CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

HYPATIA

Revered Hypatia, ornament of learning, stainless star of wise teaching, when I see thee and thy discourse I worship thee, looking on the starry house of Virgo; for thy business is in heaven.

Palladas, Greek Anthology, 11

 
 
The highly charged religious atmosphere in Alexandria was making it a dangerous place to have an opinion—any opinion—and rough seas now buffeted what had once been the intellectual safe haven of the museum. Indeed, Theon is the last name we can definitely associate with the institution that has been at the center of our story since the earliest days of the city. He is its last known member, the last in that roll call of the most brilliant names in antiquity. But it is his daughter who will always be associated with its fall.

In the early years of the fifth century Theon’s daughter seemed to have emerged from the religious crisis of her father’s era unscathed. From early childhood she had been her father’s greatest collaborator, and we find her name first in his introduction to his commentary on the Almagest:“Commentary by Theon of Alexandria on Book III of Ptolemy’s Almagest, edition revised by my daughter Hypatia the Philosopher” (Theon, recorded in A. Rome, Commentaires de Pappus et de Théon, volume 3, p. 807).

Hypatia was the inheritor of her father’s mantle; indeed, many sources claim she was much more than that, and according to the philosopher Damascius “she was by nature more refined and talented than her father” (Damascius, Life of Isidore, excerpted in The Suda).

She was a mathematician of noted brilliance, writing commentaries on the works of Apollonius of Perge and the notoriously complicated Arithmetica of the third-century inventor of algebra, Diophantus. Indeed, it has been doubted whether, without her clear, patient explanations of the works of this famously opaque mathematician, his work, crucial in the development of modern mathematics, would even have survived. The bitter irony is that today none of Hypatia’s original works survive, and therein lies the key to one of Alexandria’s most tragic episodes, the beginnings of its disappearance back into the Egyptian sands.

Hypatia was born around 355 into the academic elite of Alexandria. At her father’s side she learned astronomy and mathematics as well as the practical skills first mastered by such luminaries of the museum as Eratosthenes and Archimedes, including the building of planispheres and astrolabes. But her interests went far beyond the stars into the realms of philosophy, a philosophy far removed from her father’s mystical occultism.

There is no evidence that Hypatia was ever herself a member of the museum, let alone the “last librarian,” as some have claimed. Indeed, after the death of her father we have no evidence for the museum or library, in the sense that Archimedes or Euclid might have understood them, existing at all. According to the church father Epiphanius of Salamis, whose life roughly coincided with Hypatia’s (he died in 403), the Brucheum quarter of the city where this institution had once stood among gardens, royal palaces, and summerhouses now made for a rather startling sight. In describing the founding of the library he makes the casual aside that it was “in the [part] called the Brucheum; this is a quarter of the city today lying waste” (Epiphanius of Salamis, Weights and Measures,chapter 9).

We do not know which of the various Roman emperors left the most beautiful quarter of this city in ruins. It may be that this iconic part of the city had never recovered from the fury of Caracalla. But as Alexandria stands on a geological fault line that produced a major earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 365, we can’t even be sure that it wasn’t simply nature that tore down the marble halls.

If the buildings of the old museum were gone, however, the idea of it was not dead, and the philosophy schools, now perhaps housed in the homes of the teachers, survived. From the late 380s Hypatia had formed her own such school in the city, attracting the sons of some of the most influential and wealthy men in the empire. Among them she lectured in the subjects her father had taught her—ethics, ontology, astronomy, and mathematics—but to a smaller and more select group she also taught philosophy, including the ancient pagan ideas of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle as well as the Neoplatonism of Ammonius Saccas and Plotinus.

This group of initiates became an intensely loyal family around Hypatia; they called each other “brother,” maintained their contacts over a lifetime, and would only hint to the outside world at what secrets they had heard in Hypatia’s house. But this was not a crypto-pagan cult, not simply another band of disinherited priests reminiscing over the old days like the embittered Palladas. Nor were they the augurs and fortune-tellers that Theon counted among his friends. They instead represented both the old and the new in the empire and the city—and as such represented perhaps a chance for Alexandria to reinvent itself, and so save itself, one last time.

