Gem of ancient learning rebuilt

The $230 million Library of Alexandria opened for a trial period Monday, aiming to restore this city to its former status as a center of learning and scholarship in the Middle East.

The drive to rebuild a world-class library in Alexandria began in 1990. Construction was repeatedly delayed, and the seven-story building, designed by the Norwegian firm Snohetta, was completed more than two years late and $30 million over budget.

A major concern is the shortage of books. Built to accommodate at least 4 million works, the library has only 200,000 so far.

Moustafa al-Abbadi, a historian of the city who is credited with being the first to propose building the library, said its management must embark on a major purchasing campaign.

The library includes computers, a hall for Braille readers, and chambers for scholars. It is scheduled to open April 23 - UN International Book Day.

The Egyptian ruler Ptolemy I Soter began the Great Library of Alexandria in the grounds of his royal palace in about 295 BC. The site is not known, but recent excavations have revealed that the palace grounds reached as far as the waterfront abutting the new library. The modern builders dug up ancient mosaics, which are displayed in the new library.

For 250 years, the Great Library served as a center for scholars from across the Mediterranean. It contained 500,000 scrolls, including the originals of Euripedes, Aeschylus, and Sophocles. Ptolemy III asked other statesmen to lend him their books to copy. Spain has agreed to donate copies of its old Arabic manuscripts to the new library.

For the new building, Egypt has retrieved a large collection of manuscripts that used to be in old Alexandrian libraries and an important collection of scientific manuscripts from the 10th to 18th centuries.

What happened to the Great Library is not certain, but most historians back the account of Seneca, the Roman philosopher of the 1st century AD, who wrote that the bulk of its scrolls were burned when Julius Caesar attacked the city in 48 BC.

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