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Alexandria, from papyrus
to the Internet

Michel Arseneault, canadian journalist in Alexandria, Egypt

A project costing over $170 million.

Alexandria will become ‘the capital of collective memory and a haven for literary figures and scientists’


The new library is set to open its doors before the year 2000.

A mysterious disappearance

Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great, had a lighthouse that was one of the seven wonders of the world. It was also the site, from about the third century BC, of the most famous library of ancient times. Greek thinkers such as Euclid, Ptolemy and Dionysius Thrax, respectively the “inventors” of geometry, map-making and grammar, worked there. There too 72 rabbis translated from Hebrew into Greek the writings that would come to be known, at least by Christians, as the Old Testament.
The library also arranged for passing ships to be hijacked and relieved of any manuscripts they happened to be carrying. Its avowed aim was to own all the books in the world. It kept the originals and gave copies of them back to their owners. The library ended up with between 500,000 and 700,000 manuscripts, mainly rolls of papyrus, that were stored in attics after the most valuable of them had been rolled up in linen or leather. For about 600 years, they were kept in a “museum” (in its original meaning of “temple of the muses”) in the royal neighbourhood which was the home of the seventh, last and most famous of the Cleopatras.
It was long thought that this Cleopatra’s first husband, Julius Caesar, whose troops burned down part of Alexandria in about 48 BC, was responsible for the library’s demise. But historians today have other theories. The library may have disappeared in the third century AD during fighting between Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, and the forces of Emperor Aurelian. Or perhaps in the fourth century, when Christians destroyed “pagan” writings. Or maybe in the seventh century, when an Arab general occupied the city and ordered documents to be burned to heat up the public baths.


The Library of Alexandria was Antiquity’s most prestigious centre of learning. Its rebirth may bring a new beacon of knowledge to the Arab world

In the centre of Alexandria, between the eastern port and the university, a thousand labourers are working night and day on a huge construction site with four big cranes. The cylindrical 11-storey building being built there in the middle of a lake has been designed by a firm of Norwegian architects, Snøhetta, which won an international competition in 1989 that drew 1,400 entries from 77 countries. Its circular shape is meant to conjure up, against the backcloth of the Mediterranean, the image of “a lighthouse of knowledge re-emerging in a perpetual sunrise”, in the words of the project’s director-general, Prof. Mohsen Zahran.
The building, which should be finished by autumn 1999, will revive the legendary Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA). Its promoters hope that, with the help of the best modern technology, it will spread the intellectual influence of Alexandria throughout the Arab world and beyond much more effectively than its predecessor did at the time of Caesar and Cleopatra.
The 36,770-square-metre library will seat 2,000 people and have up to eight million books, periodicals, manuscripts, microfilms and CD-ROMs. Its computerized catalogue, which France is helping to build, will be one of the most advanced in the world and available in Arabic, English and French. Its planetarium, its International School of Information Studies and its museums of archaeology, calligraphy and science are expected to attract students, scholars and visitors from all over the world.

Books for a wide public
The idea of reviving the library was born in 1974, when Cambridge-educated Mostafa el-Abbadi, a history professor and author of a study on the “Life and Fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria” dreamed of resuscitating the “temple of learning” he had spent so many years studying. The president of Alexandria University, Dr Lutfi Dowidar, backed him and together they won the support of the Egyptian government and U
NESCO, which funded a feasibility study.
El-Abbadi is fairly happy with the way things have turned out, though he would prefer the BA to be just a place for scholars. It will open its doors to a far wider public, however. “We don’t want books without readers,” says the writer Gamal el-Ghatani, editor of Akhbar al-Adab, the weekly literary supplement of the big Cairo daily newspaper Al-Akhbar. “Unlike my son, I don’t know how to use a computer,” he confesses. “The Alexandria Library is being built for his generation, not mine, but the public will enjoy it as much as I enjoyed going to the old national library.”
At the entrance to the building site stands a slab of Aswan granite bearing an Egyptian hieroglyph, a Chinese ideogram, an Arabic letter and a Greek “e”. The message of the granite blocks which make up the outer walls of the building is clear: the library aims to be a crossroads of alphabets, words and languages, like the city where it is located. Archaeological digs at the site—a former university car park where work began in May 1995, seven years after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and U
NESCO director-general Federico Mayor laid the foundation stone—have shown that it used to be part of the royal neighbourhood. But no one knows exactly where the old library stood or what it looked like.
The rebirth of the BA has been enthusiastically welcomed abroad. Germany is supplying equipment to move documents and Italy a laboratory to restore manuscripts. Norway will provide furniture and Japan audiovisual equipment. France will donate a copy of the archives of the old Suez Canal Company, Turkey will give 10,000 books and Australia will provide some works of art. About 300,000 books have been collected so far, a third of them donated.

