Modern Egypt Revives Ancient "Great Library"

Insight on the News
August 6, 2001

Down by the coastal shelf in Alexandria, Egypt, a legend of classical antiquity is rising from the ashes as miraculously as a phoenix. This June, the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a spectacular piece of architecture billed as the revival of its ancient namesake, opened quietly to the public, more than 20 years after the idea was conceived and seven years after construction began.

The formal grand opening—with presidents, kings and sultans—is due next April.

"I want it to be true to the spirit of the old Library of Alexandria—a vibrant intellectual center, a meeting place for civilizations," says Ismail Serageldin, who recently resigned as vice president of the World Bank to become acting director-general of the library.

As part of his program, Serageldin has arranged an international board of trustees, and the library has strong support from international educational and cultural organizations such as UNESCO. In 1990, at a meeting in Aswan, Arab leaders competed to make the largest cash contribution to the project. Sheik Zaid bin Sultan of the United Arab Emirates offered U.S. $20 million, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein put up $21 million and Saudi Arabia contributed $23 million. (Saddam's check cleared days before the beginning of the Persian Gulf War.)

By any measure, re-establishing the stature enjoyed by the ancient library will be a tall order. Two millennia ago, Alexandria was one of the greatest cities on Earth, and its library was the beacon of Hellenistic civilization. It was at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, its Greek name, that Euclid devised his geometry, Archimedes formulated basic principles of physics, Aristarchus concluded that the Earth revolves around the sun and Erastosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth with astonishing accuracy.

It was there that a team of 70 rabbis translated the Pentateuch of the Old Testament from Hebrew into the Greek Septuagint—and Herophilus dissected the human body and concluded that the brain, not the heart, was the seat of intelligence.

Then, mysteriously, the library vanished into history. Scholars still are divided over its fate. Julius Caesar, the Christians and the Arabs have all been blamed for its disappearance.

In 48 B.C., Caesar, having entered the Alexandrian War on the side of Cleopatra, found himself under attack from sea. "When the enemy tried to cut off his fleet, Caesar was forced to repel the danger by using fire, which spread from the dockyards and destroyed the Great Library," the Greek historian Plutarch wrote. Around A.D. 391, Christians destroyed Alexandria's Sarapeum, a pagan temple that housed a daughter branch of the Great Library. In A.D. 642, Arabs heated bathhouses of Alexandria for six months by burning scrolls, according to a 12th-century account of the Arab conquest of Egypt.

Whatever the truth, the Great Library, wrapped in myths and legend, has come to epitomize the ideal of free thought and independent scholarship. "One ghostly image haunts all of us charged with preserving the creative heritage of humanity: the specter of the great, lost Library of Alexandria," said James H. Billington, the US. Librarian of Congress, in a 1993 speech.

Global Competition

The idea to revive the ancient library was born among scholars at the city's university in the 1970s. As the scale and ambition of the project grew, planners announced a global competition for the library building, prompting 500 entries from architects in some 40 countries. A jury selected a design by a group of young, unknown architects from the Norwegian firm Snohetta.

The architects at Snohetta—three Norwegians, an Austrian and an American—designed a cylindrical building sunk halfway into the ground. Some of the world's most famous libraries, such as the old British Library, are round. The circle symbolizes the unity and perfection of knowledge, according to Christoph Kapeller, the Austrian member of the design group.

The building also acts as a sundial rising from Earth, tilted and frozen at an angle of 16 degrees. The roof, inspired by a computer microchip and symbolizing the future, is made of aluminum and glass, insulated against the strong sun with the same material and technology used for aircraft wings.

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