Section 14: About Hypatia

Hypatia (born 350-370 AD; died 415 AD) was a Neoplatonic philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician, the daughter of Theon, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, under the rule of the Byzantine Empire. She is remembered as the first female mathematician and the last librarian of the Library of Alexandria. She was a professor of philosophy and mathematics in the city of Alexandria and was skilled in other sciences such as astronomy. She was also one of the most important and influential Neoplatonic scholars in Alexandria. Hypatia was known throughout her life as a great teacher and skilled researcher. At the instigation of a bishop named Cyril, she was accused of witchcraft and plotting against Christianity in Alexandria and was murdered by a group of Christians led by a clergyman named Peter. During the Middle Ages, many scholars mistakenly thought she was Catherine of Alexandria. In the Enlightenment era, she was known as a symbol of anti-Catholicism. In the 19th century, European literary figures, especially Charles Kingsley, wrote novels about her, and in the 20th century, Hypatia was recognized as a symbol of women’s rights and a pioneering figure in the feminist movement.

Life: Her father Theon was a professor at the university and recorded a complete solar and lunar eclipse, and later, due to his descriptions of some important works of Greek astronomy and mathematics, especially Ptolemy’s Almagest and astrolabe, he was chosen as the head of the University of Alexandria. She was one of the famous mathematicians and professors of the University of Alexandria.

Theon was a professor, private tutor, and playmate to his daughter. His love for beauty, poetry, philosophy, and mathematics also influenced his daughter. He believed that “mathematics is the language of poetry,” and every mathematician is inadvertently a speaker and poet. Theon managed and planned all aspects of his daughter’s life and time. She received comprehensive and organized education in arts, literature, science, mathematics, and philosophy under his supervision, and also participated in sports such as horseback riding, swimming, and mountaineering. During her childhood, Hypatia spent most of her time in the library, where she listened to discussions between her father and his colleagues and attended lectures in large halls. Her father once said to her, “My daughter, keep the right to think for yourself, for even the wrong thinking is better than not thinking at all.” She not only learned from her father but also worked alongside him. She accompanied her father in editing many ancient texts on mathematics and astronomy. When her father was working on the commentary on the syntax (or Almagest) of Ptolemy or the revised text of the Elements (which is considered almost all subsequent writings of Euclid), he mentioned in the margin of the book that his daughter, the mathematician, had reviewed all the chapters. One day, Hypatia told Theon, “Father! My heart desires to travel…not to reach a destination…just to move from one line to another. The world is bigger than Alexandria, and the sky is wider than the earth. It’s only through reading different books and observations that I can reach enlightenment. It’s not enough to understand the secrets of the sky here; I have to learn astronomy and mathematics outside the city. Her father tearfully suggested Athens and Italy as travel destinations, emphasizing that the gifts of travel are only wisdom and knowledge.

Hypatia’s fame and popularity in philosophy, mathematics, and other fields became so great that borders were transcended, and everyone talked about her. She wore a long tunic and a robe like male university professors, and a crown made of cave tree leaves. Her long hair fell in curls behind her. The University of Athens annually awarded this crown to its top graduates, and she looked like a wise and knowledgeable professor in every way. When she returned from her travels, she was invited to teach philosophy and mathematics at the University of Alexandria. When Hypatia began teaching at the Alexandria Museum, people gathered in the street near the museum building just to hear her voice.

Serapeum was a beautiful and grand building, and its most significant role was as a temple to the Greek-Egyptian deity, Serapis, the god of death and healing. It also housed a large library, which became famous with the arrival of Hypatia. It is said that Theon named the library after his daughter, and she continued to teach at the university until the end of her life. Hypatia admired methods of understanding the truth based on evidence and documentation. Her teaching style was logical and rationalistic, in the style of Plato and Aristotle. During the sessions, students learned by asking questions and receiving answers from the professor. Hypatia had a unique perspective, and her deep belief in questioning made her attend these sessions. Her precise approach to this field allowed her to conduct these sessions with confidence and conviction. She had the ability to uncover the secrets of the unknown and always pursued new sciences, satisfying her inquisitive students and finding joy and pleasure in the pursuit of truth.

She said, “As humans, just as we fight for truth, we must also fight against superstition.” She invited young women who were eager to learn to withstand hardships and to embrace knowledge.

