The date 16 October 2017 marks 15 years on the establishment of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the modern-day Library of Alexandria, centuries after the old beacon of knowledge was burnt down
The Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt has remained an integral part of human heritage since it was built in Egypt’s Ptolemaic times, around 290 – 250 BC. It was burnt down at some point in history; historians are uncertain exactly when, or by who: the Romans, Copts, or Arabs, since no evidence exists to that effect. In fact it is now widely held that the library was destroyed not by one big fire that burned it to the ground, but by several small fires throughout some eight centuries beginning 47 BC. [https://www.ancient.eu/article/207/what-happened-to-the-great-library-at-alexandria/]
Now that the Library of Alexandria was rebuilt and reopened as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina on 16 October 2002, it has been extensively chronicled, documented, and analysed by writer and Watani journalist Ekhlass Atallah, in her book Maktabat al-Iskandriya, Thakirat al-Insaniyah (Alexandria Library, the Memory of Humanity), published by the Supreme Council for Culture, Cairo, 2016. In a moving comment that appears on the book’s back cover, Ms Atallah wonders: “When the great Library of Alexandria, the store of all human knowledge, was lost to fire some time in history, did anyone imagine it would ever rise from the ashes to shine again?”
And shine it does …
The modern library, designed by the Norwegian firm Snohetta, today stands on a magnificent site on Alexandria’s waterfront and can be seen from the Mediterranean as a huge disc of glass panels in pyramidical formations that catch the light at all times, vividly resembling the bright Sun of Knowledge rising from the sea.
That resplendent sun of knowledge is the first thing to be seen by a seafarer approaching Alexandria from the Mediterranean, and is also the first sight that meets the eye as one approaches the Library by land.
The Snohetta website [http://snohetta.com/project/5-bibliotheca-alexandrina] says: “The design of the new Library is both timeless and bold. Its vast circular form alongside the circular Alexandrian harbour—[the ancient harbour is today used by fishing boats]—recalls the cyclical nature of knowledge, fluid throughout time. Its glistening, tilting roof recalls the ancient Alexandrian lighthouse and provides the city with a new symbol for learning and culture.
The 11-storey library can contain up to 4 million volumes of books, and can be expanded up to 8 million by the use of compact storage. In addition to the Library facilities, the Library also contains other cultural and educational functions including a planetarium, several museums, a school for information science, and conservation facilities. Characterised by its circular, tilting form, the building spans 160 metres in diameter and reaches up to 32 metres in height, while also diving some 12 metres into the ground. An open plaza and reflecting pool surrounds the building, and a footbridge links the Library to the nearby University of Alexandria.”
The huge, imposing façade of the Library is made of stone inscribed with letters of all the ancient languages. The carvings were done in collaboration with the artists Jorunn Sannes and Kristian Blystad and employed local stone cutting methods.
Securing land and funds
In her book, Ms Atallah traces the history of the modern Bibliotheca to 1974 when Mostafa al-Abbadi (1925 – 2013), historian and professor of Greco-Roman Studies at Alexandria University, advocated for a project to re-establish the Great Library of Alexandria. Subsequently, Lotfy Dweidar, then President of Alexandria University, embraced the project and gave it top priority status by providing land owned by the university on which to build the Library. The site overlooked Alexandria’s ancient the Eastern Harbour, where the original Great Library of Alexandria had once stood.
In 1988, the Egyptian government issued a decree establishing the General Organisation for the Library of Alexandria under the auspices of Ahmad Fathy Surour who was then Minister of Education, thereby establishing a legal and physical entity responsible for the project. The UNESCO collaborated with the Arab Union of Architects to tender an international competition for the design and construction of the Library. The previously unknown Norwegian architectural firm Snohetta won the competition with the daring design envisioned by its young staff. Snohetta collaborated with construction firms from Egypt, Italy, and the United Kingdom to build this magnificent monument.
The next milestone towards building the modern Library was secured by the Aswan Conference in 1990. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak presided over the conference which was attended by presidents and prime ministers from countries all over the world. The conference succeeded in securing USD65 million in funding from various Arab countries, led by the Saudi Arabia and Iraq. An additional USD35 million were pledged by 27 countries and cultural organisations. With Egypt providing the balance, the total cost of building the new Library of Alexandria reached some USD220 million.
Construction began in 1995, with Mohsen Zahran, Professor of Architecture at Alexandria University, leading a team that oversaw the project until 2001.
Education Minister Mofeed Shehab was instrumental in writing the legislative framework that led to Law 1 for Year 2001 governing the Library of Alexandria. This law was supplemented by government decree number 56 for Year 2001 providing the complete legal structure defining the mission and scope of activities of the Library.
Friends of the Alexandria Library worldwide celebrated the inauguration of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA) on 16 October 2002.
