A tale of two libraries

Published : Nov 22, 2002 00:00 IST

With the reconstruction of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Egypt hopes to revive the spirit of scholarship and learning that flourished in ancient Alexandria.

"If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need."

Marcus Tullius Cicero

CICERO would have been a very contented man in the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria. During the Hellenistic age, which lasted from 323 B.C. to 30 B.C.1, Alexandria housed the premier institution of academic research in the world the Great Library or the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The Encyclopaedia Britannica confirms that luxurious gardens and pleasure grounds thrived in this Mediterranean port in the Hellenistic period. Alexander the Great founded this former Egyptian capital in 332 B.C.2 and for the next 300-odd years, it was one of the greatest cities in the world.

Hellenistic Alexandria's greatest gift to history was its intellectual contribution in varied areas. Attracted by the Great Library, scholars in many fields flocked to the city and seminal works in mathematics, physics, medicine, mechanics, geography, astronomy, grammar, poetry and literature were developed here. At that time, Alexandria rivalled Athens as the world capital of scholarship and learning, and the shining symbol of the city's patronage to the pursuit of knowledge was the Great Library. However, it all came to an abrupt end. Many people believe that a fire in 47 B.C. destroyed a significant portion of the main library and most of the 700,000 items it is supposed to have housed3. In Clea, the concluding volume of the Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell describes Alexandria as a city of memory. Memories of the ancient library still linger, long after its demise.

More than 2,000 years after its heyday, Egypt is trying to rekindle the spirit of the old library. On October 16, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak inaugurated a lavish successor to the ancient library, the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Joining him at the inauguration were French President Jacques Chirac, Queen Sophia of Spain, Queen Rania of Jordan, the Presidents of Romania, Italy and Greece and a host of other luminaries. Nicknamed the Fourth Pyramid, this new library is believed to be located at the site of the palace of the Ptolemys, on or near the original library complex. The New York Times (October 17, 2002) reported that the library was built at a cost of $225 million. The 31,000 square feet structure is the result of joint efforts by the Egyptian government and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Egypt would like to showcase the library as a symbol of its contribution to world history and its openness to other cultures. The Egyptian authorities hope that the library will uphold the traditions of scholarship and secular knowledge that was embodied in the ancient Bibliotheca. In his inauguration speech, President Mubarak said: "The old Bibliotheca Alexandrina was a melting pot of all civilisations, cultures and knowledge for all peoples." He went on to state: "The reconstruction of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is a restoration of great human traditions and cultural approaches. It is a modern symbol full of the noble meanings of human coexistence and cooperation. It is a call to terminate violence, tension and all sorts of terrorism which is collectively refused by all civilisations, denied by all religions and nations."

The attribution of such lofty meaning to the new Bibliotheca is debatable. However, Alexandria is steeped in rich history and culture. Ancient Alexandria's strategic location and its proximity to Europe and Asia allowed it to develop into one of the foremost centres of international trade. Alexandria was a vibrant symbol of multiculturalism and visitors from several continents were welcomed by the Lighthouse of Pharos, an architectural and engineering marvel that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Hellenistic Alexandria excelled in the sphere of intellectual pursuits. At the heart of academic Alexandria was the Mouseion (Museum), a research institute of scholars financed by the Ptolemaic rulers of the city. An integral part of the Mouseion was the Great Library, which was conceived by Ptolemy I Soter and brought into being by Ptolemy II around 306 B.C4. The Great Library is said to have contained seminal Greek, Egyptian and Hebrew works of that period. It is said that the Ptolemaic kings aimed to collect the whole body of world literature and were so enthusiastic to acquire items for the library that every arriving ship was stopped at the port and searched for manuscripts and any manuscript that was found was acquired for the library and a copy made and returned to the ship. The old library was a precursor to modern libraries. Its 700,000 manuscripts were listed and classified5.

Learned men thronged Alexandria, attracted by its library. It was here that Euclid formulated many of his axioms, Erastothenes measured the earth's circumference and was the first to attempt to chart a map based on lines of latitude and longitude, and Archimedes developed some of his principles of physics and invented the Archimedean screw. Callimachus, Theocritis and Apollonius, major poets of the Hellenistic age, took up residence in the city. Scholars like Aristophenes and Aristarchus of Samothrace made significant contributions to grammar and literary criticism while serving as librarians in the Bibliotheca. It was also in Alexandria that the Pentateuch of the Old Testament was first translated from Hebrew to Greek, Herophilus discovered that the brain was the centre of intelligence of the human body and the Ptolemys set up a school of medicine. Cleopatra, the last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty, is said to have met Julius Caesar in Alexandria6. Centuries later this metropolis was immortalised in Alexandria Quartet and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.

The pride of Alexandrian scholarship mysteriously vanished. Many theories exist on the fate of the library. One popular explanation, given by some scholars, including the Greek historian Plutarch, suggests that a major portion of the library was destroyed in 47 B.C. when Julius Caesar set fire to the city. Caesar, fighting with Cleopatra in the Alexandrian War, was under attack from the sea and in order to prevent his advancing adversaries from reaching land, was forced to set fire to the dockyards. The conflagration is said to have spread to the rest of the city and destroyed most of the main library. It is also believed that in the last decade of the 4th century, Christian conquerors destroyed a pagan temple that housed a smaller branch of the Great Library. Twelfth century accounts of Arabian conquests of Egypt suggest that the Great Library was destroyed only in 642 A.D. These reports suggest that the Arabs heated the bathhouses of the city by burning the scrolls contained in the library7.

The idea to revive the ancient library was first proposed in the 1970s by Mustafa El-Abbadi, a Professor at the University of Alexandria. Thirty years and more than $200 million later, El-Abbadi's proposal has finally come to fruition. The Egyptian government contributed half of the project's finances and UNESCO raised the remainder from sources around the world. Snohetta, a Norwegian firm, won an international architectural competition for the library's design.

Located along the Mediterranean sea-face, the library is a striking landmark. Shaped as a circular disc, the building is inclined towards the sea and is partly built below the surrounding ground level. The library is surrounded by a wall engraved with calligraphic letters and inscriptions from almost every known system of writing. A pool of water, adjacent to the tilted face of the building, makes the structure appear as if it is partially submerged in water. The roof allows indirect sunlight into the building and most of the building has a clear view of the sea. Passages connect the University of Alexandria to the library. According to the designers, the building is supposed to represent an image of the Egyptian sun illuminating the entire world with knowledge.

The 11-storey structure also houses a conference centre, museums, a planetarium, a laboratory for manuscript restoration and institutes of calligraphy and information studies. The library hopes to collect eventually more than four million items. At present, the library is well short of this ambitious figure and has 250,000 books and manuscripts, a little more than a third of the ancient library's collection. Egypt hopes that the Bibliotheca Alexandrina will rival the best libraries in the world. That is a distant goal the world's largest library, the Library of Congress in Washington D.C, contains almost 120 million items. A more realistic target is what the Bibliotheca initially aims to establish an extensive West Asian collection.

There has been strong international support for the library. The city of Alexandria has handed over 5,000 original manuscripts, France donated original documents relating to the Suez Canal, Spain offered items relating to Moorish Spain and Greece presented a copy of Claudius Ptolemy's map, which was later used by Christopher Columbus in his voyage to America. Germany provided the carrier system for the documents, Norway gifted the furniture for the reading rooms, Italy contributed the laboratory equipment for the restoration of manuscripts and Japan supplied the audio-visual equipment. A significant portion of the funds collected came from other West Asian countries.

However, some Egyptians believe that the project is not the beacon of modern Egypt as has been described but a misguided waste of resources. Many believe that Mubarak hopes to leave the library behind as a symbol of his legacy. In his speech, Mubarak justified the construction of the new library by citing some of the purposes that it hoped to achieve. He believed the extensive project would foster intercultural and international interaction, assert the `unity of human heritage which was created by all religions, nations and cultures' and aid scientific and technological progress by showcasing the history of such growth and serving as a resource for future advances.

It remains to be seen if the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina achieves any of these grand aims. But one thing is certain. It will be an extremely tall order to recreate the atmosphere of scholarship and knowledge that was perpetuated by the original Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

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