Rebuilding a Library, 1,700 Years Later

Just as a modern metropolis replaced the ancient city of Alexandria, Egypt, a completely high-tech Bibliotheca Alexandrina is being built in the image of the original Hellenistic library.

Symbolizing the sun, the building will be a huge circle, tilting toward the sky. With a portion below sea level, it will have a diaphragm foundation 3 feet thick and 110 feet deep to keep water out. The inclined roof will allow indirect sunlight into the interior's cascading levels and a view of the Mediterranean. Outside, the world's alphabets will swirl around the gray granite wall.

When completed at the end of 1998, the library is expected to become a regional center for scholars and researchers and a springboard to improve cooperation between this region and the world. "This will be the window connecting Africa and the Middle East to Europe and the world beyond," says project director Mohsen Zahran.

After beginning in May 1995, builders completed the foundation last December. The project will cost $172 million, with backing from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization and the Egyptian government. Located in the vicinity of the old library, whose exact location is unknown, it will overlook the Mediterranean at Alexandria's Eastern Harbor.

Ptolemy I Soter, Alexander the Great's successor, built the original Bibliotheca Alexandrina nearly 2,500 years ago. Revered Greek scholars flocked to the library and before long it boasted more than half a million manuscripts. Almost 17 centuries ago, a fire destroyed the edifice and the vast majority of classical Greek literature. If these texts had been saved there might be 123 Sophocles plays available today, instead of only seven.

The new library will start with 200,000 titles, but it is hoped it will eventually hold 8 million books focusing on the Mediterranean region, North Africa, and the Arab world. The complex will include a science museum and planetarium, a calligraphy museum, a school for librarians, and a room for preserving rare papyrus manuscripts.

The library has raised some controversy. Besides the battle that ensued when bulldozers began digging at the site before archaeologists were able to excavate, some Alexandrians worry the library doesn't have enough money to fulfill its goals. Others worry about collecting enough scholarly titles. Even so, "If [the library] rises to its aspirations," says Mostafa al-Abbadi, president of the Archaeological Society of Alexandria, the city's oldest cultural institute, "it will change the cultural map of the whole region."

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