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Volume 45, Number 2March/April 1994

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Rebuilding an Ancient Glory

Written by Jo Newson and Larry Luxner
Additional illustrations by Michael Grimsdale
Additional photographs courtesy of Snøhetta

Where antiquity's greatest library once stood, a new world center of scholarship and research is rising, round as the moon...

Later this year, hard-hatted construction workers at a four-hectare (10-acre) site on Alexandria's hotel-studded Mediterranean coast will begin restoring the ancient world's greatest center of knowledge to its former glory.

For the workers themselves and for millions of Egyptians, the recreation of the 2300-year-old Alexandria Library has become a great source of national pride. it has been hailed by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak as "a monument of civilization" which, like its ancient model, will "help strengthen the foundations of peace and promote friendship among peoples." It is the first large library to be designed and constructed with the help of the international community, the object of a massive fund-raising effort spearheaded by political and intellectual leader, including Mubarak, Kingh Hassan II of Morocco, Shaykh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates, French President Francois Mitterand, Queen Sofia of Spain and Queen Noor of Jordan, former Greek Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri, Nobel laureates Naguib Mahfouz, Octavio Paz and Wole Soyinka, and former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin.

Their goal: nothing less than the construction of a $171.5 million, fully computerized library and conference center near the site of its ancient counterpart, stocked with at least four million volumes and equipped with the latest in information technology and library science.

On its completion by the end of 1997, the Bibliotheca Alexandrian, as it is being called, will become one of the world's 20 biggest national repositories of books-along with the Moscow Library, the British Library and the Library of congress in Washington, D.C. Its ultimate capacity is eight million volumes, and it will include science and calligraphy museums and a music library as well.

"The great response of the community of nations in support of the Alexandria Library project has been overwhelming," said Mubarak whose government signed an agreement in 1990 with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Qrganization (UNESCO) to raise funds for the library, in much the same way that UNESCO helped to save Egypt's Abu Simbel and Philae monuments in the 1960's and 70's (See Aramco World, July-August 1976).

The library project is especially important to Dr. Mohsen Zahran, a professor of literature at Alexandria University and executive director of the General Organization for the Alexandria Library (GOAL). In his office in the sprawling Mediterranean port city of four million, Zahran underlined that the Alexandria Library project is significant not just for Egypt or the Middle East but for the entire world.

"Having this beacon of culture here will bring a great deal of attention and many visitors to Alexandria, but this is not the intent," Zahran said. "We have no alternative in this region but to develop the mind. Thus Egypt has been training and graduating teachers, engineers, architects and sending them to work throughout the Arab world. Yet, we do not want this new library to be in the service of Arabs only. We must rally all countries."

Historians generally agree that the ancient library was founded by Aristotle's pupil, Demetrius of Phalerum, in the fourth century BC. Demetrius, expelled from Athens, sought refuge in Alexandria, where he suggested to King Ptolemy I Soter that "he should assemble and study a collection off books on royalty and the exercise of high command," and should launch the project with volumes from Aristotle's personal library Ptolemy went further, and ordered the establishment of a library to contain "all the books of the world" and "the writings of all the nations."

No one knows with certainty what the great institution looked like, but the Greek geographer Strabo described it as part of a richly decorated complex of buildings and gardens. The whole complex was a center for learning and research, organized into faculties, whose salaried scholars were paid from they royal purse.

The library's broader mission was to rescue Greek literature from decay-almost literally, for conservation involved a perpetual battle against the disintegration of papyrus, cloth and leather scrolls, and, in its most rudimentary form, consisted simply of recopying texts. As Peter Greek points out in his 1990 book Alexander to Actium: The historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age, there was some justification for the fear that the literary heritage of classical Greece was threatened: In that era, after all, survival of texts was matter of supply and demand, and unpopular writers attracted neither scribes nor booksellers.

By the middle of the first century BC, the Alexandria Library contained perhaps as many as 700,000 manuscripts on papyrus, all fully catalogued with a summary of their content and shelved alphabetically by author. It was the largest collection of books the world had ever seen writes Egyptian historian Mostafa El-Abbadi. Legend has it that every boat passing Alexandria's busy port had to make available any scrolls that might be of interest to the library.

As its fame spread, many noted scholars took up residence in the library, among them Herophilus, the father of anatomy (340-300 BC); Euclid, the great geometer (330-280 BC); Eratosthenes, who calculated the circumference of the Earth (284-192 BC); the grammarian and poet Callimachus (died 240 BC); Aristarchus of Samothrace, the foremost critical scholar of antiquity (died 180 BC); and Claudius Ptolemy (AD 90-168), the father of cartography (See Aramco World, May_June 1992).