In one of her speeches, Hypatia amazed the audience by saying, “My sisters, an orphan is not just someone whose parents have passed away due to the pains of life, but also someone who refuses to learn and acquire knowledge. I have learned that if women are ignorant in knowledge and information, men will drink ignorance and foolishness instead of milk from women’s breasts”. Hypatia’s talent was not hidden, as people who came to Alexandria gathered near the museum building to hear her voice when she started teaching. At this time, a poet spoke and wrote a pleasant and charming poem: “When you are close to me and I hear your voice, I feel the sound that remains pure to the residents of the stars. I embrace you with all my being, Hypatia.” Similarly, the historian Socrates wrote, “She was a beloved teacher, and her home was like a conference room, where the most diligent students of that day came and went.”

Marriage: Hypatia traveled to Europe for almost ten years, and wherever she went, she was admired for her beauty. Part of her popularity was due to her sharp and unparalleled mind, but most people liked her for her beauty and her polite and friendly behavior. Therefore, she had many admirers, and their respect for her often turned into infatuation. She was like Athena, the Greek goddess, with a completely Greek face and curly, long hair.

Hypatia was so beautiful that all her students fell in love with her. She rejected numerous marriage proposals from aristocrats, philosophers, and great generals, making them despair. She tried to use all her rhetorical skills to prevent them from falling in love and instead focus on math, philosophy, and thinking. However, some could not help themselves.

One day, one of her students named Orestes, a great general and conqueror, expressed his love for Hypatia for the umpteenth time. In response, she said, “In an era where men flee from the shadow of women, and even interacting with them in the streets and talking to them, even if they are mothers, wives, or sisters, is considered a sin, it is difficult to find someone in this city who is worthy of companionship and marriage, even as lonely as I am.” She never responded to suitors who did not match her intellect and philosophy or seemed like suitable partners. She always said, “Everyone has their own ideal love story. I have married the truth.” She preferred to devote herself to philosophy and mathematics. This beautiful sentence from Hypatia, before indicating her procrastination and delay in marriage, conveys her authenticity and character. Hypatia spent all her time solving complex problems in philosophy and mathematics with her students. Young students from all over the world came to hear her lectures on Diophantine equations, the methods and techniques developed by Diophantus, and the solutions to various unknown problems that she had invented, and she was undoubtedly a genius in these methods. She deeply studied all the math books in the library and wanted to find a special formula for the movement of the earth, but before she could do that, she became enamored with the conic sections of Apollonius, as the deep love and attraction of mathematics were hidden in them.

Hypatia wrote many treatises on mathematics, many of which were lost during the invasion of the Serapeum temple in Alexandria. She also proposed new solutions to problems in algebra and geometry that did not advance further in the field of mathematics until the time of Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, and several centuries later. Interestingly, despite the proximity of the Greek era to the post-Hypatia era, the interest in conic sections remained very high, but was neglected until the mid-seventeenth century. Hypatia is the inventor of the “hydrometer” used to determine the concentration of substances dissolved in liquids. In philosophy, she taught the neoplatonic theories of “Plotinus” and “Iamblichus” and the works of Aristotle at the Museum of Alexandria. Many notable figures attended her classes and defended her theories.

In one of her writings, Hypatia states: “I do not walk in the past, but I take steps towards the future. Myths should be told only as myths, stories only as stories, and legends only as legends. Teaching superstitious, false, and baseless beliefs as truth is a terrifying and frightening event. Only the thinking of children can accept them and believe in them, and in later years, only with difficulty and torture can they be freed from their grip. Always speak the truth, even if the vibration of your voice trembles. In fact, humans must fight superstitions as they fight for the establishment of truth. Because illusions, imperceptible, incomprehensible, and confusing, are difficult to deny, but the truth is a kind of perspective and changeable…”

In astronomy, Synesius was one of Hypatia’s prominent students, and he valued her highly. He always shared the results of his revelations with her, and in one of his letters, he expressed concern about the sailors’ wandering in the sea due to their lack of sufficient knowledge and not knowing how to navigate with the stars. In another letter, he asks his teacher how to be sure of making important decisions based on the movements of the stars and still be happy. In her letter, Hypatia wrote: “My father always wished to calculate the times of the rising and setting of the stars, the sun, the moon, and the planets, and my current astrolabe is of the flat type, which is an astronomical instrument used to measure distances and heights, and with it, one can determine the height of stars, the moon, and the sun.” She also explained the details of the instrument, saying “This astrolabe has charts and pages that determine the position of stars relative to the horizon, the position of the sun, the moon, and the planets relative to fixed stars and time.” Hypatia invented a flat-world map called the planisphere that shows the stars and their movements in the sky. Her astrolabe was used by sailors until the 18th century.

