Alexandria Library reopens 1,600 years on

CAIRO – Egypt yesterday officially reopened one of the first and most celebrated centers of learning in human history – the Library of Alexandria, whose roots stretch back more than 2,000 years. President Hosni Mubarak and some 3,000 dignitaries from around the world, including France’s President Jacques Chirac, President Carlo Ciampi of Italy and Greece’s President Costis Stephanopoulos, attended the opening ceremony yesterday. Officially called the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the resurrected library reflects all the ambition of a bold 20-year project costing $200 million and backed by the UN cultural body UNESCO and numerous countries. The 11-story edifice – on the spot where scholars believe the ancient library stood before it was destroyed – emerges from the ground as a giant disk tilting 20 degrees north toward the Mediterranean and forming a striking image when directly aligned with the sun. Its southern-facing, windowless wall of granite bears engraved letters of most of the world’s alphabets, a silent pledge to promote diversity, culture and unfettered learning. Controversy has dogged the project since the beginning, from claims that valuable antiquities from the original Greek city of Alexandria were destroyed in the construction, to criticism that it amounted to an expensive gimmick which in itself does little to improve education in a developing country of 68 million. But developments in information technology have offered the library a way out of the almost impossible task of building up a collection from scratch to rival the world’s major libraries. An initial target of 8 million books has been shelved for a new focus on creating a state-of-the-art cyber-library, says the library’s high-profile director, Ismail Serageldin. «How many books you have is not that relevant. The issue of being at the forefront of building an electronic library becomes more relevant, and that’s one of the reasons why we want to jump forward in the electronic realm,» he said. Special focus The library will also focus on certain areas of specialization, backed up by holding major global seminars on issues in various fields of knowledge. It has a lot to live up to. Previous luminaries included Archimedes, Euclid, Eratosthenes, St Mark and Manetho, who established today’s system of classifying Egypt’s Pharaonic dynasties. The first effort at collection and classification of universal knowledge, the great library set up after Alexander the Great established the city in 332 BC saw the first translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek. «We’re looking for niches that can complement our work: the Mediterranean area, Arab world, sub-Saharan Africa, and ethics of science and technology,» said Serageldin, a former vice chairman of the World Bank and candidate for UNESCO head. «There are three things where we plan to be the best in the world and I will compete to be the best in the world in: the library has got to be the reference point on the ancient library, on Alexandria and on Egypt,» he added. Difficult times The library’s hope to become a new beacon of knowledge and understanding comes at a critical time in the Middle East. Religious extremism has been on the rise in the Middle East in recent decades, casting an unwelcome spotlight on the region. Most of the alleged planners, backers and attackers of September 11 were Arabs, and many of them were Egyptians. Violence also continues to plague the Middle East. An official opening planned earlier this year was delayed because of tension over Israel’s attempts to crush a Palestinian uprising. The liberal, Europeanized city which formed the backdrop for Lawrence Durrell’s classic «Alexandria Quartet» novels and its tales of the twisted lives and loves of foreign and local elites has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. Islamic groups are strong in a now sprawling city of 6 million whose economy is struggling in the face of Cairo’s domination. Egypt as a whole has become more conservative in recent decades and critics bemoan declines in public debate and civil society. Censorship fears But the government has tried to assuage fears that a wave of book censorships could affect the library by awarding it a special status which makes it answerable only to the presidency. «My legal statutes are very clear – they give me the right, the obligation… to collect all the product of the human mind. I do not expect much of a hassle,» said Serageldin, an architect who has written on topics from Shakespeare to biotechnology. «If you, as a devout fundamentalist Muslim, want to repudiate ‘The Satanic Verses’ (of author Salman Rushdie), where would you get a copy?» he said, adding that many countries were witnessing debates on the proper limits of artistic and scientific endeavour. «In the United States, people are debating whether Huckleberry Finn gives a stereotyped view of blacks. In some states, you’re forbidden to teach evolution,» Serageldin said. David Wardrop, a member of a worldwide network of experts who advised the library on acquisitions policy, said he was satisfied it would rise above censorship. «The Egyptian Parliament has ceded to the library’s director such decision-making, who, by similar decree, is responsible only to the head of state. So, no national or local interfering,» he said. «Anyway, we feel the major components of the new library’s collection will tend not to involve such sensitivities.» Alexandrians think the library could do a lot to revive the fortunes of the city that housed one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Pharos lighthouse. «People are very excited about it and everyone feels it is an asset,» said radio announcer Hanan Samaha. «The library is encouraging cultural activities and encouraging children to come. This is something that has been missed in Alexandria.» Ironically, the original library saw its demise in an era of religious zealotry similar to that which greets its rebirth. Philosopher and mathematician Hepatia, the library’s last scholar, became an early martyr to learning when a Christian mob killed her in AD 415 as a symbol of a hated pagan era. Modern Egyptian history is also replete with cases of thinkers who have had to endure exile, violence, prison and heavy censorship for their scholarship. An Egyptian academic who argued for an allegorical reading of the Koran was forcibly divorced from his wife in 1996 on the grounds that his theories proved he was no longer a Muslim, and thus he could not remain married to his Muslim wife. Egypt’s Nobel laureate author Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed by radical youths in 1995 because of a novel which the religious establishment had slammed as blasphemous. The authorities have since prosecuted a number of people for forming groups which held unorthodox views on central Islamic tenets concerning prayer, pilgrimage and fasting. Since the US «war on terror» was unleashed after the September 11 attacks last year, some authorities in Egypt and other Arab and Muslim countries have feared that predictions of a clash of civilizations between East and West were coming true. Egypt hopes the library could help counter such tensions. «The Alexandrina returns to revive the spirit of tolerance and sharing human knowledge,» the major daily newspaper al-Akhbar said in an editorial this week.