Egypt Opens New Library of Alexandria

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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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