Modern Egypt Revives Ancient "Great Library"

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The outer wall along the building's perimeter is clad with unpolished Aswan granite, upon which Norwegian artist Jorunn Sannes, with the help of computers and automated machinery, has engraved signs and letters in different sizes from every known system of writing.

"I see the library as a window for the world on Egypt and a window for Egypt on the world," says Serageldin. "One question we will have to answer is: 'What does it mean to be a research library in the age of the Internet?'"

One thing is for sure: The Information Age has made the old dream of a universal library, with the creative heritage of humankind gathered under one roof, impossible as well as unnecessary. The world's largest library, the Library of Congress in Washington, with more than 120 million items in its collections, is hardly complete.

Two millennia ago, however, the Library of Alexandria, with 700,000 scrolls, came close to being universal, lacking mainly scholarly works in Chinese and Sanskrit. The hunger for books of the Ptolemaic kings was legendary. According to one story, every ship calling at Alexandria was ordered to hand over its books to the library, where experts inspected them as to their worth.

Ptolemy III, in his quest to obtain manuscripts of the Greek tragedians Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, is said to have tendered the enormous sum of 15 talents as security for permission to borrow and copy them; as soon as he received the literary treasures, he informed the governors of Athens that they could keep the money, since he intended to keep the original manuscripts.

With the new library open informally, its collection, numbering about 500,000 items, is taking shape. The city of Alexandria has handed over 5,000 original manuscripts from its archives. France has donated copies of documents from the Suez Canal Co. Spain has sent copies of the famous Escorial and Cordoba collections, with thousands of important documents in Arabic relating to Moorish Spain. Norway, Brazil, the United States, Russia, China, Japan, Oman, Turkey, and many other countries have donated books, manuscripts, and other items. Greece has donated a facsimile copy of Claudius Ptolemy's famous world map, which Christopher Columbus used 1,500 years later as he searched for a passage to India but discovered America instead.

"It is a beginning," says Mohsen Zahran, director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Project. "It is a big baby which is being born. We will make it into what we want it to be."

Copyright 2001 Insight on the News

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