Recreating a Jewel

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The Egyptian city of Alexandria has one of the world's greatest libraries-but nobody can find it. Not even archaeologists. Somewhere beneath the buildings and asphalt of this Mediterranean port of nearly 5 million people lies buried a library that flourished during Egypt's Ptolemy dynasty of Greek rulers about 2,000 years ago. It is thought to have held as many as 500,000 books-in the form of scrolls-and was a fount of knowledge for mathematics, astronomy, physics, medicine and history. The exact location of the building-somewhere in the city's old royal quarter-and the fate of its contents remain unknown. So Egypt decided that what hasn't been rediscovered must be replaced. A new library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, will open early next year, 12 years after its foundation stone was laid. This is a library nobody will have difficulty finding. One of the largest ever built anywhere, it perches dramatically on the Mediterranean shore with a grand circular design intended to evoke the rising and setting of the sun. Its reading room is as big as New York's Grand Central Station; its bookshelves cover the space of four football fields.

As a vanity project, the Bibliotheca should have little trouble doing for Alexandria what the Opera House did for Sydney or, more recently, the Guggenheim Museum for Bilbao. Its roof resembles a gigantic microchip 160 m in diameter, to reflect the idea of conducting knowledge to Egypt and beyond, just as the original did. The structure also pays homage to its predecessor. By tilting the roof at 16 degrees, and covering the walls with layers of unpolished granite-chiseled into which are characters from most of the world's known languages-the 11-story library gives the impression that the cloistered temple of Euclid and Archimedes is re-emerging from the earth.

Alexandria University academics first came up with the idea of recreating the ancient jewel in the 1970s, but the government has turned the project into one of monumental proportions, personally overseen by Suzanne Mubarak, wife of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Visiting London in May, she was presented by the British branch of the Friends of Alexandria Library with plans to donate 45,000 manuscripts held on microchip at the British Museum. "The library is an international center," said Mubarak, "a gift to mankind that will enrich the past, the present and the future. It is a digital lighthouse for the world." Her imagery is appropriate in that the 1,800 scholars using the library's reading room will be able to relieve tired eyes by gazing out to sea from their desks.

Snohetta, a firm of young architects based in Norway, beat 523 rivals in an international competition with a design for the Bibliotheca that Egyptian officials felt suitably echoed its former glory. "The building takes you into the past, but also into the future," says supervising architect Christoph Kapeller. "You actually see it rising up, as if we have taken a snapshot of its movement."

Friendly countries, including pre-Gulf War Iraq, donated $64 million toward the project, but the construction costs are now estimated at a whopping $140 million, leaving the fiscally strapped Egyptian government to raise the rest-and that's before they buy any books. No expense is being spared on materials, which include North American oak for the parquet floors and Zimbabwean granite for the interior walls. The entrance will be adorned by mosaics of ancient wrestlers, discovered during early construction on the site. In the exterior plaza will stand a 12-m statue of Ptolemy II, recently excavated in Alexandria harbor by a team of French underwater archaeologists. "This is the Bibliotheca Alexandrina," boasts project manager Mohsen Zahran, vice chairman of the competition jury. "This is not just another library."

The Egyptian parliament recently passed a law making the Bibliotheca an international library, with a board of trustees made up of scholars from around the world. But much of what they oversee will be empty for many years. Although the Bibliotheca has a target of 8 million books, it will probably have more like 250,000 when it opens, not much more than an average Egyptian university library. For all the grandeur of its design, the library is largely depending on donations, and many of its "treasures" are facsimiles. Officials had to haggle with a local collector to buy the library's only copy of Description de l'Egypte, the landmark work on Egyptian antiquities commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte after the French invasion of Alexandria.

A bigger problem for the trustees, however, is the growing fear of some local intellectuals that the government is more intent on showcasing a building than creating a world-class research institution. Modern Egypt is not exactly a beacon for freedom of expression. Only last year government censors forced Egypt's leading library, at the American University in Cairo, to withdraw a reported 100 titles from its shelves. Many of the books had been targeted by Muslim activists for offending their view of the Prophet Muhammad. Others were withdrawn because they discussed sex-or President Mubarak. "The library could change history, but the government does not want that," says Nawal Saadawi, one of Egypt's leading writers, whose own books are frequently banned. "They want to show it off to tourists, like the pyramids."

In May, students at Cairo's Al-Azhar University fought with police while protesting the publication in Egypt of a new edition of a novel called Banquet of Seaweed, which allegedly slanders Muhammad. The irony is that this classic Arabic book was reprinted at the instruction of the publishing department of the Ministry of Culture. Nonetheless, after the protests the government seemed likely to add it to the list of outlawed titles. "It's a battle between two sides," says the Syrian author of Banquet of Seaweed, Haidar Haidar. "One is regressive, the other is enlightened."

Alexandria's ancient scholars must have felt something similar as their great library was attacked by Christian marauders, then -some historians believe-by their Muslim equivalents. Eventually it is thought to have been razed, its ruins covered over and lost. Today's Egyptian leaders claim a desire to reverse that architectural and intellectual travesty. In London, Suzanne Mubarak said in praise of the new library that "the technology and people involved will be of the highest caliber, the World Wide Web will be accessible to all." Asked whether it will be uncensored, she replied: "Inshallah"-God willing. -With reporting by Amany Radwan/Cairo and Mairi Ben Brahim/London