Living up to library’s glorious history

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt – The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, partly submerged in a pool of water, tries to live up to an ancient tradition. It stands where archaeologists believe the library of the Ptolemies stood some 1,700 years ago. After decades of research, more than a decade of planning and many delays, the new library is to open officially this year. Egypt’s first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, an active campaigner for education and literacy, gave her support to the project, which intends to revive the old library and Alexandria’s ancient allure. As chairwoman of the new library’s board of trustees, she outlined four roles for the institution: to be Egypt’s window on the world, to be the world’s window on Egypt, to be a library for the digital age and to be a center of learning and dialogue. The round-shaped library is partly submerged in a pool of water to symbolize the sun emerging out of water – a permanent sunrise on the Mediterranean. It was at the ancient library of Alexandria, founded around 295 BC by Ptolemy I Soter, the successor of city founder Alexander the Great, that many of the world’s great minds converged. The institution was burned down in the fourth century. In its heyday, the city of Alexandria rivaled Rome and Carthage. For some 600 years, it was the center of learning in the ancient world. Suzanne Mubarak’s ambitions have raised expectations, along with concerns and doubts. Can the new library’s significance compare with that of the old? Can Alexandria in the 21st century, neglected for decades by the central government, compare with Alexandria of 200 BC, when it was an international center and the second largest city in the world? Amid government censorship and militant Islamist intolerance, can scholarship and intellectual freedom thrive in Egypt today? Egypt is capable, «historically, geographically and culturally,» of providing a library dedicated to rationality, discourse, tolerance and understanding, said Ismail Serageldin, the head of the library. The appointment of Serageldin, an Egyptian and a former World Bank vice president, is seen as a boost to the international image of the library. An international declaration, signed in 1990 by some 18 dignitaries and heads of state at a UNESCO conference, called on governments and private organizations, scholars and writers around the world to help revive Alexandria’s library. Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia covered most of the estimated 230 million dollars it cost to build the library, said library media adviser Khaled Azab. France, Italy, Norway, Greece, Japan and China contributed materials. The library has a capacity for 4 million books, though it has only 240,000 books on its shelves now and, so far, no acquisitions budget, according to Azab. That compares with the approximately 12 million volumes in the US Library of Congress in Washington. Moustafa al-Abbadi, an Alexandria historian who has researched the ancient library, wonders whether, with so few books, the new institution deserves the title it has claimed. The ancient library is believed to have held some 500,000 scrolls, some containing more than one work. Tens of thousands of other works were kept in the daughter library, housed in the temple of Serapis, the god of the underworld worshiped both by Egyptians and Greeks. In the Internet era, keeping and storing books is not everything, said Serageldin, who has secured a digital archive library for his institution. «Too many people have been obsessed with the number of books that existed in the past and the number of books that exist today,» he said in an interview. «This is a minor point compared to the big experiment which we want to make.» The draw for international researchers will be psychological at first, said Leila Abdel-Hadi, Serageldin’s head of library services. They will be attracted by the city’s past and glamour, she said. Serageldin concedes much still needs to be done, saying it wouldn’t be fair to make an evaluation for another seven or eight years. Unmatched in Egypt Already, the library represents progress for Egypt. An open-shelf public research library, where the general public can walk in and browse through a collection of this size, is unmatched in Egypt. Egyptian university libraries are closed to all but students or specialized researchers. Other public libraries here have either a smaller, more local collection, or have restricted access. During a conference the library held in March, librarians from across Egypt expressed concern about how the library would define itself. «The library of Alexandria wants to be everything to everybody,» said Hani Attia, a library and documentation expert at Cairo University. Instead of bringing the world’s intellectuals to Egypt, some critics say, the library has a greater role to play in addressing the problems of its own people. Illiteracy in Egypt stands at around 40 percent and the country that was once the hub of Arab culture is slowly losing ground to other more vibrant societies. The religious establishment, the Muslim world’s renowned al-Azhar institution and local publishers have mounted many campaigns in the last decade against material deemed offensive or morally inappropriate. A photo book on the Alexandria library’s shelves already has aroused criticism. Letter writers to newspapers have complained about how some photos of poor Egyptian neighborhoods damaged the country’s image. A special act passed by Parliament last year guarantees the library administration’s independence. «There is no objection from anybody to anything that I do here – I have no constraints,» Serageldin said. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina complex, made up of a main library, a planetarium, a conference hall, five research institutes, six galleries and three museums, occupies 48,000 square yards (40,128 square meters) in the middle of Alexandria’s newly renovated seaside promenade. Across the street is Alexandria University, linked to the library by a midair walkway. One of the library’s major projects will be assembling everything written on the ancient library, Alexandria and the Mediterranean region. At the entrance of the new library stands a 40-foot (12-meter) statue of Ptolemy II, who furnished the royal library with many of its great works.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.