The guarded nature of Hypatia’s pupils and her own fate make it hard to unlock the secrets of her school, but thanks to the surviving letters of one of her closest followers we can reconstruct something of her life and times and gain a window into a very unexpected world.

Synesius of Cyrene was a young and wealthy landowner from Alexandria’s sister city who came to Egypt’s capital in the 390s to gain what even then must have been considered a classical education. In his 156 surviving letters we gain tantalizing glimpses of the life of a fourth-century aristocrat in the city and at home. In a letter to his best friend, Herculian, later prefect of Constantinople, he remembers their arrival in Alexandria and their time with Hypatia, the “lady who . . . presides over the mysteries of philosophy”:

 
If Homer had told us that it was an advantage to Odysseus in his wanderings that he saw the towns and became acquainted with the mind of many nations, and although the people whom he visited were not cultured, but merely Laestrygonians and Cyclopses, how wondrously then would poetry have sung of our voyage, a voyage in which it was granted to you and me to experience marvelous things, the bare recital of which had seemed to us incredible! We have seen with our eyes, we have heard with our ears the lady who legitimately presides over the mysteries of philosophy.

Synesius, Letter 137 (to Herculian)

From his letters we also learn something of the other “disciples” in Hypatia’s house, including Olympius, a hugely wealthy Syrian landowner with whom Synesius talked of hunting and horses; his little brother Euoptius; Ision, who told stories like no other; Syrus, “our friend”; his uncle Alexander; “father” Theotecnus, “the worthy and holy”; Theodosius, “a grammarian of the first order”; Auxentius, his childhood play-mate; and Gaius, “the most sympathetic.”

At one level these seem exactly what might be expected from an old aristocracy—young men looking to a heroic and already ancient past. Synesius talks about happy days on his estate outside Cyrene that reminded him of the “golden age,” and in Alexandria, gazing across the heptastadion to the Pharos and walking down the marble colonnades of the Street of the Soma, he must have imagined he walked with the ghosts of Alexander, Callimachus, and Archimedes. But Hypatia’s “family” were not all they appeared. These were not, as they have so often been characterized by later writers, the last of the old guard. She was a pagan—true—or at least she was a Neoplatonist, but astonishingly, perhaps half of her students were Christians.

Synesius himself married a Christian and went on to become bishop of Ptolemais in Cyrenaica, where he was succeeded in that position by his little brother, the fervent Euoptius. The mysterious “Petrus” mentioned in one letter has a name which suggests his Christian pedigree as well, while Synesius’s friend Herculian became bishop of Cotyaeum in western Turkey. This perhaps explains how, when others were barricading themselves in the Serapeum or fleeing abroad, Hypatia continued teaching unhindered.

So just what was Hypatia teaching this eclectic inner circle who gathered at her house in the city in the last years of the fourth century and the first decade of the fifth? From Synesius we can discover that it must have been a form of Neoplatonic philosophy far removed from the radicalism of the defenders of the Serapeum—a gentler and older Hellenism that had bound all those who had worked in the library and museum regardless of politics or creed. In a letter to Herculian Synesius exhorts him to “go on digging up the eye that is buried within us” (Synesius, Letter 137 [to Herculian] ).

And in that phrase we probably hear an echo of Hypatia’s own words, as she taught her charges to release the “luminous child of reason” (Synesius, Letter 139 [to Herculian]). It seems that what Hypatia wanted most from her students was that they love and seek wisdom, but not simply knowledge divorced from the real world around them. The course that she advocated required physical purity and mental wisdom. Learning was not of itself enough, nor was “right living,” as Synesius tells Herculian:

 
The masses think that uprightness of life does not exist for the end of wisdom, but stands by itself, and is itself the perfection of man, and that the way is not a way merely, but the goal itself at which we must aim. In this view they are mistaken. An unreasoning self-control and an abstinence from eating of meat, have been given to many unreasoning creatures by nature. We do not commend a raven or any other creature that has discovered a natural virtue, because they are devoid of reasoning power. To live according to reason is the end of man.

Synesius, Letter 137 (to Herculian)

 
Hypatia, at least in the minds of her followers, perfectly combined the two. She was a teacher who remained a virgin all her life, who always wore the simple white tribon robe of a philosopher, and who practiced moderation in everything. Those lucky enough to spend time with her referred to themselves as the “fortunate chorus that delights in her divinely sweet voice” and called her “divine spirit” and “blessed lady.” Even in her ordinary lectures her disciples seem to have found divine truths, learning that mathematics is a stepping-stone to understanding and, as Synesius puts it, that “astronomy is itself a divine form of knowledge.”

Her influence in Alexandria reached far beyond her private teaching circle. The chronicler Socrates Scholasticus tells us that she also gave public lectures where city officials and ordinary citizens might hear her, and says that she achieved such “heights of erudition” that she surpassed all the other philosophers of her day. He also claims that she “succeeded to” the Platonic school derived from Plotinus (although it is unclear if this means she was the official head of the Neoplatonic school) and “delivered all the philosophical lectures to those who wished to listen” (Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, book 7, chapter 15).

This public speaking spread her fame throughout the higher echelons of the government, and she seems to have been consulted at least informally by senior officials, including councillors, military commanders, and even the prefect. Socrates Scholasticus tells us, “On account of the majestic outspokenness at her command as the result of her education, she maintained a dignified intercourse with the chief people of her city, for all esteemed her highly and admired her” (Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, book 7, chapter 15).

Yet her teachings do not seem to have brought her into conflict with either the Christians among her group or the church authorities in the form of Alexandria’s patriarch Theophilus. Indeed, Synesius writes to both Theophilus and the philosopher Hypatia asking for similar favors as though the two were on a comparable level. That she avoided such trouble during Theophilus’s antipagan campaigns tells us that her Hellenism was cultural rather than religious, centered on the raison d’être of the museum, the pursuit of knowledge, and the self-knowledge that leads to understanding. The schools of Alexandria didn’t yet separate pupils on religious grounds, so all religions could seek wisdom with Hypatia—a wisdom born not from dogma, magic, augury, or sacrifices, but from thought alone.

But this understanding was not for everyone. Her group considered themselves an elite (as indeed they were, both in education and fortune), and the squabbles of “believers”—those who considered belief enough in itself—were, in their eyes, beneath them. Synesius himself rails against both the “white mantles”—the street philosophers peddling quick-fix paganism to the masses—and the “black mantles”—zealous monks preaching Christian salvation. For him, and his teacher, divine knowledge was not for the masses but reserved for the favored few who could survive the arduous mental journey to enlightenment. For them the path to “truth,” be it Neoplatonist truth or Christian truth, was an intellectual obstacle course whose end could be reached only by great mental effort, physical moderation, and ethical purity. Belief of itself would never be enough—the road still had to be traveled—and that journey was the subject of Hypatia’s private classes and the reason for the great secrecy that surrounded the discussions of their inner circle. Pogroms, fighting, and desecrations were for believers who took on an idea without thinking, but had nothing to do with them. It was an extraordinary concept, and one which could hold both pagans and Christians together; but just as it formed, so its hour was already passing.

The patriarch Theophilus died on Tuesday, October 15, 412. He had spent his years in office antagonizing both pagans and Christian heretical sects but had never touched Hypatia’s circle. He had been known to the people of Alexandria as the “church pharaoh,” yet he had been careful not to overextend his power into the secular administration of the city—the preserve of the prefect and dux—nor had he sought to interfere in the philosophical education of men such as Synesius, who he knew would one day take high office in his church. It had been a delicate balancing act, and Theophilus’s death left a dangerous power vacuum. And into that vacuum exploded his nephew Cyril.

