My head has been buried in books from the very moment I learned to read. History has always been my favorite. I still vividly remember Mr. Bongi’s 6th grade social studies class, when we learned about ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. We’d chant “Hammurabi! Hammurabi!” over and over. I didn’t always remember who he was or what he did, but the name was indelibly etched in my mind alongside Rameses, Cleopatra, and Alexander the Great.
Fast-forward fifteen years, and there I was in Alexandria, Egypt, named for that luminous conqueror now most unfortunately and inextricably linked with Colin Farrell. Nevertheless, it was with a lifetime of anticipation that I stood before the newly rebuilt Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Nothing remains of the legendary original, nor does anyone actually know where it was located, but that didn’t diminish my shivers one bit.
Situated along the Corniche — Egypt’s answer to the Riviera — the library opened in 2002 as part of Alexandria’s revitalization project, which aims to reestablish the city a foremost international center for learning. At its peak, the original Library of Alexandria was the largest in the world. While no one is making noise about reclaiming that record, the new structure is a huge step in the right direction for it’s not just a library, but a national center for culture, science, and education as well.
The granite façade of the main building is round and carved with 120 inscriptions, each one in a different language. The surrounding grounds are peppered with ancient Egyptian statues. Designed by a Norwegian architecture firm, the library’s centerpiece is the seven-storey, light-filled reading room with a glass ceiling that slopes towards the Mediterranean. Dozens of computer stations with free Internet access line the terraces on most floors. With such a visual overload of eye candy (not to mention the endless lines of library tours streaming through at a given moment), I don’t know how anyone gets any work done in there.
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina has not met with unanimous praise, however. Critics decry the outrageous expense — around $220 million U.S. — for a library that, in essence, exists to impress the world. With half of Egypt’s population unable to read, they feel the money would have been better spent on education and literacy initiatives. Further, there is question as to whether the country will ever be able to fill the library, and if so, where will the money for books come from and what types of books should the library acquire. Currently the library houses about 500,000 volumes (including some literary classics like Sweet Valley High and Dragon Lance), a mere one-sixteenth of its eight million capacity.
Debates aside it’s inspiring to see a city on the rise, especially one of such mythic proportions. There is virtually no physical evidence of Alexandria’s former grandeur, and the little that does remain lies at the bottom of the harbor. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina not only inspires an optimistic future, it restores a vibrant past.