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Focus on Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Egypt

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Article Sections

  1. The history of Bibliotheca Alexandrina
  2. More than a library
  3. A digital library for the twenty-first century
  4. Conclusion

By Margaret Adolphus

The history of Bibliotheca Alexandrina

The Library of Alexandria was one of the great wonders of the ancient world; its destruction one of the great tragedies.

Founded in the third century BC by the Ptolemies, during Egypt's Hellenistic period, the idea was to provide an international library comprising not only Greek works, but also those translated from other languages in the Middle East and even India.

At one point, it was believed to hold 500,000 manuscripts, many, according to legend, snatched from ships that arrived in Alexandria's harbour.

Then as now, the library was part of a cultural complex: it was next door to the Alexandrian Museum. The latter was not a museum in the modern sense, but a complex of beautifully laid out buildings and gardens that acted as a meeting place for scholars working on literature and science – an ancient research institute.

Both library and museum were destroyed in the third century AD, by civil war, and then finally on the order of Roman emperor Theodosius in AD391. However, in the words of Bibliotheca Alexandrina's (BA) current director,

"that great library was a unique ecumenical effort of the human intellect and imagination, and remains engraved in the memories of all scientists and intellectuals to this day".

The idea of recreating the ancient library goes back over a quarter of a century, and was originally proposed by a professor at Alexandria University, Mostafa El-Abbadi. The project was sponsored by the Egyptian Government, and supported by UNESCO.

In 2001, the building, costing $200 million, was completed, and officially opened on 16 October 2002. The library was designed to hold eight million volumes on seven levels, where each level represents the evolution of humanitarian intellect starting with religions, philosophy, etc. at the basement and ascending to more sophisticated sciences.

It was designed by a Norwegian architect, as a solar disc arising out of the water, and with a wall carrying representations of characters in all known scripts.

Photo: Aerial view of BA.

Aerial view of the newly constructed BA, showing its solar disc shape (photo © Bibliotheca Alexandrina)

Photo: Alphabet wall.

The wall with the alphabet scripts (photo © Bibliotheca Alexandrina)