Inspired by the past, Alexandria 'books' its future

With much of its past glory buried under sea or plundered in war, Cleopatra's hometown is reinventing itself with a new library.

At its peak - some 2,000 years ago - Alexandria was a center for architecture, agriculture, and science.

But earthquakes, fires, and conquests left little physical evidence of its glorious past. The ancient Egyptian city survived in imagination though, immortalized by William Shakespeare's Cleopatra.

Today, the third-biggest city on the continent is attempting to regain a bit of its old fame.

Near the site of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the fabled seat of ancient learning, a new library by the same name is getting its finishing touches. The $200-million structure, an impressive white cylinder with floor levels that cascade toward the Mediterranean Sea, is set to open this year.

Alexandria is also bursting with discoveries. A team of French and Egyptian archaeologists are mapping the submerged ruins of what is now widely believed to Cleopatra's royal palace, sunk in a massive earthquake in the 4th century AD.

Divers also found numerous statues, stone columns with Greek inscriptions, jars, and more. There are proposals to put together the world's first underwater antiquities park at the site of the sunken palace, where Cleopatra once wove her amorous spell on Julius Caeser and Mark Antony. The proposed park could include using glass-bottomed boats and glass-walled undersea walkways. Meanwhile, the city has taken steps to halt a millennium of sewage flow that made the waters murky.

But it's the library that is grabbing much of the present excitement in Alexandria, not only for its tourist potential, but also for its educational significance. It was initially conceived of as a university library because Alexandria, indeed Egypt, lacks a quality research institution.

The library will "raise the standard of education in Egypt," says Mustafa el Abbadi, classics professor at Alexandria University.

"If this idea is implemented at the level that is expected, it will then change the cultural map of the whole region," says Ahmedou Mukhtar M'bouf, the former head of UNESCO, which has collaborated on the project along with the Egyptian government and private donors.

The library has a capacity of 8 million titles, which will make it by far the biggest in the Arab world. So far, some 400,000 conventional and electronic titles have been collected. But it will take years to reach capacity. The library has a modest annual acquisition budget of $5 million, compared, for example, to Harvard University's annual library acquisition budget of over $15 million.

Meanwhile, the library is seeking donations from private and public sources. Already, Spain has donated a complete copy of works by the Arab scholars of Andalusia housed at the Library of Escorial near Madrid. Turkey has presented 10,000 books dealing with the Ottoman Empire.

Efforts are also under way to establish links with American institutions. Laila Maugaokar, the library's field director says "once the library is fully functional, an exchange program can be established," with the US Library of Congress, the world's biggest library with a collection of 115 million items and 530 miles of bookshelves.

Most of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina's initial acquisitions will relate to the Mediterranean region and include Arab and Islamic history, culture, and civilization, as well of that of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Italy.

But the library does raise a concern: how Egyptian censorship laws will affect its holdings and reputation.

Recently, Egyptian censors banned 80 books from the library at the American University in Cairo, a private liberal-arts institution, which is also the largest English-language research facility in Egypt. The banned books, part of the university's curricula, including "Muslim Extremism in Egypt" by Gilles Kepel. Others like "Al-Khubz Al-Hafi" by Mohamed Shukri and Maxime Rodinson's "Mohammed" were banned because of some sexual references and material deemed blasphemous to Islam.

Mr. Abbadi says, although the Bibliotheca is government-owned, it is run by an independent body and so will not face any restrictions in acquiring books.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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