Egypt rolls out the red carpet for the resurrection of Alexandria’s library

CAIRO – Egypt has tightened security as it rolls out the red carpet for royals and presidents to attend today’s opening of the library in Alexandria that will rise from the ashes of its ancient Bibliotheca. The Civil Aviation Ministry has announced «a state of emergency» at Cairo airport to streamline the arrival of nearly 800 foreign guests expected to attend the ceremony in the Mediterranean city. «Special preparations have been made to provide security for the prominent guests» to be taken from the capital to Alexandria, 200 kilometers (125 miles) to the north, said Cairo airport security chief General Mohamed Salamah. He did not specify if they would be ferried by air or road, presumably also for security reasons. Newspapers said schoolchildren, students and civil servants in Alexandria have been given a holiday from yesterday until tomorrow, to allow them to participate in the festivities. This measure will also make it easier for the police to control traffic in the city. Local newspapers, meanwhile, have opted to ignore the terror threat that resurfaced Saturday with a bomb attack in Bali that claimed the lives of more than 180 people, including scores of tourists. «President Hosni Mubarak will declare the resurrection of Bibliotheca Alexandria 20 centuries after it disappeared during the time of the Roman Empire,» the leading Al-Ahram daily said. Topping the guest list will be King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain, Queen Rania of Jordan, and presidents Jacques Chirac of France, Costis Stephanopoulos of Greece, Romania’s Ion Iliescu and Croatia’s Stipe Mesic, it said. Prime ministers, ministers, writers, poets, historians and intellectuals from around the globe, including 14 Nobel laureates in various fields, will also be present. The library’s director, 58-year-old Ismail Serageddin, is himself a mix of disciplines: an architect, sociologist, agronomist, writer and economist. «My model is Eratosthenes, the third person to have headed the ancient library. He proved that the earth is a sphere, with simplicity and elegance. He is the father of modern geography, and was also a great mathematician and grammarian,» he told AFP last week. The library’s inauguration was initially planned for last April, but postponed because of almost-daily student protests in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities in support of the Palestinian uprising against Israel. The $225 million library, designed by Norwegian architects Snohetta, is a vast glass and concrete facility which sits among modern apartment blocks on the shore, looking like a solar disk tilting toward the Mediterranean Sea. Abandoning part of its ambition to become a new world beacon of culture, as was the ancient one, the aim of the establishment has been scaled down over the years to serve mainly Egyptians. Around 240,000 volumes will be available in the library when it opens, far short of the 8 million originally expected. «We will never rival the Library of Congress in Washington, which has just about everything,» said Serageddin, who served as vice president of the World Bank in the US federal capital from 1993 to 2000. The Library of Congress has an operating budget of $435 million, while Alexandria’s has a mere 20-25 million. But Egypt wants the complex to reflect the spirit of the ancient library, which held more than 700,000 cataloged volumes in its heyday in the centuries after Alexander the Great founded the city in 332 BC. The new library is financed by Egypt, dozens of other countries – almost all of them Arab and European – the United Nations, educational, scientific and cultural organizations, and by the UN Development Program. The legendary place of learning was hit by several blazes – one of them during Julius Caesar’s siege of Alexandria in 48 BC – before the first major public reading place in history was finally burnt down around 1,600 years ago.