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Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2001

A phoenix from the ashes

The rebirth of Alexandria's ancient great library


By ERLING HOH

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt -- Down by the corniche, a legend of classical antiquity is rising from the ashes as miraculously as a phoenix. This summer, the new $200 million Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a spectacular piece of high-tech architecture billed as the revival of the Ancient Library of Alexandria, is due for inauguration, more than 20 years after the idea was conceived and seven years after construction began.

Bibliotheca Alexandrina, billed as the rebirth of the ancient library

As opening day draws near, crucial 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," says Ismail Serageldin, who recently resigned his job as vice president of the World Bank to focus his efforts on the library and who is seen as the most likely candidate to become its first director.

As part of his program for the library, Serageldin says he wants it to be a library for the whole world, with an international Board of Trustees and strong support from organizations such as UNESCO. "If it is part of the Egyptian government, it will not have the flexibility to create the necessary programs," he says.

By any measure, re-establishing the position held by the ancient library will be a tall order. At the time of Christ, Alexandria was one of the greatest cities on earth, and its Great Library was the beacon of Hellenistic civilization. There, Euclid devised his geometry, Archimedes formulated his principles, Aristarchus concluded that the Earth revolves around the sun, and Erastothenes calculated the circumference of the Earth with astonishing accuracy. A team of 70 scholars translated the Pentateuch of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek -- the Septuagint. Herophilus dissected the human body and realized that the brain, not the heart, is the seat of intelligence.

Then, mysteriously, the library disappeared off the radar screen of history. Scholars are still divided over the ultimate fate of the ancient great library. Julius Caesar, the Christians and the Arabs have all been held responsible.

In 48 B.C., Caesar, having entered the Alexandrian War on the side of his lover 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 empire, Christians destroyed the city's greatest pagan temple, the Serapeum, which 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 case, the Great Library, wrapped in myths and fables, has come to epitomize the ideal of free thought and independent scholarship in the pursuit of truth.

"One ghostly image haunts all of those 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.

Today, Alexandria, a city with 4.5 million inhabitants, has been called the world's largest village, and does not even have its own newspaper. The idea to revive the ancient library was born among scholars at the city's university in the '70s. As the scale and the ambition of the project grew, UNESCO became involved and a global architectural competition for the library building was announced. Out of over 500 entries from architects in some 40 countries, the jury selected the submission of a group of young, unknown architects from the Norwegian firm Snhetta.

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 leader Saddam Hussein put up $21 million and Saudi Arabia contributed $23 million. Saddam Hussein's check cleared only days before the beginning of the Gulf War.

The architects at Snhetta -- three Norwegians, an Austrian and an American -- have designed a cylindrical building sunk halfway into the ground. Some of the world's most famous libraries, such as the old British Library, are round, and, as Christoph Kapeller, the Austrian member, explains, the circle symbolizes the unity and perfection of knowledge.

The idea that gives the library a completely unique, spectacular identity, however, was to visualize the round building as a sundial rising from the Earth, tilt it and then freeze it 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 airplane wings.

The outer wall, which runs along the building's 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 man has devised since the dawn of civilization.

"I see the library as a window for the world on Egypt, and a window for Egypt on the world," says Serageldin. "One question we will have to answer is: 'What does it mean to be a research library in the age of the Internet?' "

Born and educated in Egypt, Serageldin has an M.A. in urban planning from Harvard University and has spent the past 20 years outside his home country. Only the challenge, intellectual and organizational, that the library poses was able to persuade him to leave his prestigious job at the World Bank and return home.

One thing is for sure: The Information Age has made the old dream of a universal library, with the whole creative heritage of man gathered under one roof, virtually impossible. The world's largest library, the U.S. Library of Congress, which has more than 120 million items in its collections, does not even make that claim.

Two thousand years ago, however, the old library of Alexandria, with its collection of some 700,000 scrolls, except for writings in Chinese and Sanskrit, came pretty close to being universal. The Ptolemaic kings' hunger for books was legendary. According to one story, every ship calling at Alexandria was ordered to hand over all its books to the library, where the librarians decided whether to keep, copy or return 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 the 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, as he intended to keep the original manuscripts.

With the new library due to open early next year, its collection, which will have about half a million 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 the country's Moorish era. Norway, Brazil, the U.S., 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 Ptolemy's 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," says Dr. Mohsen Zahran, the present director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina project.



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