Inauguration of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina: from papyrus to difitalizationParis - The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the largest library in the Middle East and Africa, will be officially inaugurated next October 16, marking the rebirth of the institution founded over 2,000 years ago by Ptolemy I in northern Egypt.
The ceremony, which was due to take place on April 23 was delayed because of events in the Middle East. It consecrates an exceptional architectural complex, equipped with state-of-the-art information technologies.
Hosni Mubarak, the president of the Arab Republic of Egypt, will inaugurate the library, in the presence of other heads of state and government, and Ismail Serageldin, the director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Ahmed Jalali, president of UNESCO's General Conference, will represent the Organization's Director-General, Ko´chiro Matsuura.
Convinced of the need to endow the City of Alexandria and the Mediterranean region with a centre of cultural and scientific excellence, UNESCO contributed its expertise from the outset to confer an international dimension to the Library. "With the inauguration of the Alexandria Library, it is worth recalling that the revival of this renowned institution goes to the heart of UNESCO's mission to promote the development and sharing of knowledge for mutual understanding and the affirmation of cultural identity, diversity and dialogue among civilizations. The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina will constitute a dynamic educational and cultural centre where inter-cultural understanding will flourish and thrive," said Mr Matsuura.
The Alexandria Library is a remarkable architectural achievement in its own right, with a distinct character, like the Sydney Opera House or the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The library currently holds 240,000 books, but has space for eight million. Visitors can consult the library's catalogue via 500 computers and access the Internet sites of leading learning centres around the world, pre-selected by the librarians.
The reading room is unique: an open space of 70,000 m2 spread over eleven levels, that can accommodate 1,700 visitors. According to Mr Serageldin, it is not only the "largest reading room in the world," but also "the most beautiful." Soft natural light reaches all parts of the room, and the high ceiling elevated on columns creates a stimulating atmosphere akin to a "cathedral of knowledge," he adds.
The partly sunken building, conceived as a solar disc rising from the earth and tilted towards the sea, measures a total height of 160 metres. Its Aswan granite wall forms a half crescent and is engraved with letters from the alphabets of 120 languages. The edifice symbolizes the openness and vastness of knowledge. It was designed the Norwegian Sn°hetta firm which, in 1989, won a competition organized by UNESCO.
Work was supervized by Egyptian engineer Mamdouh Hamza, who had to deal with the challenge of building part of the edifice 18 metres below sea level.
Apart from the library, the complex houses a conference centre for 3,200 people, a planetarium, the Taha Hussein library for the blind containing electronic and Braille books, a Young People's Library and five research institutes, including the International School for Information Studies (ISIS) and the Laboratory for the Restoration of Rare Manuscripts. The Library also includes an Internet centre, three museums - for manuscripts, calligraphy and science - and four art galleries. For Mr Serageldin, the ensemble represents a "large international cultural complex."
Some of the 10,000 rare books and manuscripts in the Library's collection have been digitalized. By simply touching a computer screen, visitors can turn the electronic pages of an ancient Koran, for example. This enables documents of priceless historical value to be conserved while making them available to researchers and to the general public. In a first stage, they will be on view in the Manuscripts Museum, and further down the line, on the Internet.
A top priority is to turn this grand international cultural centre into a meeting place for thinkers, artists and scientists from across the world. Mr Serageldin also hopes that, thanks to the Library, more tourists will visit Alexandria, "famous not only for its lighthouse, but also as an intellectual lighthouse of humanity for six centuries, inspiring great writers like Callimachus, Cavafy and Lawrence Durrell."
The project cost $220 million, of which $100 million came from foreign donations and the remainder from the Egyptian government. "For a country with a population of 67 million, $120 million over a ten-year period isn't an unreasonable investment for a centre of excellence," says Mr Serageldin.
UNESCO's involvement in the endeavour dates back to 1986, when the idea of reviving the spirit of the ancient library with a modern learning and research centre started to crystallize. One year later, UNESCO launched an international appeal to support the resurrection of the ancient Alexandria library and commissioned a feasibility study, which endorsed the need for a large library in the Mediterranean region. Consequently, one of the library's vocations is to offer a rich collection of works on Mediterranean civilizations.
Along with the International Union of Architects (IUA) and UNDP, UNESCO organized in 1988 an international competition to design the library. The Norwegian agency Sn°ohetta was selected from among 1,400 projects from 77 countries. In 1990, UNESCO helped to organize the Aswan meeting, during which $65 million were collected, mainly from Arab States, constituting the first international funding for the project.
UNESCO also provided an Internet server and financial resources to develop the Library's website. It gave support to the Library for the Blind, the Restoration Laboratory, and resources for the training of librarians, bibliographical formats, assistance to prepare technical documents and guidelines for the Library's information systems, its maintenance and the purchasing of equipment, as well as a curriculum for the International School of Information Studies (ISIS), which is based at the Library.
The Ancient Library of Alexandria, founded in 288 BC, formed part of the Mouseion, or Shrine of the Muses, which included the university of Alexandria, one of the first in the history of humanity, to which Ptolemy I invited poets, scientists and artists. The ancient library collected some 700,000 manuscripts, all of which were catalogued from the third century BC. Under the Ptolemys, the institution enjoyed "legal deposit rights," thereby being entitled to make a copy of any book that entered the country. The ancient library disappeared over four and a half centuries, destroyed by fires and attacks. The first occurred in 48 BC when Julius Caesar supported Cleopatra against her brother Ptolemy XIII. An estimated 40,000 to 400,000 books were lost on this occasion.
The ancient library boasted more than one claim to fame: on its premises, the Old Testament was translated for the first time from Hebrew to Greek, Aristarchus suggested that the earth rotated around the sun, Erastosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth, Herophilus discovered that the brain controlled the body and Euclid invented geometry.
The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina respects the spirit of the fabled institution. "It's wonderful that amid so many wars, when people are talking about the 'clash of civilizations,' that in Egypt, a few metres away from where the ancient library stood, a new institution has arisen, dedicated to universal understanding, tolerance and dialogue," said Mr Serageldin.
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Bibliography: Life and Fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria, by Mustafa El-Abbadi, UNESCO, 1990 (available in English, French an Spanish).
Interview with Ismail Serageldin, director of the Alexandria Library, in The New Courier, May 2002, pages 23 to 25.