Two candidates were nominated to succeed Theophilus, and the nature of the subsequent election campaign would give an unpleasant foretaste of what was to come. The stronger candidate was said to be Timothy, Theophilus’s archdeacon, who had a lot of backing within the church hierarchy as well as the support of one of the military commanders in the city. The other was Cyril, Theophilus’s nephew, an impetuous, self-promoting radical who believed in backing up the power of the Word with the power of the mob. This was not to be an election decided by debate or even a vote. Three days of street fighting ensued, after which, on October 17, a triumphant Cyril was installed as patriarch. This brutal election had been a testing ground for Cyril’s influence, involving as it did secular imperial figures as well as church fathers, and from his victory Cyril drew some new and deadly lessons. Just as the state had become involved in an ecclesiastical struggle (although bearing in mind the violence of the struggle, it had actually had little choice), so now, as patriarch, Cyril believed he had a right to a say in the secular administration of the city. This belief in a new, wider mandate would have terrible consequences, as Socrates Scholasticus says:

 
Cyril came into possession of the episcopate, with greater power than Theophilus had ever exercised. For from that time the bishopric of Alexandria went beyond the limits of its sacerdotal functions, and assumed the administration of secular matters.

Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, book 7, chapter 7

Cyril wasted no time in suppressing any groups in the city that either disagreed with him or did not accept his absolute power over them. The first to suffer in his “purification” of the church was the entirely harmless Christian Novatian sect. The Novatians followed the teachings of the Roman priest Novatian, who had split from the official Catholic Church because he considered it too lax in readmitting former Christians who had, in the face of persecution, renounced their religion. His followers called themselves “the Pure” and required considerably greater self-discipline among themselves than Cyril’s followers did. Indeed, perhaps that is why he set upon them. Socrates Scholasticus certainly had some sympathy for Novatians, and notes: “Cyril immediately therefore shut up the churches of the Novatians at Alexandria, and took possession of all their consecrated vessels and ornaments; and then stripped their bishop Theopemptus of all that he had” (Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, book 7, chapter 7).

It seems that in Alexandria, at least, Cyril would have no bishop but himself.

Next he turned from those he considered “too religious” to those he considered not religious enough—the Jewish community. It had come to his notice that some Jews in the city did not celebrate the Sabbath in a particularly “religious way,” preferring instead to visit the theaters rather than staying at home in prayer. For Cyril this presented an opportunity not just to confront the Jews but to draw the state authorities into his arguments and make them decide whose side they were on as well.

Since his election campaign, Cyril had skillfully used the Christian mob in the city and groups of radical Nitrian monks from the desert to stir up trouble. He now stationed his people in the theaters to goad the Jewish population into taking violent action. On one of these occasions the prefect of Egypt, Orestes, happened to be in the theater giving a speech, when a brawl broke out. Some of the Jews in the audience shouted out to Orestes that Hierax, an agent of Cyril, was fomenting trouble and begged for his arrest. Orestes, already wary of Cyril’s attempts to extend his influence into the government of the city, was only too happy to oblige, and Hierax was arrested and tortured.

But if he hoped to put Cyril in his place and remind him of the terrible powers of the prefect, he was very much mistaken. Cyril immediately summoned the Jewish leaders of the city as though he were governor himself and warned them in the most patronizing terms to behave and leave his agents alone. It was the last straw of antagonism for some Jews in the audience, first goaded and threatened by Cyril’s thugs, then sternly told off like children by their leader when they tried to fight back. At that moment some decided to take physical action and in doing so played straight into Cyril’s hands.

The event that gave Cyril the opportunity he had been looking for occurred late one night. Having set an ambush around the church of Saint Alexander, a group of radicalized Jews ran through the streets shouting that the church was on fire. Local Christians jumped from their beds and ran to the building to help, only to find they had run into a trap. A bloody fight ensued in which many of them were killed.

Cyril now had his martyrs, and he rushed to surround the main synagogues with large crowds of his supporters, whom he only too easily whipped into a frenzy of retribution. Authorizing the looting of Jewish sites, he then ordered the expulsion of the entire Jewish population, who, as Socrates Scholasticus notes, had been there since the days of Alexander. Stripped of all their property and possessions, they were then cast out and “dispersed some in one direction and some in another” (Socrates Scholasticus,Ecclesiastical History, book 7, chapter 13).

Cyril quickly wrote to the emperor to tell him of the outrageous behavior of the Jews and the necessity of the action he had taken, but it was a dangerously provocative move. As Socrates Scholasticus records, the Jewish population had been a vital part of the running of the city from its earliest days. This was the city of the Septuagint, the home of Philo, and the removal of this ancient population would have a profound economic as well as social impact on the functioning of the city. The prefect Orestes was, not surprisingly, incensed, and sent his own report to the emperor. If the emperor did respond, not one of the contemporary chroniclers records his judgment. In truth it was a subject low on his list of priorities—a spat between two local officials—with just the sort of dangerous religious edge he wished to steer clear of. So the chroniclers probably failed to record the imperial verdict for a simple reason—none came.

