, we decided on just such a visit.

His family emigrated from Russia when he was still a child, first to England, for one or two years, and then to the United States. They settled in Philadelphia. He was already a renowned scholar before the Second World War broke out, having published books on how Greek knowledge was preserved and advanced by the Arabs, and during the war he served as an Intelligence Officer in North Africa. After the war he returned to research and teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, where he had taken his degree.

He looked very healthy to me, short and quite trim, overdressed in a tweed suit in summer. Why does anyone wear a jacket at home? Despite his healthy appearance, the man was in his eighties, I was given to understand he had recently suffered a stroke. My only clue was his slightly slurred speech, but that could have also been the wine. He was drinking when I arrived, he drank through a delicious dinner prepared by his wife, and together we finished the bottle of port that I had brought. Sadly, my new found friend died the following year.

Perhaps it is better that he died before the war in Bosnia. It would have been unbearable for him to witness the bombardment of Mostar in 1992, when Serbian forces targeted the libraries of that city, including the Archives of Herzegovina, the Roman Catholic Office of the Archbishop's library, the Museum of Herzegovina, and the University of Mostar Library. They did it again in Sarajevo, destroying the National University Library of Bosnia. Over a million volumes set on fire by incendiary grenades launched by the Serbian nationalists. When does a library become a military target? As a human chain of volunteers endeavored to save some of the rarest books and manuscripts, snipers tried picking them off. It would have hurt Ben too gravely to know of the loss of Sarajevo's Oriental Institute, thousands of unique Arabic, Persian, and Hebrew manuscripts.

That evening in Philadelphia, while my wife and his roamed the house discussing the Kagans' collection of art, Ben and I were getting drunk in his library - Ms Keogh was my designated driver. Books covered three walls from carpet to ceiling, except where a door allowed egress. His desk was on the far side of the room, where there were no books, but a large bow window overlooking their backyard and garden. His rather large desk was in front of it. We began this part of the evening sitting in two wingback chairs, but ended up both sitting at his desk admiring books from his collection.

Ben was old enough to remember the "boorish Germans" taking revenge on the Belgium town of Louvain during the Great War. Because German soldiers had been killed, the Germans executed two hundred civilians and burned down the historic center of the town, which included the great library of the Catholic University of Louvain. Over two hundred thousand books and manuscripts destroyed, many irreplaceable. As if that wasn't enough, after the war the library was rebuilt and restocked, many of the replacement volumes coming from the defeated Germans, yet in the Second World War the German artillery destroyed the library again. Telling me about it brought him to tears. Ben loved libraries.

It was at this point that Ben shared his great secret with me, a story I have not dared to share before now because of promises I made to the old man, but I think it is safe to retell what little I remember, and it concerns libraries.

Soon after the war, Ben received a letter from Professor Doktor Wilhelm Semmler of Ruprecht-Karls-Universitšt where he taught Klassische Philologie. There was an exchange of letters concerning a particular manuscript that came into Semmler's hands. During the Second World War, Semmler, a hesitant Nazi, was sent by Hitler with other experts to Monte Cassino to "rescue" books before the expected bombardment by the Allies. Fortunately the Vatican had anticipated the risk of war and had removed about fifteen-hundred irreplaceable manuscripts at the war's beginning. There were plenty of books left that the German scholars pored over and from which they selected what they thought best. One book in particular took Semmler's interest that no one else seemed to regard important, neither the monks of the Benedictine monastery nor his colleagues, perhaps because the manuscript was in Arabic. Ben visited Wilhelm in Heidelberg to see the book and while he was there to translate it. What followed were several years of correspondence as they debated the significance of the book and its verity. It appeared to concern the famous Library of Alexandria.

