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.

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