By Pamela Toler (Regular Contributor)
For hundreds of years papyrus was the principal material on which books (or at least hand-copied scrolls) were written. Since it could only be made from the pith of freshly harvested papyrus reeds, native to the Nile valley, ancient Egypt had a monopoly on the product–and a potential monopoly on the written word.
In the second century BCE, the kingdoms of Egypt and Pergamum* got into an academic arms race.
The library at Alexandria in Egypt had been an intellectual power house since it was founded by King Ptolemy I Soter in 295 BCE. Ptolemy set out to collect copies of all the books in the inhabited world. He sent agents to search for manuscripts in the great cities of the known world. Foreign ships that sailed into Alexandria were searched for scrolls, which were confiscated and copied. (According to Greek physician, philosopher and author Galen, the seized books were cataloged under a special heading:”books of the ships”.)
Thirty years later, King Eumenes of Pergamum founded a rival library in his capital. Both kingdoms were wealthy and the two libraries competed for sensational finds.
In 197 BCE, King Ptolemy V Epiphanies took the rivalry to a new level by putting an embargo on papyrus shipments to Pergamum. The idea was that without papyrus, scholars in Pergamum could not make scrolls and therefore could not copy manuscripts.
You can’t stop a librarian that easily. Pergamum turned to a more expensive, but more durable, material made from the skin of sheep and goats. We know it as parchment, from the medieval Latin phrase for “from Pergamum”.
* Not a small place, as you can see: