Book of confusion: Alexandria’s new library




Alexandria’s new library was to be a romantic reconstruction of past greatness. But Mark Huband sees it being consumed by self deceit

By Mark Huband in Alexandria

Financial Times, 1 August 1998

A random array of letters and symbols from all the world’s languages will be carved into a rough-hewn wall encircling the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. But it is a decorative conceit that captures both the aspiration Egypt has of its new library, as well as the growing confusion surrounding its purpose.

What started as a yearning for the romantic reconstruction of past greatness, and attracted a budget of $ 167m from the Egyptian government, Unesco and other donors, is being consumed by self-deceit.

The purpose is to build a library which will evoke the Ancient Library of Alexandria, created by Ptolemy Soter, King of Egypt, during the late 4th century BC, said to have contained more than 500,000 texts from throughout the known world.

Teams of dissolute-looking workmen trudge across the terraced concrete acres of the well-advanced, 63,000 sq metre construction site. Beyond the Alexandria Corniche, the Mediterranean sparkles. As Egypt grapples with an increasingly confused relationship with its heritage, the emergence of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina has come to be loaded with symbolism, not least in the fact that the new monumental edifice faces north, away from Egypt.

“It’s as if there are two different [cultural] winds. One is from the Mediterranean, and the other is from the desert. From the sea, it’s nice. From the desert, it’s hot,” says Kamal el-Zoheiry, director of the Great Cairo Library.

His sense of the currents of learning which have blown through Egypt is poignant. Egyptian culture used to be enriched by interaction. Today, this is no longer true. The cultural life sustained in Alexandria over many centuries drew its lifeblood from both constant exposure to other centres of learning in the ancient world – Athens, Cos, Cyrene, Rome, Ephesus, Pergamon – and also the openness and eclecticism of the Ptolemaic rule, during which it emerged as a centre of learning.

Similar interaction is today barely perceptible. Egypt’s doors are not open. Censorship is routine, books are banned, newspapers are closed down, writers are threatened by Islamist extremists and occasionally forced into exile when the state fails to protect them. Now, 72 journalists are threatened with joining two of their colleagues currently serving prison sentences.

Meanwhile, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s $ 1.5m annual book budget is intended to lead to the creation of a collection numbering 8m books by 2020, along with up to 4,000 newspapers and periodicals, 50,000 manuscripts and rare books, as well as 50,000 maps. Alongside the traditional collection, the library intends to amass up to 250,000 audio and audio-visual aids, as well as establishing links to overseas computer databases and permanent internet access.

“The library will provide excellence in knowledge. Excellence in human attempts to discover [it], and use evolving ideas and approaches to deal with whole factors and challenges to man in various fields,” says Mohsen Zahran, executive director of the government department within the higher education ministry that is overseeing the project. “The ancient library was a hothouse of knowledge.”

To be convinced of the ideals upon which the concept is based requires a serious leap of faith. While all the world’s languages will be represented on the wall in the form of individual characters as a sign of the building’s supposed global reach, the assembled letters will intentionally make no sense at all.

The purpose of knowledge will be far from defined, while the creative value of the activities planned for the interior will reflect the crisis now wracking Egypt’s education system.

This system has for decades crushed individual inquiry. Egyptian parents with sufficient wealth fight hard to secure their children places at independent private schools; they hope this will spare them the mindless rigidity of rote-learning which forms the basis of state education.

“The younger generation is imprisoned,” says Kamal el-Zoheiry. “All young researchers are the victims of taking from other researchers, rather than making up their own minds . . . There’s a mental habit of listening and obeying.”

Nor is the Egyptian political elite seeking to improve the compliant state of the population. Though professing openness and opposition to religious extremism, the government is vulnerable to attack from Islamist organisations and has taken measures which assert its conservative credentials.

Among the more startling examples was a decision in May to ban use of a biography of the Moslem Prophet Mohammed, by the widely respected French author Maxime Rodinson. The book had been available to students at the American University in Cairo since soon after its publication in English in 1971.

Salah Montasser, a commentator on the government daily newspaper Al Ahram, took exception. In an article entitled “A Book That Must Be Stopped”, he claimed it insulted Islam on 50 counts. Moufid Shihab, minister of higher education, immediately demanded the book be withdrawn,  without debate of the kind supposedly enshrined in the institutions his ministry oversees, which include the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

“This is a contradiction in the minds of those in positions of responsibility,” said another Al Ahram commentator, Salama Ahmed Salama. “It shows that our educational philosophy is on the wrong track, and will produce a generation of intellectual cripples. This [ban] has reinforced extremism.”

