Modern Egypt Revives Ancient `Great Library'

Article excerpt

The new Alexandria Library stands on the site of its storied predecessor, destroyed by fire 1,600 years ago. The project is funded by UNESCO and Saddam Hussein, among other donors.

Down by the coastal shelf in Alexandria, Egypt, a legend of classical antiquity is rising from the ashes as miraculously as a phoenix. This June, the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a spectacular piece of architecture billed as the revival of its ancient namesake, will open quietly 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.)

"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 as vice president of the World Bank to become acting director-general of the library. As part of his program, Serageldin has arranged an international board of trustees, and the library has strong support from international educational and cultural organizations such as UNESCO. In 1990, at a meeting in Aswan, Arab leaders competed to make the largest cash contribution to the project. 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. (Saddam's check cleared days before the beginning of the Persian Gulf War.)

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. It was at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 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.

It was there that 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, was the seat of intelligence.

Then, mysteriously, the library vanished into history. Scholars still are 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. Around A.D. 391, Christians destroyed Alexandria's Sarapeum, a pagan temple that housed a daughter branch of the Great Library. In A.D. 642, Arabs heated bathhouses of Alexandria for six months by burning scrolls, according to a 12th-century account of the Arab conquest of Egypt.

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," said James H. Billington, the U.S. Librarian of Congress, in a 1993 speech.

The idea to revive the ancient library was born among scholars at the city's university in the 1970s. …