The library stood for at least 300 years after its foundation, but strangely, there are few facts and many theories about the causes of its destruction and disappearance, and no certainty even about the century in which its demise took place.

Some historians believe that in Ad 30 the library was partly lost to fire and finally destroyed by earthquake others that it burned to the ground in 48 BC, when Egyptian ships attacking Julius Caesar's troops were set on fire, and the flames were carried to the library by a north wind. Another story is that, with a decline of interest in the library, manuscripts were gradually used as fuel for heating the city; another that fanatical Christians, worried by the pagan writings stored in the library, spread a rumor that gold was buried on the site; the library would thus have been gutted by searches for the treasure. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says the library's buildings were "probably" destroyed in AD 270 by Zenobia, queen of Palmyra.

At any rate, it wasn't until 1974 that the idea of reviving the old library was taken up again. For Dr. Lotfy Dowidar, former president of the University of Alexandria, the project was a personal dream. His vision was not of a physical reconstruction of what the great library might have been; instead, he saw a modern building which would capture the spirit of the ancient institution and in that building a "new public research library which can play a comparable or even better role than the old one." University officials, realizing that neither they nor the Egyptian government could finance such an ambitious project, approached the United Nations for help.

The university formed a committee which decided to locate the reborn library on a plot of land along the Corniche, Alexandria's seaside boulevard on the Mediterranean- a site near the probable location of the original library and just around the harbor from the Mamluk citadel of Qait Bey, once the location of Alexandria's famous lighthouse (See page 18). "By the grace of God," Zahran said, "the land had stayed vacant since the British occupations."

In September 1988 an international competition was launched by UNESCO and the International Union of Architects, funded with of $600,000 from the United Nations Development Program, to find a design that would rise to the architectural challenge of providing in one structure a functional library, an inviting public building and a monument to civilization. The international jury of architects and which works "by discussion and interacting rather than dictates and manifestoes."

Seven architects- including Norwegians, two Americans, an Austrian and a Czech- two landscape architects and several consultants worked on the project. Their prize- winning design features cylindrical building, set in a pool, with an L-shape cut out of its plan; the cylinder's gridded glass roof slants downward until part of it disappears below ground level.

The architects were concerned that the new building should be a part of the site, "growing from the ground it rests in and upon." At the same time, they wanted it to be distinguished from the skyline around the harbor and create a strong new image. "The new library had to be monumental, because of the power of the ideas represented by its history," said Craig Dykers, one of the American architects who helped design the 10-sotry structure for Snøhetta. Per Morten Josefson, one of the team's Norwegian architects, called the massive scale and simplicity of the building, which evoke Egypt's great monuments, the most important feature of the design.

The design alludes to the past by symbolism rather than by borrowed elements of previous style, but Snohetta is reluctant to place its design into any of the pigeonholes of modernism; rather, it is "deliberately timeless." Dykers feels most content with the category" associative modernism; rather, it is "deliberately timeless." Dykers feels most content with the category "associative modernism"- since the building "can contain associations from different cultures during different periods of time."

The cylinder that comprises the main building is 160 meters (525 feet) in diameter. Its circular plan, which echoes the hieroglyph meaning "sun," could be taken as a symbol of the sun or, as originally envisaged by the architects, the moon. "We went into the desert and spent some time observing the shapes there," said Dykers. "Two of the most striking images in the desert are the sun and moon as they emerge from the horizon. Our building tries to reflect that sensation." But Josefson stresses that the symbolism is deliberately open to different associations, "depending on the viewer's cultural background and personality".

The possible imagery of the sun and moon is reinforced by the dramatic rise and fall of the building above and below ground. The highest point of its tilting roof is 32 meters (105 feet) above ground, and the building descends to 12 meters (40 feet) below ground level. Burying part of the building counteracts the high humidity of the area and helps to provide secure and controlled storage for precious manuscripts. It also gives unparalleled insulation against noise—and meets the requirement that over 50 percent of the building be windowless. In symbolic terms, however, the past, rooted in the geology of the earth, and the future, rising toward the weightlessness of space. Another symbolic interpretation suggested by the architects is that the tilting of the roof opens out to the Mediterranean, Europe and the West, a gesture intended to enhance the relationship among the cultures of the area.