His views are rare. “I wouldn’t like to have Rodinson’s book. His book is a red flag,” said Abdel Raouf el-Reedi, director of the Mubarak Public Library in Cairo and a former Egyptian ambassador to the United Nations.

“Since it’s become a problem and a symbol of anti-religion, I’m not going to be a hero and say I should have it. The principle for me is to spread the role of the library and spread enlightenment, and not to be a vanguard for ideas that aren’t accepted by society.”

In a society riddled with such contradictions, what is Egypt’s purpose in creating the Bibliotheca Alexandrina?

Mohsen Zahran refused to say whether Rodinson’s book will appear upon its shelves. But his wn writings hint at what the new library is really about. The library newsletter in March included an article entitled “Who  Burned the Ancient Library of Alexandria?” He wrote: “There have been several stories about the burning of the ancient library of Alexandria. . . The truth is that this library enclosed about 700,000 papyrus scrolls that were burned in the year 47BC, when Alexandria was under siege by Julius Caesar . . .”

Debate over how the ancient library came to be destroyed is apparently not to be discussed among those now involved in creating its successor. Scholars have debated for centuries what happened to the ancient library but Zahran’s version is worryingly simplistic, intended merely to prove the library was destroyed by Romans rather then Arabs.

Less propagandistic accounts of the ancient library’s fate suggest a more complex history. In fact, there were at least three libraries in Alexandria, according to the US scholar Ellen Brundige.

Ptolemy Soter’s ambition was to amass a collection to include all the written works of the known world. After 245BC, 120,000 scrolls were catalogued by Calimachus of Cyrene, who became librarian that year.  According to Seneca, Julius Caesar inadvertently set alight a book storage depot close to Alexandria harbour when he was under siege by Cleopatra’s brother Achilleas in the city in 47BC. He is not said to have deliberately set the library ablaze, and the book store did not contain more than a fraction of the library collection.

An alternative account is given by three Arab scholars, who appear more able to accept the possibility of their nation’s blame for the destruction than their descendants.

While there is real debate over why these institutions disappeared, the modern sponsors of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina are keen to shape history to raise their project beyond the mere building of a prestige institution. As its role appears increasingly at odds with what was originally intended, it has become necessary to alter the founding principles.

“We are not emulating the ancient library. It’s not a matter of emulation. It’s a locomotive for development,” Zahran now says. “We are reviving the idea of excellence in research and education . . . We need the illumination of the past. Not because of the past. But because the past is over.”

But what of a more contemporary role, which offers something to the modern Middle East?

The vast circular presence of the library on the coastal edge of Alexandria has brought the symbolic nature of the emerging structure into sharp focus..

“The circular shape is a symbol of the totality of the world’s knowledge and the universe of books,” says Christoph Kapeller, the Austrian architect whose Norway-based company, Snohetta Arkitektur Landskap, saw off 523 rivals in an international competition to design the library.

“It needed to be monumental, drawing on the architectural history of Egypt. The building doesn’t relate to Alexandria . . . It looks far beyond Alexandria.”

The building, when completed in late-1999, will look magnificent. The size of the bookshelves is the basic unit of the entire design, with the size of books therefore the basic unit of the building. For the architect, the relationship between the micro detail and the already imposing edifice is indivisible.

The 32 metre-high building is an elliptical cylinder cut as a wedge and tilted forward. The future is symbolised by the two-thirds of the building that is above ground level, consigning the past 2,000 years to below ground. An imaginative use of light, facilitated by a complex arrangement of skylights which form the disk-like roof, will exploit natural light while deflecting the harsh noon sun.

While Zahran envisages the library as a resource centre for the study of Mediterranean civilisation, others are calling for it to function as a statistical centre providing economic data. So will it be a library or a museum?

Reconciling the model of the ancient library with modern needs is the greatest challenge facing the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Within the present climate, controversy is likely to be banished from the bookshelves. Will researchers be allowed to read the works of Maxime Rodinson? Will the views expressed by the imprisoned journalists be included in the collection of media material? Will planned access to the worldwide web be unrestricted?

In a climate in which the loudest shout appears always to win the day, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is unlikely to be either a museum or a library. In-stead, it will be a temple to all that is “accepted by society”, a far cry from being the “hothouse of knowledge” that those who conceived the project deceived themselves into believing it might have become.


© Financial Times