The New Library of Alexandria

By PHILIPPA SCOTT  |  April 3, 2002 at 1:29 PM
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ALEXANDRIA, Egypt, April 3 (UPI) -- "The sights of Alexandria are in themselves not interesting, but they fascinate when we approach them through the past," wrote E.M. Forster in his 1922 book, "Alexandria, A History and Guide."

Antoine Benaki liked to claim that Byzantine and Islamic art were simply a natural development of Hellenism, and Benaki moved his collection from Egypt to Athens in the 1930s.

The Greeks have been in Egypt from the time of Alexander, though their numbers dwindled throughout the twentieth century and today most Greeks of Egyptian descent are sipping coffee in Kolonaki Square in Athens, a short walk from the Benaki Museum.

The written word has always played an important part in Alexandria's history.

In 1876 the first Arabic-language daily newspaper, Al Ahram, was established in Alexandria, and four years later, The Egyptian Gazette was founded, later transplanted to Cairo to become a daily publication.

Twentieth century writers who celebrated the city include its local poet Constantine Cavafy, Lawrence Durrell (The Alexandria Quartet), and Nobel Prize author Naguib Mahfouz.

The Library of Alexandria was the first library in civilization, established by Alexander's one-time general, Ptolemy I, in 288 BC, and it was an important meeting point for debate and discussion, attracting the leading intellectuals and scholars of the time, and is believed to have contained some 700,000 scrolls. Here the Old Testament was translated for the first time from Aramaic to Greek. The Library was not burned by the Arabs, as is usually claimed, but during a series of wars with the Romans after the fall of the Ptolemies and their last queen, Cleopatra, when a series of terrible fires, exacerbated by earthquakes, seriously damaged the city.

Many of the scrolls are believed to have been thrown in the sea.

In April 2002 the new Alexandria Library will be inaugurated. This ambitious project is a collaboration between the Egyptian Government and UNESCO, conceived at a memorable meeting of Heads of State and world dignitaries who signed the Aswan Declaration for the Revival of the Ancient Library of Alexandria on 12 February 1990.

Made possible by generous support by the international community, the stated intention was to build a universal modern public library to be a center of culture, science and academic research, and to provide both the national and international communities of scholars and researchers with unique collections and facilities focusing on Alexandrian, Egyptian, ancient and medieval civilizations as well as on contemporary disciplines.

The Library will sponsor intensive studies on the historical and contemporary cultural heritage of the region.

It looks extraordinary, and very beautiful. After examining some five hundred entries to an open architectural competition, it was decided to adopt a design submitted by a Norwegian partnership, Snohetta Architects.

A vast sloping circle inclines towards the sea, partly submerged in a pool of water, reflecting the image of the sun, and the idea of illuminating the world and human civilization. An inclined roof allows indirect daylight and a clear view of the sea. The building is surrounded by a wall clad with Aswan granite engraved with calligraphic letters and representative inscriptions from world civilizations, and inside there are eleven floors, four below ground, and seven above, each floor dedicated to a particular field of knowledge. The main storage area is below ground, and has an estimated capacity for seven and a half million books.

Conscious of its history, the new Library has been built to resist fire, earthquakes, and the corrosive effects of the nearby ocean.

Columns are topped by stylized lotus forms, the glass on the ceilings is the same material as is used in airplane windows, to allow light and exclude the sun's heat. The interior is faced with black granite, a gift from Zimbabwe, which has the quality of acoustic insulation, and completely deadens sound.

Although not officially opened yet, the Library is functional, and at present displays a loan exhibition, "Written Jewel, Arabic Bibliographical Sources of Catalonia."

This includes astrolabes, medical treatises, treaties of friendship between Moslem and Christian rulers, alphabets inscribed on bone scapulas, documents recording the sale of olive groves, or the gift of a house from a Saracen to his sister.

There is a letter from the Sultan of Grenada, Ismail I, to King James II, dated 1314, and others between James II of Aragon to rulers of Tripoli, Tunis, and Egypt.

Eventually, the cultural complex housing the main Library will host meetings, a cinema, and space for exhibitions and concerts.

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