This was a problem Alexandrians would have to work out for themselves. In the face of the prefect’s anger Cyril seems to have made at least a tentative attempt at reconciliation, although his reported waving of the gospels under Orestes’ nose made it clear that any rapprochement would be on his terms and his terms alone. But Cyril’s provocation had now brought Orestes to the breaking point. Seeing his power eroding before him, the prefect decided finally to try to face Cyril down and rebuffed his overtures of peace. So Cyril turned back on his other tried and tested method of getting his own way.

His call went out again to the radical Nitrian monks of the desert, and some five hundred quit their monasteries and headed for the streets of Alexandria. There they came across Orestes riding in his chariot and surrounded him. Socrates tells us that “they called him a pagan idolater, and applied to him many other abusive epithets. He supposing this to be a snare laid for him by Cyril, exclaimed that he was a Christian, and had been baptized by Atticus the bishop at Constantinople” (Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, book 7, chapter 14).

This was not enough for the monks, who were intent on action, not argument. One of their number, Ammonius, seized a rock and threw it at the prefect. It struck him on the head and blood immediately began to pour down his face. In the ensuing panic Orestes’ own guards abandoned him, and it was only thanks to the intervention of other passersby, the ordinary people of Alexandria, that he got away.

The wounded prefect ordered the immediate arrest of Ammonius, who was caught and tortured to death. Two more letters were now dispatched to the emperor, one from Orestes decrying the patriarch’s behavior, the other from Cyril, claiming Ammonius, or “Thaumasius” (“the Wonderful”) as he now called him, as a martyr. The emperor’s response, once again, was silence, and Cyril and Orestes were left to resolve the problem alone. The race was now on to decide who would rule Alexandria—the state or the church, logic or belief. Only one could survive.

First blood seemed to go to Orestes. Cyril had overstepped the mark and misread popular opinion. The response in Alexandria was not what he had hoped for, and the Christians did not take “Saint Wonderful” to their hearts.

 
But the more sober-minded, although Christians, did not accept Cyril’s prejudiced estimate of him; for they well knew that he had suffered the punishment due to his rashness, and that he had not lost his life under the torture because he would not deny Christ. And Cyril himself being conscious of this, suffered the recollection of the circumstance to be gradually obliterated by silence.

Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, book 7, chapter 14

 
So Saint Wonderful slipped from sight, his elevation among the realms of the martyrs proving only temporary. Cyril would need another way of getting to the prefect if he wanted to exert his power over the city as a whole, and, fatally for her, he would find it in the quiet person of Hypatia.

Up to this point Hypatia had been invisible in the record. Philosophically she may well have felt that the squabbles of believers were unworthy of her consideration, but her regular contact with the authorities, and Orestes in particular, must have created within her a growing sense of dread. In this situation it was simply not enough to ignore Cyril and his attempts on power. With his brand of Christianity he intended to be the central core of the running of the city. His interpretation of religion was his politics, and by claiming to be executing the will of God he gave himself carte blanche to act in any way he saw fit. This was undoubtedly a threat to the freedoms of the city Hypatia loved, and she could do little but throw her considerable influence behind the moderate Orestes.

That Hypatia, who was now about sixty, had been distancing herself from her circle—perhaps to protect them as the situation deteriorated—is clear from one of Synesius’s last letters to her. In it he says:

 
If I could only have had letters from you and learned how you were all faring—I am sure you are happy and enjoying good fortune—I should have been relieved, in that case, of half of my own trouble, in rejoicing at your happiness. But now your silence has been added to the sum of my sorrows. I have lost my children, my friends, and the goodwill of everyone. The greatest loss of all, however, is the absence of your divine spirit. I had hoped that this would always remain to me, to conquer both the caprices of fortune and the evil turns of fate.

