We had been warned about the fog. Yet we left anyway at 8:00 am from a cloudy Cairo for our three-hour drive northwest to Alexandria. It was our only day to visit the library.
And treacherous it would have been, had our driver not slowed our van to a crawl in the nearly impenetrable fog. But the six of us were all the more delighted when we emerged at seaside Alexandria into brilliant sunshine.
My family was there to have lunch with officials and then tour this shining jewel in Egypt’s crown—the new Bibliotheca Alexandria, which was born by Egyptian presidential decree to fully live up to the legend of its ancient namesake. Mike Keller, head of the libraries at Stanford and one of the board members of the new library, had arranged our visit. He had told me it was a spectacular place but no description could have prepared us for the scale and majesty of what we saw.
The buildings, perched on the shore of the Mediterranean, look as though they were transported from a World of Tomorrow. The more we learned of what was inside the stunning architecture, the more awed we became.
Sohair F. Wastawy, Chief Librarian, and Noha Adly, Director of Technology, greeted us warmly. Being Friday, the library was closed for prayers until the afternoon, which gave us time to lunch at a Greek restaurant across the crescent bay, right next to the site of the famed Alexandria lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Yet it was the library of Alexandria, launched in 295 BCE by Ptolemy I, that left the grander legacy. It was part academy, part research center, and part library that drew scholars from around the ancient world. At its height it contained as many as 700,000 scrolls.
The library disappeared gradually. One episode was an accidental fire in 48 BCE during the Alexandrian War of Julius Caesar. To make up for the loss, Marc Anthony gave Cleopatra 200,000 scrolls.
The arrival of Christianity and subsequent Roman persecutions and schisms in the church made Alexandria a dicey place for a universal library dedicated to science and learning. In 391 CE, Emperor Theodosius banned all religions other than Christianity. In 645 CE, the Muslim conqueror Caliph Omar effectively did the same in the name of Allah.
Beyond accidental and deliberate destruction, as Matthew Battles has written, “centuries happened” to the library. Gradually the ancient Greek scrolls became incomprehensible to readers. Five centuries was, and still is, a long time for a library to last.
The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina is a chance to begin again with a library “Born Digital,” as librarian Ismail Serageldin says. It is to be a library not only to Egypt, but to humanity. It’s hard to imagine a more noble cause..
The library’s original site is now submerged a few kilometers out to sea from the present shore, yielding up its treasures to underwater archeology. I’ll take you there, virtually, in future reports.