I explained to Ben that all I knew about the Library of Alexandria came from Carl Sagan's television series, Cosmos. It was from Sagan that I learned the story of the last librarian of the Library of Alexandria, a great scientist and a great beauty was Hypatia. She was philosopher, physicist, mathematician, and astronomer. But Cyrus, the Archbishop of Alexandria detested her, a woman too powerful and a symbol of the pagan world. He incited a mob of Christians to riot. These Christians caught her on her way to the library. She was stripped and tortured, murdered and burned. And then they burned down the library. Only Ben told me I had it wrong. They did indeed murder Hypatia, but they had only destroyed the Temple of Serapis, an annex to the museum proper. True, the temple contained tens of thousands of books and many a saint boasted about the destruction of the library and the killing of the "whore" of Alexandria, but it was the Alexandrian Museum that held hundreds of thousands of books and it was left untouched.

It was the destruction of the Library that Ben and Semmler discussed. Long before the Christian attempt, there was an earlier destruction. During the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, Caesar burned the Egyptian fleet to keep it from falling into Pompey's hands. The fire spread to the docks where 40,000 books that had been removed from the Library were being stored before being shipped to Rome. The warehouse caught on fire and the books burned. It was an accident. Ben convinced Semmler that the books were probably just copies. But what concerned Ben and Wilhelm was the last and final destruction of the Library of Alexandria.

In 640 A.D. the Muslims had control of Alexandria. The wise men of the city were concerned as to the welfare of the Library and approached the conquering general, Amr, and inquired of him what was to be done to preserve the books. Amr asked the advice of the Caliph Omar in Medina, leader of the Muslim world. The Caliph instructed that books agreeing with the Koran were unnecessary, those disagreeing with the Koran were wicked. He ordered them destroyed. The legend has it that the scrolls were used to heat Alexandria's thousands of bathhouses and the large supply lasted six months. [Similarly, the Taliban regime plundered the National Library of Afghanistan; 80,000 books were used for fuel and food wrappers.]

Then there was the Arabic codex in Wilhelm Semmler's possession. It gave an ancient ship's manifest of nearly a thousand books taken from Alexandria by Muslim scholars who could not bear their destruction. The books were sent to what Ben believed to be a secret location in the desert of what is now Libya, for the volume also contained a description of the trip and the place where these surviving books were hidden. When Semmler died, he willed the manuscript to Ben. Ben studied the gift and made plans that waited until his retirement. And there in the library of his Philadelphia home Ben claimed to me that he found the place where the rescued books are being stored.

I didn't believe him because I had certainly never heard the news of such a great discovery and because, well, he was drunk. But there was a reason, he said, for it not being well known, his discovery was a secret he never revealed. I thought this incredible and begged to know why. He told me the stories of his difficult adventure across the Libyan Desert in search of the secret location. The day after he found it, the 15th April 1986, was the day President Ronald Reagan ordered the American air strikes on Libya. It was hard enough getting into the country, but now it was too dangerous to stay. They returned to Egypt by a different route than they came.

He left everything in place, knowing that the desert would best preserve the papyrus scrolls that made up the books formerly of the Library of Alexandria. Nevertheless, he did bring away from the site one scroll as proof of his find, Amfiaraos, a lost play by Aristophanes. And where was it, I asked. Where was it indeed!, he replied. He had landed at JFK Airport, took a cab to Penn Station, and had an hour's wait until his train. He went for a walk. He was mugged, his briefcase taken from him. When the police recovered the remains, they imagined the muggers, in there disappointment of finding nothing of obvious value in the briefcase, dumped it in a sidewalk trashcan and set it ablaze.

The experience had a profound effect on Ben. He decided the world was not yet ready to discover these missing books. The Arabic codex in the briefcase was only a copy. He has hidden the original and other copies, confident they will be found one day, but not in the near future, and the scrolls in the Libyan Desert will wait.

Unfortunately, dear reader, Benjamin Moses Kagan and Wilhelm Semmler do not exist. The Arabic codex is my own fiction. If there is a hidden store of books in the Libyan Desert, no one has told me. What is worst, all the wonderful libraries destroyed in my story, that part is true.

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"