Bibliotheca Alexandrina - The Eighth Wonder of the World?
By Nigel Thorpe Chief of the English Copy Desk - AlBawaba
UNESCO quotes Egyptian authorities on its website (www.unesco.org/webworld) as saying "the new Library of Alexandria is likely to open in the spring of 2001." The new library, or to give it its classical official title the "Bibliotheca Alexandrina", is only one of a number of projects designed to restore the Mediterranean city to its former splendor and global importance.
After two thousand years of darkness beneath the sea or crumbling rocks, three of Alexandria's former glories have begun to see the light of day at the beginning of a new millennium.
First in 1994, archaeological scuba divers glimpsed giant blocks of stone from Alexandria's fabled Great Lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, below the murky waters of the Alexandria's Eastern Harbor. Then in 1997, the ruins of Cleopatra's palace, paved roads, jetties, sphinxes, columns, and broken amphorae were found littered over the seabed. Today, several excavations on the shores of the former Royal Harbor, where the fabled great library and museum of Alexandria once stood, have uncovered priceless scientific and historical documents.
Egypt's Business Monthly Magazine suggests that, if the knowledge these documents contain had not been lost, the industrial revolution might have occurred 1500 years earlier than it did.
The ancient library was established in 290 BC by Ptolemy Soter (Ptolemy I), the first ruler of Alexandria after its foundation by Alexander the Great. The library and its adjoining museum flourished for over seven hundred years (290 BC - AD 415) through the late Roman Period. The remarkable collection of manuscripts (papyrus scrolls) and exhibits brought fame to this city on the Nile as the literary and scientific capital of the Mediterranean and civilized world. In the words of the Greek scholar Athenaeus "concerning the number of books, the establishment of libraries, and the collection in the Hall of the Muses, why need I even speak, since they are all in men's memories?"
The library's guardians and administrators solved the problem of acquiring new, up to date, "books" in a simple but highly effective way. In Roman times, Alexandria was a major trading port and a law was passed that allowed any vessel or caravan train arriving at the city to be searched by the police who were then empowered to seize any scrolls, maps or literature they found. Once copied, these items were returned to their owners. These aggressive acquisition policies seem to have been highly effective since by 250 BC, the number of scrolls stored in the library had risen to over half a million - equivalent to 100,000 modern books.
The range of public information stored in the library was also highly impressive ranging from an accurate estimate of the earth's diameter, to explicit information on human sexuality. Why do these ancient facts have such a familiar ring? The answer may be that, as suggested by the late American astronomer Carl Sagan in his influential television series COSMOS, the original Great Library of Alexandria was, in many ways, the ancestor of the Internet. For good or bad, the Internet connects world civilizations and contains information on every subject known to man. Some governments' and extremist pressure groups' fear of knowledge and change have led to Internet censorship. The same was certainly true in Alexandria during the late Roman period.
Since the great library of Alexandria was open to all, the Christian Patriarchs became increasingly worried when they gained control of the city in the fourth century BC about the public having access to "sensitive" political, religious and sexual topics. According to one theory this suspect material, together with the supposed heretical scientific teachings of library staff, lead to the Great Library being burnt to the ground in 412 BC.
Legends, and the few contemporary sources that have survived, describe how the scholar and mathematician Hypatia was dragged from her chariot by an angry Pagan-hating mob of monks who flayed her alive before burning her body on the smoldering ashes of the old library. An alternative colorful legend claims that the original library was burnt when Julius Caesar's forces torched the fleet of Cleopatra's brother.
The rich knowledge of the ancient world lay in ashes along with the remains of the museum and the western world entered a dark ages that was to last for a thousand years until the Italian Renaissance in 1400 AD.
Alexandria is now also undergoing something of a renaissance according to Egypt's Business Monthly Magazine. The journal reports that in addition to cleaner streets and renovated squares, a massive concrete structure, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, is rising along the coastline of Alexandria's Eastern Harbor in Shatby close to both the University of Alexandria Faculty of Arts campus, and the site of the ancient library. Phoenix-like, a new high-Tech library is arising from the ashes of the old.
The aim of the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina is to revive the idea of the ancient library as a global repository of knowledge and a unique research institution. With the Internet's help, the center will certainly be of global importance. In a joint venture, the Arab Republic of Egypt and UNESCO are building, at an estimated cost of $200 million US dollars, one of the largest libraries in the world to house a collection of books and rare manuscripts from Mediterranean and Arab countries. UNESCO has helped to secure funding from abroad and roughly half of the project's funding has been external, including $65 million from the Arab world following a 1990 conference in Aswan. The main library, unlike its venerable ancestor, will not be open to the general public. It will also not be a public library, nor a city library, or a university library. Anyone wishing to use the library's resources will have to present a research proposal before they can become library members for the duration of their research project.
The Bibliotheca Alexandria will focus on building bridges between cultures and revive the Alexandria's ancient role in the advancement of knowledge, scholarship and cultural development of Egypt and the Mediterranean area. Spain has already donated copies of the works of the legendary Andalusian scholars from the archives in the Escorial and Cordoba, while Turkey has donated 10,000 volumes on Turkish and Ottoman history. Efforts to lure book donations to the Bibliotheca may accelerate once the building's construction is completed in early 2001. The library will open with 500,000 volumes and hopes to eventually collect 4 million without resorting to the ancient art of "customs' seizure:" The library's acquisition budget of less than $2 million per year is, however, a fraction of those of Western libraries. Egypt's Business Monthly Magazine quotes other expenses, mainly salaries and maintenance, as being $30 million per year.
President Mubarak's wife, Suzanne, delivered a passionate and eloquent plea for financial support for the new Alexandria Library in her closing speech at the First Arab Women's Summit in November 2000 saying that "during the six hundred years of its existence, from the third century BC to the fourth century AD, it ( the original Alexandria Library) was the world's center of learning, the promoter of communication and tolerance among peoples and cultures, and the beacon that lit the way for the sciences and allowed the arts and the humanities to flourish in the midst of ignorance and superstition. ...... We would like the (new) Alexandria Library to rise to the challenges of the technological opportunities of the millennium and the dawning of the digital age. Today, there are over 850 million pages on the Internet, and the number is expected to reach eight billion by the year 2005. We would like to link up with the programs of the leading institutions of learning in the world , such as the Library of Congress's pioneering "American Memory" program, and thus have access to the almost limitless resources available in the world as well as making our own contribution to them."
Detailed architectural models give a clear idea of how the library will look to the visitor when it is completed. The complex is approached by a long, straight road on its seaward side which bridges the moat-like lake that will surround the site with a bright shinning ring of reflected beauty.
The most prominent characteristic of the new library is the circular, tilted building which houses the main library and whose light, glass-covered roof faces the Mediterranean sea. A public plaza and pyramid stand in front of the library and honey-combed walls of the lecture theater. The plans for the complex also include Science and Calligraphy Museums, a children's library, a library for the blind, a Restoration and Conservation Laboratory and a Hall of Fame.
Many businessmen, as well as academics, are excited about the new library project.
The presence of such a landmark and international center, they argue, is certain to bring tourism and increased trade and investment to the area. The Bibliotheca will also contain a business research center that local enterprises can use to gather information about international trade. Businessmen will also have access to books on management techniques and to publications in the business and industrial fields.
Ironically, the most immediate and tangible benefits of the project to the Egyptian people have come before a single library book is opened, or the first research paper is completed. The Egyptian construction industry was already benefited from the huge quantities of cement and manpower required to construct the 11-floor, 40,000 square meter structure. The contacts with the local Egyptian company, Hamza Associates with the Norwegian architecture firm Snohetta, Italy's Rodio/Trevi, and Briton's Balfour Beatty company have resulted in a significant degree of technology transfer. When the dust eventually settles on the construction site, this may be the new library complex's main contribution to education in Egypt.
Once completed, will the Biblioteca Alexandria be seen as the ninth wonder of the old world, or as the first technological wonder of the twentieth first century? Either way, the new Great Library of Alexandria, located at the crossroads of the three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe, and connected to the world wide web, will certainly fulfill Alexander the Great's dream of unifying the world.
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)