Resurrecting an Ancient Library

Reza Aslan
From the November/December 2002 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Two thousand years after it was destroyed by fire, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina—the mythic Egyptian library that at one time boasted a universal collection of everything ever written—as reopened to the public on October 16.

The idea of resurrecting the Bibliotheca Alexandrina began in 1974 as part of an expansion campaign of the University of Alexandria, but it wasn't until 1990, at an international conference in Egypt, that world leaders met to draft the Aswan Declaration for the Revival of the Ancient Library of Alexandria. With the assistance of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), signatories pledged to create an institution that would become a center of dialogue among ideas and cultures, a symbol of peace and cooperation in an increasingly unstable region. Construction of the $200 million project began in the summer of 1995.

The new library was completed just weeks after the attacks of September 11, but had its official opening postponed twice by the Egyptian government—first during the military campaign in Afghanistan, then again after the Israeli incursions into the West Bank. Now, with the possibility of an escalation of conflict in the region, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, like its historic predecessor, may once again be at the mercy of global politics.

According to the Greek historian Plutarch, it was Julius Caesar who was responsible for the destruction of the original Bibliotheca Alexandrina. In 48 B.C.E., Caesar sailed across the Mediterranean Sea to join forces with Cleopatra against her brother, Ptolemy XIII, for control of Egypt. However, he soon found himself trapped in Alexandria, with the Egyptian fleet advancing quickly upon him. Realizing his predicament, Caesar carried out a desperate tactical maneuver: He set fire to the ships in the harbor. The fires halted Ptolemy's advance, assuring Caesar's victory in the Alexandrine Wars and securing his fame as Rome's greatest general.

But the fires did not keep to the harbor and jumped to the docks—quickly engulfing half the city, including the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The ancient library, built at the behest of Alexander himself, where Euclid devised the foundations of geometry and Archimedes invented his pump, where Aristotle's canon was housed and the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) written, was destroyed, along with its school, zoo, museum, and shrine to the Muses. Although some of the collection survived at the Bibliotheca's sister library inside the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria (the Serapeum), a decree from Christian Rome destroyed that building in 391 C.E. because of its "pagan associations." By the time of the Islamic conquest of Egypt 250 years later, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina was little more than a myth.

The new library is housed in a seven-story, 334,000-square-foot building with a disk-shaped roof that rises from a tranquil, turquoise pool to suggest the meeting of the sun and the horizon. The building's bowed facade is white granite from Aswan, etched with the letters and symbols of every known system of writing in the world—in homage to the universal collection for which the ancient library was famous.

When the ancient library was first constructed, the Ptolemies (Alexander's successors in Egypt) accumulated their massive collection by pilfering docked ships or, more commonly, by borrowing scrolls from other libraries to copy, then keeping the originals and sending back the reproductions. Led by chief librarian Youssef Zeidan, the new library has begun acquiring its collection more honestly—by purchasing rather than stealing books. It is nonetheless committed to the same goal as the ancient library: to amass the written knowledge of the world and create an atmosphere where that knowledge can be researched, discussed, and enhanced.

The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina will not only house 8 million books under its roof, it will also compile the largest collection of ancient manuscripts in the world, scanned and downloaded in the library's database to create a virtual library that will allow users to view the original texts while simultaneously ensuring their preservation for future generations. It seems the library's directors have learned the lesson of history.

But the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is not meant to be a mere depository of books. A planetarium has been constructed in the library's courtyard to honor the Bibliotheca's reputation for astronomical advances. (It was here that Aristarchus proposed a heliocentric solar system 1,800 years before Copernicus, and that Hipparchus created the first star chart.) A new theater attached to the library will present plays and musicals from around the world in Arabic translation. There will also be a rotation of exhibits in three large and modern exhibition rooms. The Bibliotheca is currently running a retrospective based on the events of September 11, which includes photos of the attacks on Washington and New York, as well as a series of prints on the devastating war in Afghanistan.

The Bibliotheca has a number of obstacles to overcome before it can claim universal library status. Money is of course a grave concern. The library relies on UNESCO and the generous donations of a host of countries to fund its daily operations, including its immense acquisitions budget. While the Egyptian government has recently pledged greater financial assistance, its economy has suffered drastically from the drop in tourism since September 11. And there seem to be few international organizations currently willing to invest in projects in the Middle East.

Perhaps an even greater challenge for the Bibliotheca Alexandrina will be reconciling the library's mandate of a universal collection with Egypt's strict censorship laws. Article 1 of the library's charter pledges to form "a collection of all achievements of the human mind from all civilizations at all times." But because the library is under the direct control of the Egyptian government, all books must first be approved by the head of state. Already, a few works deemed offensive to the Prophet Muhammad, including some scholarly texts, have been rejected by authorities. Nor is one likely to find such works of fiction as Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses or Haidar Haidar's Banquet of Seaweed at the Bibliotheca.

But the library's greatest obstacle is its location. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina has twice demonstrated that it can be severely affected by the conflicts going on around it. With the region becoming even more destabilized, library officials aren't expecting an influx of Western scholars to Egypt. In an attempt to draw scholars to Alexandria, several international conferences are being planned, including one on Islam and the West scheduled for early next year. Whether this strategy will work remains to be seen.

But, as poet Archibald MacLeish wrote in 1972, "What is more important in a library than anything else—than everything else—is the fact that it exists."

Reza Aslan received an MFA in fiction from the University of Iowa, where he is currently a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies.