REVIVAL OF THE GREAT BIBLIOTHECA ALEXANDRINA AND A ROMANTIC RIDE ON THE HISTORIC CORNISHE
By Christopher Xenopoulos Janus
In a recent journey to Alexandria for the informal opening of the revised Bibliotheca Alexandrina, I took Valerie Valentine, our award winning photographer, for an evening's ride on the historic Cornishe, not in a gilded carriage or chariot, but in a horse driven carriage. The ten mile Cornishe of Alexandria's historic harbor is one of the most enjoyable sightseeing trips in the world. We hired the carriage for the whole week we were there and in addition to the Cornishe drive, we used it for most of our sightseeing. For longer trips to the environs of the city, we hired a taxi which is one of the many bargains in Egypt. A taxi ride in New York or Chicago that would cost $10, in Alexandria it is about $2.50. And the driver opens the doors for you, helps you out of the taxi and in many instances waits for you while you do your shopping without an extra fee.
During our first day in Alexandria, our first stop on the Cornishe was the Bibliotheca Alexandrina itself. As special guests we were greeted by Ismail Seragelden, Librarian and Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. I brought greetings and congratulations to him from Lawrence Summers, President of Harvard University, and it turned out they were old friends. Seragelden got his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1972.
Later at a meeting in the library attended by about 300 worldwide friends of the Library, Dr. Seragelden and other officers of the library took us back in history to describe the famous ancient library destroyed by fire 2000 years ago and talk about the purposes, hopes and plans for the new library which is meant to be, and indeed is, an architectural signature like Australia's Sidney Opera House, and Spain's great Guggenheim Museum in Balboa.
The design concept is a simple circle inclined towards the sea, partly submerged in a pool of water. The image of the Egyptian sun, that in contemporary terms illuminates the world and human civilizations. Moreover, an inclined roof allows indirect daylight and a clear view of the sea. Designed as an arrow, an elevated passageway links the University of Alexandria to the Corniche. The building is surrounded by a wall clad with Aswan granite engraved with calligraphic letters and representative inscriptions from the world civilizations.
The new library has 13 floors, 3,500 seats and the capacity of more than 4-8 million volumes, 50,000 maps, 100,000 manuscripts, 200,000 disks/tapes, 50,000 disks/videos
In addition to its volumes, Bibliotheca Alexandrina will have 4,000 periodicals, 30,000 audiovisual materials, 50,000 rare books and as many tapes. None will leave the building, but most will be accessible in the library's spectacular ten-story high reading room, whose pillars soar to a sloping circular roof. The reading room will seat 2,500 people, some tapping away at computers linked to the internet, others working as scan residenced in their own glass-enclosed "cells" at the room's center.
The library also boasts a planetarium, museums of calligraphy, science and archaeology, science and a laboratory for restoring manuscripts.
Since the Bibliotheca is first and foremost about books, meticulous attention was given to the distribution of the books throughout the reading area. Layla Abdel Hady, head of library services, was part of a team of several Egyptian and international librarians who designed the distribution of the books throughout the reading area in order to provide maximum efficiency and accessibility. "This Bibliotheca is about a lot more than books," she explains. "It is a tribute to the ancient library of Alexandria which was a place where all the intellectuals of the day used to congregate. So when we came up with the interior distribution of the books, we were very careful to observe this history. That is why every level in the library is home to a different field of study depending on its historical evolutions."
This is the reason that the bottom level of the Bibliotheca houses all books pertaining to the roots of knowledge, including philosophy, history, classics and psychology. The second level includes languages and literature. The third houses books relating to art, in all its styles. The fourth level, which doubles as the central dividing level, is where all the businesss development and economic books and other resources are located, since business is a central force in the world we live in today. On the fifth level are all books pertaining to social sciences and women's studies. The sixth level includes science and technology books and finally, the seventh level includes new technology books. "Standing on the top level, the symbolism is that all this information on the lower levels supports all this contemporary information," explains Abdel Hady.
Apart from the main library, the complex includes a Library for the Blind, a Young People's Library, the Alexandria Conference Centre, a science Museum, A Planetarium, the International School of Information Studies (ISIS), a Calligraphy Museum, a Restoration and Conservation Laboratory and the Hall of Fame.
One of the greatest pleasures while in Alexandria was to have a discussion with Dr. Mohren Zahran, Bibliotheca Alexandrina's former project manager and now its senior adviser. He was the first to invite me more than a year ago to come to Alexandria for the opening of the library. In his letter of invitation, he said it would be history repeating itself for me to come to represent the Xenopoulos family. A General Xenopoulos was one of the Greek advisers to Ptolemy I in 288 B.C. I, of course, accepted with pleasure but with no claim to an ancestor 2,000 years ago!
Dr. Zahran delighted us with his views of the present library. "We're not reviving the ancient library," he said, "we are revising the idea of the pursuit of knowledge that thrived in the ancient library. The old library encouraged the public to debate, create and invent. The new library is carrying that legacy forward." Finally, he said: "We must remember that the ancient library took hundreds of years to prove itself, we can't expect Bibliotheca Alexandrina to acquire the same importance right away. That's why an eternal design, not one ancient or modern, was chosen. So long as the sun remains circular, the library will be in fashion."
Dr. Zahran gave us a brief history of the ancient library.
The Ancient Library of Alexandria was established by Ptolemy I (Soter) in the year 288 B.C. It was intended as a meeting place of the most eminent minds of the time who would gather in the temple of the muses or the Museum. This was the first research center in the world. It was a sort of scholarly academy attracting prominent scientists and intellectuals, with a library annexed to it. Several buildings were involved of which the most famous was the museum, and the library by the waterfront (both in the royal district called the Brucheion) and the daughter Library in the Temple of Serapis (the Seapeum.)
The Library expanded to include all the knowledge of the ancient world. The libray at its zenith may have had over 700,000 scrolls, and atracted men of letters, intellectuals, scientists and scholars, inter alia:
Aristarchus, the first to proclaim that the earth revolves around the sun.
Hipparchus, the first to measure the solar year with six and a half minutes accuracy.
Eratosthenes, the first to measure the circumference of the earth.
Euclid, who wrote the elements of geometry.
Archimedes, the greatest mathematician of the ancient world.
Callimachus, a poet and the first to write a catalogue for books classified by topic and author, thereby becoming the father of Library Science.
The Ancient Library of Alexandria was open to all civilizations. Systematic efforts were made to collect the best works from all over the world and any ships that docked in Alexandria were searched, and any books on board were copied. Scholars from all over the world were invited to come,. The Old Testament was translated for the firsat time from Hebrew to Greek.
The Library stood for at least 300 years after its foundation in 48 B.C. The library was partly lost to fire in Alexandria's Harbor when Julius Caesar attacked Alexandria in his war against Rome and finally destroyed by an earthquake. Many of the books in the library were saved but unfortunately many of the manuscripts were sold to the some 1200 bath houses in Alexandria which were used as fuel to heat the bath water!
One of the added great pleasures of our trip was traveling to Cairo on Egypt Air, the national airline of Egypt. As a journalist and author I've traveled on most of the major airlines of the world and air travel today is no longer the pleasure it used to be, but we found Egypt Air the exception. Its new Boeing 777 is one of the fastest and most comfortable planes in service and the personal attention of the flight attendants is exceptional. We felt a little apprehension traveling to the Mideast at this time, but the welcome we received on Egypt Air and the hospitality they offered put us at ease and gives us great pleasure.
And its inflight food service was excellent. When I complimented them on this food they reminded me that Egypt Air has been appointed a member of LaConfrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs, one of the most prestigious gastronomic societies in the world. Our flight from New York to Cairo took about ten hours and right on time. From Cairo to Alexandria by limousine is a three-hour trip.
The Library of Alexandria is now open to the public. The formal opening which was postponed because of the crisis in the Middle East is now scheduled for October.