The interior of the building will consist of seven primary and 14 secondary levels in the form of terraces, all within one great cylindrical volume. The "stepping" of the floor plan avoids the claustrophobic affect common to many libraries. The views within the interior are not obscured by the height of the book stacks; each terrace will have viewing platforms to allow for unobstructed visibility.

Natural light, admitted by the dramatic angled glass roof, will be diffused and controlled by a complex system of baffles like upside-down umbrellas, which will protect manuscripts from the harsh direct sun. Balconies will allow access to the outside within the security of the library building.

The massive curving outer wall of the library, built of concrete with a reddish stone finish, will be covered in calligraphic carvings of varying depths, evoking the rugged appearance of cliffs along the Nile. The design, by the Norwegian artist Jorunn Sannes, is an abstract composition of letters from different ancient and modern languages; the architects initially thought of using a piece of text, but, said Dykers, "whatever statement we tried to apply wasn’t important enough for this context."

About two-thirds of the building will be surrounded by water. The level surface of the pool will emphasize the tilting motion of the structure and provide dramatic reflections of the walls. The water will also serve as a cooling device. The pool will contain plants, carefully chosen to make it self-cleaning, and small spotlights arranged in the shapes of the constellations at the time of the ancient library.

Pedestrian bridges will pierce the great cylinder of the main building to link the library to the bay and to the university nearby. In front of the cylinder will be a spherical science museum and planetarium, clad in glass and stone, set within a pyramid-shaped excavation, like a scoop of ice cream in an ice-cream cone. A ramp will allow visitors to descend into the "cone" below the sphere, so that, like Atlas, they can almost hold it in their hands. Much of the site will be hard-surfaced landscape set with palm trees, to stand up to the impact of crowds of visitors.

In more ways than one, the new library will be far more public than the ancient one can ever have been. Electronic systems and scientific databases will allow researchers all over the library's wealth of material. While the original library's intention—to collect the writings of all nations—is now an impossibility, the storage of titles on various electronic media will give vast potential capacity to an international library with ambition to become, like its predecessor, universal. And the transfer of manuscripts onto optical disks will guarantee a more lasting conservation than scores of scribes, recopying works onto papyrus, leather and cloth, could have done in the past.

To make this design come true, Italian information consultant Giovanni Romerio was appointed project manager of the Alexandria Library and head of its executive secretariat in February 1992.

Romerio, who has worked with UNESCO since 1974, said his agency singed two contracts last October with Snøhetta and its Egyptian engineering partner Hamza Associates. The design phase of the project started on December 21, 1993, and should be completed by August 1995.

The remainder of the project is divided into three packages, Romerio said: excavation and foundation work, construction, and final-phase work such as air-conditioning, painting and furnishing. About 10 companies will be selected as subcontractors in a prequalification bidding on May 16 of this year, with actual work to begin in October and to finish by December 1997. "We plan to open in 1998, with a minimum of 50 employees, and then go up to 500 people," Romerio said.

As of January of this year, GOAL had raised some $65 million in contributions from the Arab world—including $23 million from Saude Arabia, $21 million from Iraq, $20 million from the UAE, and $1 million from Oman. Egypt's own contribution comprises the valuable site itself, and the $20 million conference center, already completed, to be associated with the new library. At the other end of the scale, a $1000 check recently arrived from tiny Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.

"The situation has changed a lot just since the signing of the two contracts," Romerio said. "There is deepening Egyptian involvement in the project, and I think Western nations would like to participate as well, but they want to see a good start."

In fact, the Italian government has pledged $500,000 to fund the International School for information Studies that will be component of the new library. Both Belgium and the United Kingdom have also promised to support the Alexandria Library through scholarship and educational and scientific cooperation. And that's not all.

"Turkey has signed a protocol to give us copies of manuscripts and documents that date back to the Ottoman Empire and its relationship with Egypt," Mohsen Zahran said. "Greece will support the Hall of Fame at the library's entrance, where you will see busts of great scholars of the ancient library, primarily from Greece. Queen Sofia of Spain has promised to donate copies of books, documents and manuscripts that pertain to Arab culture in Spain. And President Mitterand has said he would instruct the French Ministry of Culture of Support the project with equipment and manuscripts.

"Our hopes are very high."

Jo Newson is a free-lance writer and editor specializing in architecture and design. She was formerly editor of Mimar magazine.

Larry Luxner is a free-lance journalist based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and a frequent contributor to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 24-29 of the March/April 1994 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1994 images.