A catapult for development
Former U
NESCO Director-General Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow launched a world-wide appeal in 1987 for the library’s revival, saying it would transform the cultural scene in the Middle East and the countries of the Maghreb. The Unesco feasibility study stressed this key role it could play in the Mediterranean area.
This mission will probably be accomplished, reckons project director Prof. Zahran, who is a U.S.-trained Egyptian architect. The BA could become “a catapult for the economic and social development of Egypt,” he says. “A country can have great wealth, but if it has no culture, it soon falls apart.” He predicts that the BA will become “a bridge of understanding and interaction between East and West. Its revival will benefit humanity. But we mustn’t think that the child will be a prodigy from the moment of its birth. We’ll have to wait several decades before we can see its real influence.”
El-Ghatani also hopes it will be a bridge between Egypt and Europe, a continent he sees as close because it shares the culture and especially the religions of the Mediterranean basin. “The roots of Europe’s religions are right here,” he says. The Alexandrian writer Edwar al-Kharrat would like to see Alexandria become “the capital of collective memory and a haven for literary figures and scientists.”
More concretely, the BA will enable Egypt’s young people—half the country’s population is under 20—to step up the pace of their studies. According to Zahran, Egyptian students sometimes take four years to finish a doctorate—twice as long as students in the West—because research material is hard to come by.
The first beneficiaries of the BA will be the 80,000 or so students at Alexandria University, whose library only has 250,000 works (Egypt’s national library has 1.5 million). Scholars from all over the Arab world could come to Alexandria instead of or before going to the United States or Britain. If the BA continues to attract the attention of foreigners in this way, it will play an important role.
By bringing back documents that were scattered through Western countries in the 19th century, the library will enable scholars to compare the manuscripts in Egypt with the copies that are being donated by foreign benefactors. An example is the manuscripts in the Escurial Palace in Spain, which are a crucial part of Arab heritage and copies of which have been made for the new library. The BA could also acquire more recent works which have been taken out of the Arab world. The superb lithographed books published in Fez, in Morocco, in the 1920s can up to now only be consulted at Harvard University, in the U.S., for example.

Support from international donors
The BA is due to be officially opened at the end of this year by President Mubarak, who will be running for a fourth term of office in October. Will his opponents criticize him for spending so much money on a fancy library when half the country’s adult population cannot read or write? Egypt is forking out almost two-thirds of the $172 million cost of the building itself. Proceeds from an international funding appeal, to which Arab countries have already generously contributed, will foot the rest of the bill.

Paradoxes of the Arab world
“Of course it’s expensive,” says El Ghatani, “but a library isn’t some kind of festival that ends after three days. It would have cost even more if we’d waited another 30 years to build it.” Its worth should be seen in terms of culture, not cash, and this, he believes, draws attention to one of the paradoxes of the Arab world. “The richest culture is in the poorest countries—I’m thinking of Yemen—and the richest states have the least interesting cultural material. The rulers of the rich states have built palaces in Lausanne and Geneva instead of libraries. But the age of the oil dollar is coming to an end. We have to return to more basic values,” he says.
Might the BA encourage democracy—a concept that originated in Greece—in Egypt and the rest of the region? “To build a democratic state,” says archaeologist Ahmed Ahdel Fattah, director-general of the Greco-Roman museum in Alexandria, “we need the tools of democracy, and knowledge is one of them. Democracy isn’t in such bad shape in Egypt, compared with some of its neighbours. This of course doesn’t stop us saying that we don’t have enough. Thank God I was born in Egypt. I couldn’t publish my writings in a lot of other Arab countries.

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