some 1,600 years, the Library of Alexandria (now called Bibliotheca
Alexandrina) has reopened in Egypt. Amid an unprecedented media
blitz, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak inaugurated the new library
on October 16. The presidents of France, Greece, and Italy as well
as the queens of Spain and Jordan joined him for the occasion. Schools
were shut for 3 days and public transportation was halted for the
day. The celebrations continued for a month.
The Ancient Library
The new library (http://www.bibalex.org)
is being projected into the modern world asa restatement of the
ancient library's legacy. In the introduction to a book about
the old library, Federico Mayor, former director general of UNESCO,
said: "If the ancient Library of Alexandria has exercised such
a hold on man's imagination down the ages and inspires such scholarly
devotion to the unravelling of its mysteries, it is because of
its unique representative value.... The Library seems to have
been associated with the development of a heightened perception
of knowledge as a tool, and of the quest for knowledge as a collaborative
and syncretic process."
Indeed, the ancient library saw the light of day in 288 B.C.,
a time of explosive cultural and scientific developments in what
was then the capital of the world. Not only was the library the
largest in antiquity but it was also a crossroads for scholars
from the whole of the Mediterranean region. The Ptolemies who
ruled Egypt at the time were passionate about maintaining and
expanding their cultural pre-eminence. They went to extraordinary
lengths to develop the best and largest collection. They would,
for example, search every ship unloading in Alexandria and seize
any book they found to add to their collection. They borrowed
important manuscripts from Athens, copiedthem, kept the original,
and returned the copy, thus forfeiting the large deposits they
The library served the greatest thinkers of the time, among
them Euclid, Archimedes, and Herophilus, to name a few. For the
large Hellenized Jewish population, the Old Testament was translated
from Hebrew to Greek. This translation is claimed to be "the most
valuable work in the history of all translations" and continues
to be "indispensable to all biblical studies."
Controlling a collection of some 700,000 manuscripts called
for groundbreaking developments in cataloging. A mere listing
of the manuscripts and their authors, editors, provenance, and
length was not sufficient. A subject categorization and critical
analysis of the content were required. Enter Callimachus of Cyrene,
a poet with encyclopedic knowledge who produced an extensive bibliography
of all the library's holdings. Entries were arranged by subject
and in alphabetical order by author name.
According to J. Harold Ellens (Archaeology Odyssey, May/June
1999): "Each entry recorded the name and birthplace of the author,
the name of the author's father and teachers, the place and nature
of the author's education, any nickname or pseudonym applied to
the author, a short biography including a list of the author's
works, a comment on their authenticity (that is, whether the works
were really written by the author), the first line of the work
specified, a brief digest of the volume, the source from which
the book was acquired (such as the city where it was bought or
the ship from which it was confiscated), the name of the former
owner, [and] the name of the scholar who edited the text." Because
of his gargantuan original work, Callimachus is rightly recognized
as the "father of bibliography."
The New Library
About 100 yards from where the ancient library stood, Bibliotheca
Alexandrina is an architectural tour de force that can easily
hold its own among the top structures of our time. With such a
thriving past and an impressive new building, the symbolism afforded
by its opening has led to an outpouring of high-minded rhetoric
that may detract from the institution's more reachable objectives.
The library "will make of Egypt one of the most influential
states at the cultural level and will allow it to regain its pioneering
role and its cultural equilibrium," said Khaled Azab, Bibliotheca
Alexandrina's press attaché.
"I am very grateful for the trust that has been placed in me.
This is a great historic responsibility. At a time when people
are talking about a clash of civilizations, Egypt is presenting
the world with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. It is an amazing adventure,"
said Ismail Serageldin, the library's director.
President Mubarak describes the occasion as a "unique historical
event which encourages us to talk about some noble human values....
Maintaining cultural dialogue and interaction is the only rational
way to eliminate violence and tension...."
The project, which cost more than $200 million, drew financial
support from around the world. Arab countries were the largest
cash contributors. France offered substantiallogistical support
and sponsored the library's Science Museum. UNESCO played a key
role in backing the project and in organizing the architectural
competition for the building's design. (Norwegian firm Snohetta
Bibliotheca Alexandrina's complex consists of the library proper,
a planetarium, and a conference center. The library building is
an incomplete circle that represents the rising sun. A granite
wall carrying the inscriptions of different languages and scripts
surrounds it. The whole physical design bristles with symbolism.
Under the aegis of UNESCO, the institution developed a large
network of international "friends of the library." Donations include
book collections and various kinds of library equipment. The Internet
donated a mirror site for its archive as well as the equipment
to operate its Internet Bookmobile.
Bibliotheca Alexandrina has many critics. They argue that a
developing country such as Egypt could better spend its money
on more basic needs. Others claim that although Egyptian censorship
laws have been specifically eased for the new library, there have
already been instances of bending to local sensitivities on religious
and political matters. Some critics believe that the library's
present collection of books and manuscripts is rather poor and
is a far cry from its rated capacity.
In the turbulent Middle East, where large resources are often
devoted to armaments and the building of extravagant palaces that
serve few, the hope is that this magnificent library will somehow
escape the stifling bureaucracy and narrow-mindedness that paralyze
many other institutions in the area.
Roger Bilboul is Information Today, Inc.'s chairman of the
board. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.