Egypt Revives Its `Great Library'

Article excerpt

EL ISKANDARIYA, Egypt - Down by the coastal shelf here in ancient Alexandria, a legend of classical antiquity is rising from the ashes as miraculously as a phoenix.

Next month, the new $200 million Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a spectacular piece of high-tech architecture billed as the revival of the ancient Library of Alexandria, will quietly be opened 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.

As opening day draws near, important 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," said Ismail Serageldin, who recently resigned as vice president of the World Bank to focus his efforts on the library and has been appointed its acting director-general.


As part of his program, Mr. Serageldin has obtained an international board of trustees for the library, which he envisions as a resource for the whole world, with strong support from international educational and cultural organizations like UNESCO.

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.

A literal beacon also graced the city's harbor, on the western side of the Nile delta and the Mediterranean Sea: the Lighthouse of Alexandria was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The city itself was founded and proudly named by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., when he was 25 and well embarked on his brief life of conquest.

It was at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, in 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.

There, 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, is the seat of intelligence.


Then, mysteriously, the library vanished off the radar screen of history. Scholars are still 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.

After A.D. 391, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christians destroyed Alexandria's Sarapeum, a pagan temple that 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 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," James H. Billington, the United States' Librarian of Congress, said in a 1993 speech.

Now just a vast `village'

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. …