Egypt Opens New Library of Alexandria

Chad Cohen
National Geographic Today
October 16, 2002
The Eastern Harbor of Alexandria has been a crossroads of culture and continents for 2,300 years. This is where the Pharos lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, guided people from all nations safely into port; where Queen Cleopatra first laid eyes on Julius Caesar.

Today, in an event that speaks of renewal even as the threat of war looms in the Middle East, Alexandria is trying to recapture the spirit of perhaps its richest legacy—the Great Library of Alexandria—by opening the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

The ancient library dominated the ancient world of learning from approximately the third century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. The new one sits on the Eastern Harbor on or near the site of the original.

In an opening ceremony worthy of pharaohs, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak is welcoming heads of state, royalty, and dignitaries from around the world. There is even a performance by Sinead O'Connor.

Clash of Civilizations

"In a world worried about the clash of civilizations, about war, about hatred and about killing, I think it's significant that out of Egypt comes this new library, a place of understanding, learning, tolerance and brotherhood," said Ismail Serageldin, the library's director and a former World Bank vice president.

"Egypt is the cradle of civilization and the birthplace of three monotheistic religions, so the library will very much reflect religious tolerance," said Mohammed Aman, dean of the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who wrote the Bibliotheca's manuscript-selection policy.

During the 1980s, Egypt and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization resolved to build the Bibliotheca Alexandrina with the same universal goals as the ancient one: a focal point for research, the advancement of knowledge and the open exchange of ideas.

An international design competition chose the Norwegian firm Snohetta to build the library. The building—in the shape of a massive disc inclined toward the Mediterranean—evokes the image of the Egyptian sun illuminating the world.

International Effort

Countries from around the world—especially the Middle East—contributed to the U.S. $220 million-plus building effort. Saddam Hussein's $21-million check cleared just days before the Gulf War.

An international spirit still reigns at the Bibliotheca. Italians and Egyptians are working together to preserve rare manuscripts. Greeks are helping with antiquities; the French, with a science museum; and Americans, with computer systems. Dozens of countries are sending books.

The legacy demands a high standard.

Around 295 B.C., the scholar Demetrius of Phalerum convinced the new pharaoh, Ptolemy I Soter, that Alexandria could rival Athens as a center of culture and learning—by establishing a library that would house all the books in the world.

History says that the Ptolemies became so hungry for knowledge that they seized books from every ship that came into harbor. They made a copy for the ship but kept the originals for themselves.

The library housed the masterpieces of classical civilization: the works of Aristotle and Plato; original manuscripts of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides; Egyptian treatises on astronomy and medicine; Buddhist texts; and the first translations of the Hebrew scriptures. Eventually historians believe Alexandria amassed 700,000 scrolls,.

Original Library, Up in Flames

While today's library plans to have a broad general collection, it isn't trying to gather the entire creative legacy of humankind under one roof.

Right now they have about 250,000 books on the shelves, less than a typical college library in the United States. Although the Bibliotheca has room for about five million books, the Library of Congress, the world's largest, has nearly 20 million.

Rather than competing, the Bibliotheca is building up special collections on Egypt, the Middle East, and Islam.

The library will also try to attract researchers and scholars from around the world. "It is a vision that was realized on this very spot over 2,300 years ago when the library was founded," said Serageldin.

Alexandria is where Euclid devised geometry; Herophilus discovered that the brain, not the heart, was the seat of thought; Aristarchus, 1,800 years before Copernicus, determined that the Earth revolved around the sun; and Eratosthenes set up a simple experiment that measured the Earth's circumference. In tribute to these discoveries, the new library features a museum dedicated to science history and a large planetarium graces the entrance.

The first and most famous blow to the ancient library came in 48 B.C., when Julius Caesar laid siege to Alexandria and set fire to the city. Historians believe flames consumed about 10 percent of the library.

By midpoint in the new millennium, the library had fallen completely. Historians believe that not a single scroll survives.

Today the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina proves that perhaps the most important element of the ancient library persists—its spirit. And this time the building is fireproof.

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