Dream in the Desert: Alexandria's Library Rises Again

Article excerpt

EGYPT' S BIBLIOTHECA ALEXAN DRI NA FUSES AN ANCIENT LEGACY WITH A DIGITAL FUTURE

In 1990, Rosalie Cuneo Amer heard about a new, ambitious, joint Egyptian/UNESCO cultural project that would evoke the memory and the glory of the famous ancient library at Alexandria. In the mid-3rd century B.C. the library had been one of the wonders of antiquity, but a fire ravaged the Alexandria docks in 47 B.C. during Julius Caesar's invasion of Egypt--the first of several catastrophes that led to the library's probable disappearance by the end of the 7th century A.D. At the end of the 20th century a new Alexandrian library was built, a public research library to serve primarily African, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern countries, though it will also have global cultural implications.

Amer, now automation and technical services librarian at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, is married to an Egyptian, served as acting director of the American Library in Cairo from 1966 to 1969, and teaches at CSU/Sacramento as an adjunct professor of Islamic studies. Excited by the news, she got involved and helped organize the California Friends of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, as the new library is known. Since 1990, this group and many others have worked diligently to build the library's collections and raise funds for its operation.

A decade later, the library is nearly complete and almost ready to open. According to architectural project director Mohsen Zahran, construction was essentially finished in December 1999 and final touches to the building will be applied through this summer. "Once the building is fully furnished, the highest Egyptian authorities will determine the inauguration's precise date," Zahran told American Libraries. This will happen sometime between August and November of this year, according to sources close to the project.

The library's opening will be the culmination of 25 years of dreaming, designing, planning, and constructing. Alexandria University History Professor Mostafa El-Abbadi, author of The Life and Fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria (UNESCO, 2nd ed., 1992), dreamed of resuscitating the temple of learning he had spent years studying, and in 1974 he convinced University President Lutfi Dowidar to go forward with the project. But it took 10 years of hard work before they were finally able to bring the idea to the attention of the Egyptian government and the international community.

On June 26, 1988, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and UNESCO Director-General Federico Mayor laid the cornerstone for the new building on the waterfront between the city's eastern port and the university's Faculty of Arts campus. The exact location of the ancient library is not known, but the site chosen was within the palace area of the Ptolemaic pharaohs.

Negotiations for the contract ate up some time, as did the actual design and construction, but as Zahran pointed out, "Six years spent on the design and construction of such a big and technologically new building is not very long."

The project, however, did slow down between 1992 and 1994 when excavations were conducted to ensure that no important artifacts would be destroyed. "We are proud to say that the artifacts retrieved from the archeological dig are now on display at the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria and will be on display at the Bibliotheca as part of its exhibit program," Amer explained.

Since 1988, the General Organization of the Alexandria Library (GOAL) has been the official Egyptian organization handling contract negotiations, infrastructure, acquisitions, and staffing. GOAL personnel have also been cataloging all materials electronically and restoring locally held manuscripts for eventual transfer to the collection.

Worldwide contributions

Once open, the Bibliotheca will be the realization of a dream for Amer and the many other individuals and organizations that have worked hard to support the project. …