Article excerpt

Byline: G. Willow Wilson

Alexandria, Alive Once More With Books

The first and last thing, of course, is the harbor: that perfect blue-green keyhole to the Mediterranean, sheltered by two slender spits of land extending toward one another. Sphinxes sit underwater at the old shoreline, long ago submerged by rising sea levels. Today the ancient harbor is nearly empty--it's not large enough for the tankers and barges of modern commerce--but looking out over it toward open water, one is tempted to imagine fleets of triremes decorated with painted eyes. Conquerors have looked upon that harbor and dreamed of empire: Alexander the Great (after whom the city is named), Caesar, and Napoleon. The Arabs broke with centuries of tradition when they built their capital at Fustat, an old military encampment on a bluff overlooking the Nile to the south, which became the city we call Cairo. For almost 1,000 years, Alexandria was the seat of power and learning in Egypt.

The most renowned symbol of the city's power was the Bibliotheca--the Library of Alexandria--and so naturally debate flourishes over who was responsible for burning it down. Received wisdom blames the early Christians, who, having decided Hellenic knowledge was too pagan to be useful, torched the place in the name of God (an event dramatized in the 2009 Rachel Weisz film Agora). But historians peg Julius Caesar as the real culprit: he set fire to his own fleet in 48 B.C. to frustrate an enemy general, and prevailing winds spread the blaze to the library; what the Christians burned was a much more modest collection housed in the serapeum nearby. Still other theorists blame the Muslim conquerors who swept through Egypt in the seventh century, a suggestion that has been reenergized by our modern fear of Islam.

What excites my imagination, however, is not the burning of the great library, but the fact that it is being rebuilt. Two thousand years after the destruction of the original Bibliotheca, modern Egyptians have brought it back. Today, the Corniche--Alexandria's main drag--is dominated by a massive glass-and-steel disc, the edifice of the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina. It stands out among the European-influenced facades of the old apartment buildings and hotels along the water and the minarets of the local mosques. …