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The world's learning, under one roof

In Egypt, a splendid library rises from ancient roots.

October 13, 2002|Aline Kazandjian

Alexandria, Egypt — The long-awaited inauguration of the Alexandria Library, in a striking $200-million building, will take place Wednesday.

Rising like a temple of modernity on the waterfront of this ancient city, the library aspires to revive the concept of its forebear, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Two thousand years ago, that library is said to have held about 700,000 scrolls encompassing the bulk of human knowledge at the time. It was gradually destroyed, starting with Julius Caesar's invasion in the 1st century BC.

The new library may eventually hold 8 million items. But it starts with only half a million, mainly relating to the Mediterranean region and its cultures, in various languages, including English.

Although it may be short on books for now, the library stands tall as an architectural jewel. Its dominant feature is a gigantic circular roof, nearly 500 feet in diameter, made of blue and green glass panels. The disc-like structure tilts toward the sea, where the ancient palaces of Cleopatra and Antony lie submerged. The inclination gives the impression of movement, as if the disc is actually rising from the ground.

The building, designed by the Norwegian architectural firm Snohetta, is immersed in a reflecting pool. The raised side of the disc is overlaid with 4,600 slabs of dark gray granite from Aswan, inscribed with calligraphy from around the world. Also in the complex are a spherical planetarium, museum and conference hall.

Inside, the principal reading room is an open area as big as New York's Grand Central Terminal. Its seven levels of cascading terraces hold about 2,000 seats, each with a view of the sea. Visitors can read under natural light penetrating through the glass roof.

Support from UNESCO and contributions from the international community have made the project possible. The promise that the library will someday become a beacon of knowledge for all humanity raises a few skeptical eyebrows. But as a tourist attraction it is without doubt spectacular.

The library is open daily except Tuesdays. Hours vary. Entrance to the library is about $2; there are extra fees for the planetarium, museum and exhibitions. 011-20-3-483-9999, www.bibalex.org.

Aline Kazandjian is a freelance writer based in Cairo.

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