Alexandria's glory reborn

April 16, 1999

In a Portakabin on top of what used to be Cleopatra's palace, Mohsen Zahran keeps an impressive tribute to the importance of his work. Inside a plastic A4 wallet is the Aswan Declaration of February 1990, signed by Francois Mitterrand, Lord Asa Briggs, Queen Sofia of Spain, Melina Mercouri, Jose Israel Vargas of Unesco, Princess Caroline of Monaco and Suzanne Mubarak, wife of Egypt's president.

These dignitaries endorsed the rebuilding of Alexandria's great library. With the help of Jack Thomson, Balfour Beatty's Scottish engineer, project director Professor Zahran intends to open the new library this autumn.

The Bibliotheca Alexandria was one of the great ancient temples of learning. Founded by Cleopatra's ancestor, Ptolemy I, its initial remit was to preserve the heritage of Greek literature and to develop scientific research.

Scholars who flocked to Alexandria were able to copy, revise, collate and edit works of classical Greek. These became the standard editions on which other ancient copyists and libraries depended. The result was that Alexandria provided the core of most of Europe's manuscript collections.

The library, which flourished for several centuries, held more than 500,000 papyrus scrolls. It was where Archimedes worked, where Herophilus did the first dissection of the human body and where Euclid just about invented geometry.

After Cleopatra's suicide, Alexander's capital and its library passed to the Roman empire. When that fell, so did the library. "The achievements of Alexandrian science were lost to the West for more than a millennium," Professor Zahran said. "That was before their partial recovery via Constantinople. It was our classical Arabic and Islamic cultures that were instrumental in launching the European Renaissance on its quest for new worlds."

Professor Zahran is proud of his people's contribution to western culture, but he sees the new Alexandrian library as an international affair. The design team is a Norwegian company, Sn?hetta, working with Egyptian engineers and British builders. The international community has not only funded the project but contributed hugely to the library's resources.

"Since 1990 we have received 350,000 volumes from around the world in traditional and electronic form, primarily in the arts and humanities. Science and technology will be added later," Professor Zahran said. "We expect the library to be a university in its own right producing quality research work. Our humanities collection will be unique, and so will our resources for a study of the Mediterranean."

There is a plan to have the building ready to open on October 6, but Professor Zahran is not rushing to confirm this. He has waited all his life to see this project realised and knows Egypt has waited several millennia. A few more weeks here or there will not matter.

In his hands, Professor Zahran nurses a curious circular paperweight Sn?hetta has produced as its conceptual image of the library's design. It will have a 160m circular glass roof tipping, like a disc, gradually towards the sea. From the site of Alexandria's famous lighthouse it will look like a rising sun lifting out of the water. The paperweight shows a long thin bridge linking it to a circular planetarium that is being built. It will resemble the orbiting moon when it has been coated with reflective panels.

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