Egypt’s first lady Suzanne Mubarak acted as head of the Board of Trustees of the BA, and Ismail Serageldin was chosen as director. Dr Serageldin holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Engineering from Cairo University and a Ph.D. from Harvard University and has received 36 honorary doctorates, besides publishing over 100 books and monographs and over 500 papers on a variety of topics, including biotechnology, rural development, sustainability, and the value of science to society.
The BA was insured against risks of fire, explosion, flooding, robbery, rioting, aeroplane or vehicle collisions, and natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes or torrential rains. The insurance sum amounted to EGP1.5 billion, estimated to be the value of the Library assets, and covers—in addition to material loss or damage—civil liabilities towards personnel and visitors.
Egypt’s Mediterranean connection
Mostafa al-Fiqi, then a member of the Foreign Relations Committee in the People’s Assembly, and currently the BA director, said the Library’s history showed it was originally designed for the élite—scientists, thinkers, and researchers. “If we want it to be a library for the masses, it should sponsor research and debate different schools of human thought. The history of mankind is, after all, the sum total of the history of human thought,” he added.
Dr Fiqi also aspired for a BA Mediterranean role. “Egypt’s civilisation is the sum of diverse cultural thought,” he said. If al-Azhar represents the Islamic component, the Coptic Church represents Christian thought and heritage, and the Arab League Egypt’s commitment to the Arab World, then the BA should reflect the Egyptian connection to the Mediterranean.” As far as both aspirations are concerned, the BA has brilliantly lived up to them.
Treasures of books
Copies of the Holy Bible and the Qur’an were the first two books to be placed in the new Library. Some of the first classics to go on the shelves included Kalila wa Demna—a book of fables translated into Arabic from Sanskrit—and Rubaiyat al-Khayam, the famous “Quartets” of the Persian poet Omar al-Khayam translated from Persian. The Library also housed a collection of ancient manuscripts, some studded with precious stones, including a book by the famous 15th century historian al-Maqrizi in his own handwriting.
Sultan Qabous Ibn Said of Oman generously granted the Library about 5,000 rare books on Egyptology and the history of Alexandria, as well as photographs showing the move of Philae Temple. Italy presented the Library with a copy of the rare ancient Egyptian manuscript The Book of the Dead, presently at the Torino Museum.
Five years after the opening, as the BA celebrated its 5th anniversary, Mrs Mubarak placed the 555,555th book on the Library shelves. The book was a rare edition published in 16th century Germany of Euclid’s 3rd century BC The Elements.
Not just a library
The BA is not just a library but a conglomerate of specialised libraries, Internet archives, restoration labs, rare books and private collections, museums, current and permanent exhibitions.
One of the main libraries is the Taha Hussein library for the visually impaired. Taha Hussein was the towering Egyptian enlightenment figure of the 20th century who attained a doctorate in literature from France, taught at Cairo University, and was Minister of Education in Egypt. He was blind since childhood. His library provides access to computers equipped with special programmes that facilitate searching the library’s catalogues, the internet, as well as various data bases by using touch screens embedded with Braille letters and voice technology to enable the visually impaired to obtain the widest possible information network.
Prized collections of books, paintings, sculpture, commemorative coins, postage stamps, maps, and private book collections of prominent artists and public figures are housed in the rare books and private collections library. Among them Louis Pasteur book collection which comprises 20,000 rare books.
The restoration laboratory at the Bibliotheca restores old manuscripts, rare books and maps. It also provides restoration services for the Library’s books by maintaining them in pristine, sterile conditions. The restoration laboratory strives to utilise materials derived from natural resources and stores the manuscripts in special boxes manufactured internally.
The Center of Internet Archiving is a joint venture between Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Internet Archive, whose inventor Brewster Kahle gifted the Library a complete database of the archived Internet sites along with the requisite equipment that enabled the BA to cultivate a large depository of information, film, and photos that are all available for research on computers and other technical media equipment. This depository earned the BA second place in Internet Archiving with ten billion sites from 1998 to 2001.
Museums and study centres
Various museums are housed in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The Museum of Antiquities includes exhibits from the Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic, and Islamic eras. It is interesting to note that some of the exhibits were recovered during the construction process. Most notable of these pieces are the mosaic floors dating back to the Ptolemaic period. There is also a museum of the history of science incorporated in the planetarium, and a museum dedicated to manuscripts that are electronically searchable.
Many research centres also operate within the Bibliotheca Alexandria offering researchers a variety of references and tools to enhance their research capacity. Among them are the Center for Alexandria and Mediterranean Civilization, Coptic Studies Center, Arts Center, Calligraphy Center, Center for Cultural and Natural Heritage Documentation, Institute for Studies of Information Systems, and Manuscripts Center.
The permanent exhibitions of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina span works of art and literature, film, photography, astronomy, Arabic calligraphy, history of print, folk arts and crafts collections, cultural panorama known as “Culturama”, artificial intelligence technology, and a forum for group discussions of current affairs.
Truly, the Sun of Knowledge has again risen in Alexandria.
11 October 2017