Magazine article The Middle East

Alexandria Library: The Original Alexandria Library Was Destroyed More Than 1,600 Years Ago. Now a New $200 Million Facility Has Replaced the Ancient Centre of Learning. (Culture)

Magazine article The Middle East

Alexandria Library: The Original Alexandria Library Was Destroyed More Than 1,600 Years Ago. Now a New $200 Million Facility Has Replaced the Ancient Centre of Learning. (Culture)

Article excerpt

Egypt has officially reopened one of the first and most celebrated centres of learning in human history, the library of Alexandria, which saw its demise in an era of religious zealotry similar to the one that meets its revival. An institution that died 1,600 years ago rose again last October amid great fanfare involving 14 Nobel prize winners, musicians from around the world, and dignitaries including France's President Jacques Chirac, President Carlo Ciampi of Italy and Greece's President Costis Stephanopoulos. "The revival of the library will play a central role in the meeting of cultures and societies," Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, who considers the library vital to Egypt's prestige abroad and its ability to attract tourists, told the gathering in the vast main hall of the revived edifice. "Our region has always suffered from bloodshed and conflicts. Now it is time to bring this to an end."

Officially called the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the resurrected library reflects all the ambition of a bold 20-year project costing $200m with backing from the United Nations cultural body UNESCO and numerous countries. The 11-storey edifice--built on the exact site the ancient library is believed to have stood before it was destroyed--emerges from the ground as a giant disc tilting 20 degrees north towards the Mediterranean and forming a striking image when directly aligned with the sun. Its southern-facing, windowless wall of granite carries engraved letters of most of the world's alphabets, ensuring that visitors of every nationality will be able to discover a piece of their own culture.

"This is not just a building," explained Kjetil Thorsen, the Norwegian architect whose firm Snohetta won the $60,000 prize to design the new library in 1989. "We are trying to recapture a myth and give it physical form. Everybody has his or her own idea of what the original library looked like. The challenge for us was not to make the vision banal." However, despite the worthy goals, controversy has dogged the project from the beginning, ranging from claims that valuable antiquities from the original Greek city of Alexandria were destroyed in the new library's construction, to allegations that the entire project is little more than an expensive gimmick which does little to improve education in a developing country of 68m where some 50% of the population are illiterate. Egypt is also a country which periodically bans books, which opens up the country to accusations of hypocrisy. "You won't find my books in the Alexandria library and I'm not sure you ever will," says Nawal Saadawi, a feminist writer, political campaigner and well-known critic of the government.

Egypt's Nobel laureate author Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed by radical youths in 1995 because of a novel the religious establishment had slammed as blasphemous. An Egyptian academic who argued for an allegorical reading of the Koran was forcibly divorced from his wife in 1996 on the grounds that his theories proved he was no longer a Muslim, and thus could not remain married to his Muslim wife. Ironically, the original library saw its demise in an era of religious zealotry similar to the one that greets its rebirth. Philosopher and mathematician Hepatia, the library's last scholar, became an early martyr to learning when a Christian mob killed her in 415 AD because the library had become a symbol of a hated pagan era. The government has tried to assuage fears that a wave of book censorship could affect the library by awarding it a special status making it answerable only to the presidency. …

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