EL ISKANDARIYA, Egypt — Down by the coastal shelf here in ancient Alexandria, a legend of classical antiquity is rising from the ashes as miraculously as a phoenix.
Next month, the new $200 million Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a spectacular piece of high-tech architecture billed as the revival of the ancient Library of Alexandria, will quietly be opened to the public, more than 20 years after the idea was conceived and seven years after construction began.
The formal grand opening — with presidents, kings and sultans — is due next April.
As opening day draws near, important questions are being asked. What will its function be? Will it become a beacon of science and progress as its predecessor was?
“I want it to be true to the spirit of the old Library of Alexandria — a vibrant intellectual center, a meeting place for civilizations,” said Ismail Serageldin, who recently resigned as vice president of the World Bank to focus his efforts on the library and has been appointed its acting director-general.
International board OK’d
As part of his program, Mr. Serageldin has obtained an international board of trustees for the library, which he envisions as a resource for the whole world, with strong support from international educational and cultural organizations like UNESCO.
By any measure, re-establishing the stature enjoyed by the ancient library will be a tall order. Two millennia ago, Alexandria was one of the greatest cities on earth, and its library was the beacon of Hellenistic civilization.
A literal beacon also graced the citys harbor, on the western side of the Nile delta and the Mediterranean Sea: the Lighthouse of Alexandria was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The city itself was founded and proudly named by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., when he was 25 and well embarked on his brief life of conquest.
It was at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, in its Greek name, that Euclid devised his geometry, Archimedes formulated basic principles of physics, Aristarchus concluded that the Earth revolves around the sun, and Erastosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth with astonishing accuracy.
There, a team of 70 rabbis translated the Pentateuch of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek — the Septuagint. And Herophilus dissected the human body and concluded that the brain, not the heart, is the seat of intelligence.
Tales of its end abound
Then, mysteriously, the library vanished off the radar screen of history. Scholars are still divided over its fate. Julius Caesar, the Christians and the Arabs have all been blamed for its disappearance.
In 48 B.C., Caesar, having entered the Alexandrian War on the side of Cleopatra, found himself under attack from sea. “When the enemy tried to cut off his fleet, Caesar was forced to repel the danger by using fire, which spread from the dockyards and destroyed the “Great Library,” the Greek historian Plutarch wrote.
After A.D. 391, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christians destroyed Alexandrias Sarapeum, a pagan temple that housed a daughter branch of the Great Library.
And a 12th century account of the Arab conquest of Egypt in A.D. 642 states that the bathhouses of Alexandria were heated for six months with burning scrolls.
Whatever the truth, the Great Library, wrapped in myths and legend, has come to epitomize the ideal of free thought and independent scholarship.
“One ghostly image haunts all of us charged with preserving the creative heritage of humanity: the specter of the great, lost Library of Alexandria,” James H. Billington, the United States Librarian of Congress, said in a 1993 speech.
Now just a vast ‘village’
Today, Alexandria, a city with 4.5 million inhabitants, has been called the worlds largest village and does not even have its own newspaper. The idea to revive the ancient library was born among scholars at the citys university in the 1970s.
As the scale and the ambition of the project grew, UNESCO became involved, and a global architectural competition for the library building was announced. From over 500 entries from architects in about 40 countries, the jury selected a design by a group of young, unknown architects from the Norwegian firm Snohetta.
In 1990, at a meeting in Aswan, Arab leaders competed to make the largest cash contribution. Sheik Zaid bin Sultan of the United Arab Emirates offered $20 million, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein put up $21 million and Saudi Arabia contributed $23 million. (Saddams check cleared days before the beginning of the Gulf war.)
The architects at Snohetta, three Norwegians, an Austrian and an American, have designed a cylindrical building sunk halfway into the ground. Some of the worlds most famous libraries, such as the old British Library, are round, and, as Christoph Kapeller, the Austrian member of the design group explained, the circle symbolizes the unity and perfection of knowledge.
Design creates identity
The idea that gave the library a unique identity was to visualize the round building as a sundial rising from the earth, tilted and frozen at an angle of 16 degrees. The roof, inspired by a computer microchip and symbolizing the future, is made of aluminum and glass, and insulated against the strong sun with the same material and technology used for aircraft wings.
The outer wall along the buildings perimeter is clad with unpolished Aswan granite, upon which the Norwegian artist Jorunn Sannes, with the help of computers and automated machinery, has engraved signs and letters in different sizes from virtually every system of writing devised by mankind.
“I see the library as a window for the world on Egypt, and a window for Egypt on the world. One question we will have to answer is: ‘What does it mean to be a research library in the age of the Internet?” said Mr. Serageldin.
Born and educated in Egypt, he has a masters degree in urban planning from Harvard University and spent the past two decades outside Egypt. Only the intellectual and organizational challenge the library poses was able to persuade him to leave his prestigious job at the World Bank early this year and return home.
Library concept evolving
One thing is for sure: The Information Age has made the old dream of a universal library, with the whole creative heritage of humankind gathered under one roof, impossible as well as unnecessary.
The worlds largest library, the Library of Congress in Washington, which has more than 120 million items in its collections, does not claim to have everything. Two millennia ago, however, the Library of Alexandria, with 700,000 scrolls came close to being universal, lacking mainly scholarly works in Chinese and Sanskrit.
The hunger for books of the Ptolemaic kings was legendary. According to one story, every ship calling at Alexandria was ordered to hand over all its books to the library, where experts decided whether to keep them.
According to another legend, Ptolemy III, in his quest for the original manuscripts of the Greek tragedians Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides, agreed to pay the state archives in Athens the enormous sum of 15 talents as security for permission to borrow and copy them.
As soon as he had received the literary treasures, however, he informed the governors of Athens that they could keep the money, since he intended to keep the original manuscripts.
Manuscripts being donated
With the new library due to open informally in June, its collection, which will have about 500,000 items on opening day, is beginning to take shape. The city of Alexandria has handed over 5,000 original manuscripts from its archives.
France has donated copies of documents from the Suez Canal Company, and Spain has sent copies of the famous Escorial and Cordoba collections, with thousands of important documents in Arabic relating to Moorish Spain.
Norway, Brazil, the United States, Russia, China, Japan, Oman, Turkey and many other countries have donated books, manuscripts and other items. Greece, for its part, has donated a facsimile copy of Claudius Ptolemys famous world map, which Christopher Columbus used 1,500 years later as he searched for a passage to India, but discovered America instead.
“It is a beginning. It is a big baby which is being born. We will make it into what we want it to be,” said Mohsen Zahran, director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Project.