Good Reading : March 2008
MARCH 2008 ı goodreading 17 fully booked 1 risen from the ashes Shortly after Alexander the Great founded Alexandria, the Great Library was established as an expression of the Greek civilisation which predominated throughout the Mediterranean world. Eventually it was destroyed by fire.The new library, the magnificent Bibliotheca Alexandrina, sponsored by UNESCO and designed by a Norwegian architectural firm, opened in 2002. It is an architectural wonder and aims to be a cultural one also. Seen side on, it has the profile of a shoe. Internally one sees the shape is deter mined by each of the four floors projecting more than the one above, which gives a liberating sense of flow. There is little need for artificial lighting because natural light arrives through the panelled glass ceilings. The new library, directed by Egyptian Harvard PHD Ismail Serageldin, aims at more than making books available. It wants to take Egypt to the world and bring the world to Egypt in line with the tradition of the original Hellenistic library, which had a universal outlook. It has seven research centres, including that on Old Alexandria and the Mediterranean directed by Mohamed Awad, an architect who previously founded and directed the Alexandria Preservation Trust. Interviewed in his office in the library, energetic Dr Awad said he wanted it to be a catalyst to transform the once cosmopolitan city, which ‘is now almost forgotten in the rest of the world’. He added that this was already being done by meetings and conferences on all aspects of culture, joint research projects with overseas institutions, oral history projects, the publication of books and a quarterly magazine, and permanent and temporary exhibitions. A fine exhibition of his own collection of historical sketches and photographs of Alexandria was on display at the time.There are three museums, four art galleries, six specialised libraries (including those for the blind and for children), and a planetarium. Dr Awad claimed that the Library is second only to the US Library of Congress in digital technology. A sophisticated program for digitalising Arabic texts is being conducted with Yale University. I browsed the library’s periodicals section and was pleased to see, in this Muslim country, Jewish publications such as The Jewish Observer and Midstream, as well as publications on Islam, such as The Middle East Quarterly , critical of its treatment of women. But I did not find major English-language literary periodicals such as the Times Literary Supplement or the New York Review of Books, nor any Australian publications. Likewise, among the books I came across in the stacks were serious studies of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.The only book by an Australian I stumbled across was one of Jack Lindsay’s on ancient Rome and Egypt. The Library can accommodate 8 million books but at the moment has only 540,000, almost equally divided between Arabic and English, with less than 10 per cent in other languages. There are 900,000 visitors yearly. Visitors pay $3.50 to visit the library; a guided tour begins daily every 45 minutes from 11am until 7pm except Friday, when the hours are 3-7pm. Most of the people in attendance the day I was there were of student age, the majority of them females wearing head- scarves, with a few dressed in black from head to toe with only slits for their eyes. They turned pages with black-gloved hands. Leaving the library, which is on the seafront, I walked left along the esplanade, which reminded me of St Kilda, Melbourne because of the many Italianate buildings.In ten minutes I came to Saad Zagloul square, with the Metropole and Cecil hotels which were the haunts of writers such as Lawrence Durrell, EM Forster, who wrote a guide book to Alexandria, and the Greek Nobel prize winning poet Constantine Cavafy. Alexandria is also haunted by political figures such as Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.The library has plenty of scope in its attempt to restore its heritage to Alexandria and the world and kindle a new respect for learning. Egypt’s Great Library at Alexandria was one of the wonders of the ancient world before it burnt to the ground. DESMOND O’GRADY visited the new Alexandria Library, which is a wonder of our modern world. Inside the library natural lighting flows in through the panelled glass ceilings. The imposing granite walls of the library are covered in ancient forms of writing.