The church heavily promoted superstition among the people and was hostile towards the appearance of science. Bishop Cyril, who believed in Christian theology, thought that the earth was the center of the universe and that it was a sacred center around which all planets revolved. With this view, the earth was the center of the universe, and humans were the most noble of creatures. However, Hypatia overturned all of the church’s assumptions and theories about the earth because her idea was completely contrary to the texts of the Bible and the opinions of church leaders. Hypatia knew that the glory and greatness of the sun should be manifested in the sky; therefore, she did not accept that the sun, with all its holiness and glory, should be placed anywhere other than the center of the universe. Thus, the earth was not a sacred center, and Hypatia proved with observations and mathematical formulas that the movement of the earth around the sun was elliptical, not circular, and that the sun should be at the center of the universe. Upon hearing this news, biased preachers immediately took a position and said, “Who dares to put the foolish idea of Hypatia in place of the words of the Holy Spirit?! She is a devil and a witch, and this was the background for Hypatia’s death.” Of course, the final blow to the theory of the fixed earth and the idea that all stars and planets revolve around the earth (which Aristotle and Ptolemy defended) was delivered by Galileo. Galileo supported the Copernican theory that the sun is the center of the universe. According to Copernicus’ theory, instead of the earth, the sun is stationary and located at the center of the universe, and the other planets revolve around it in circular orbits. All of these owe to the great and beautiful Hypatia.

Death: At that time, Alexandria was one of the important centers of Christianity, and other thoughts, known as infidelity, were severely suppressed. The knowledge that Hypatia worked on was considered harmful and misleading to the people from the perspective of the clergy, and it was intolerable for a woman to delve into philosophy and mathematics. Hypatia was accused of witchcraft and conspiring against Christianity by Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria. On one day in March 415 AD, angry people incited by Bishop Cyril, led by a man named Peter who was a reader of the church and a deputy mourner, went to Hypatia’s classroom, and they chose the time to be the Saturday before Easter, when Christ triumphantly entered Jerusalem. The students asked Hypatia to go with them to a shelter, but she said, “I will not escape like mice to holes and underground. This is the best refuge for me, on the heights of this small library where I have practiced my learning and written my thoughts for years. Don’t tire yourselves out for no reason. I stand firm in my beliefs and will not back down for a moment. I will continue with even greater enthusiasm and motivation every day”.

“I am not afraid of writing. I believe in the miracle of my words, even if they tear my limbs apart. This is my best anchor and I will remain in this anchor,” she added.

Suddenly, thugs and hooligans burst into the classroom. They were uttering obscene words about Hypatia. In a blink of an eye, the loyal students who had taken her under their protection were killed. Then, the rioters tore off her clothes, ripped apart her university gown, took off her tiara, grabbed her hair, and dragged her from the classroom to the city’s church. The leaders of these Christians had a habit of killing their opponents in the streets. Along the way, the rioters first broke the powerful hands of Hypatia who always used them to simplify and explain mathematics and philosophy. Then, they tore her clothes apart, stripped her naked, whipped her, smashed several jars and porcelain cups of the church onto the stone floor, and hit her repeatedly with their pieces. They wounded her head to toe with stones and wood, and crushed her body under their hard blows. They then took her from the classroom to the city’s church, and suddenly a group of them attacked her, lifting stones from the ground and hitting her so many times that a stone statue was created. People in the city learned of this unfortunate event, and one of the greatest women in history was left under the rubble of stones, lifeless. Only a butterfly was with her, fluttering above her shoulder, and the last librarian of the Library of Alexandria was separated from her books.

A quote from the book “Hypatia: The Daughters of Earth” describing her death:

Then came the seashell knives of ignorance and barbarism to tear her skin apart, and finally the lifeless body of this symbol of resistance in lifting the flag of knowledge and awareness over a heap of humiliation, contempt, and religious blindness of the church of that time was mutilated. They sliced off her flesh from her bones and tore it apart into pieces. They scattered the pieces of her body in the streets of Alexandria in all directions and then burned them in the sinaron (the place where the bodies of the dead were burned). They made sure that no one would ask for her ashes. Then they poured the ashes into the river and sang hymns of victory, shouting for joy. It was as if her death was a great chapter in history.

The day after, Cyril the cunning, on behalf of the church, made a great effort to turn Lady Hypatia’s face into that of a saintly martyr and use her life to compose the biography of the legendary saint of Christianity, the only Alexandrian saint.

Ignorant, foolish, and religious merchants killed the Earthly Angel.