Synesius, Letter 10 (to “The Philosopher,” Hypatia)

 
But there was little happiness or good fortune to be had in Alexandria. Hypatia’s support for Orestes was a thorn in Cyril’s side. One chronicler tells of how he stopped at her house one day and was overcome with jealousy when he saw the huge crowds clamoring to hear her speak. She was widely respected in the city, had close connections with the council and government, and counted among her friends and pupils some of the most important people in the empire, including men at the imperial court. But she did have a weakness. Orestes was a moderate Christian, as had been many of Hypatia’s school, but Hypatia herself was apparently not a Christian at all. She was of the old Alexandria, the last of the Hellenes. This was the wedge that Cyril now drove between prefect and philosopher.

Cyril circulated a rumor that she was a practitioner of black magic—a sorceress who was “devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music” (R. H. Charles, The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu, 84.87-103). To the city mob who had little to do with the museum or library it must have had a certain ring of truth. What did go on in her secret meetings with her inner circle? Had her father not been an astrologer and alchemist? Even the tools of science she had learned to make at her father’s knee could be turned against her. Astrolabes, hydroscopes, and the like were not simply scientific tools, they were also regularly used for divination among the superstitious Alexandrians. So Cyril ensured that the slander spread that it was Hypatia who stood between him and Orestes—two good Christians—and she who was trying to undermine the religion and well-being of the state.

It was of course a lie, but a powerful one, and one which took deep root among Cyril’s most fervent supporters, the Parabolans. The job of the Parabolans was, in theory at least, to help ill and destitute Christians in the city to find a place in hospitals or almshouses, but under recent patriarchs they had become almost a private army. These poorly educated but fervently religious young men obeyed the patriarch without question and were only too happy to put their imposing presence (there were eight hundred of them) and any degree of force necessary behind his commands. It was this group, no doubt encouraged by Cyril, who now decided to take direct action against Hypatia.

Fired with hatred, this band was led by a man called Peter, a lector in the church whom the Christian chronicler John of Nikiu called a “perfect believer in all respects in Jesus Christ” (R. H. Charles, The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu, 84.87-103), and under his command the Parabolans now began searching the city for Hypatia. She was not hard to find, regularly riding in her chariot through the streets, very much living her life in public. They came across her as she was heading home, outside the Caesareum, the temple built for Mark Antony by Cleopatra shortly before their deaths, and since converted into a Christian church. There, by the three obelisks known as “Cleopatra’s Needles,” they surrounded her and dragged her from her chariot. In the street this most modest of women had her tribon torn from her and was stripped naked, but even her Parabolan attackers did not have the nerve to execute the next part of their plan in full public view. Dragging her inside the church, they threw her on the floor of the nave and, in the sort of rage that only blind zealotry brings, set upon her with broken pieces of roof tile, flaying her alive. Her torn and mutilated body was then carried beyond the walls to a place called Kinaron, where her remains were burned on a bonfire—a witch’s death. No one is recorded as having come to her aid. The last of the Alexandrian Hellenes was gone.

Cyril now had to work quickly to ensure that the blame for this horrific act did not fall directly on him, but he can only have been delighted at the outcome. Orestes now disappears from the historical record, either having been recalled by the emperor or simply having fled. Some Alexandrian councillors did attempt to intervene with the emperor, but Cyril’s friends at court ensured that the affair was hushed up, and the only response was a mild attempt to reorganize and reduce the numbers of Parabolans, taking their recruitment away from Cyril and resting it with the prefect. Even that did not last long, and by 418 Cyril had that power back as well. Cyril carefully portrayed the death of Hypatia as a fight between Christians and pagans, distancing himself in the process from the real cause of the tension, his attempt to seize power from a Christian prefect. John of Nikiu sums up perfectly how Cyril wished the story to be told: “All the people surrendered to the Patriarch Cyril and named him ‘the new Theophilus,’ for he destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city” (R. H. Charles, The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu, 84.87-103).

Socrates Scholasticus, himself a revered historian of the early church, took a more sober view: “This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort” (Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, book 7, chapter 15).

But Cyril had won and now settled down to live out his patriarchy more quietly. He died in June 444 after an episcopate of nearly thirty-two years. He would later be remembered as a doctor of the church and be raised to sainthood.

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