Rising Sun | Travel | Smithsonian

Rising Sun

Opening this month on Alexandria's Mediterranean waterfront, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina reflects the spirit of its ancient forebear

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The Egyptian sun casts fiery diamonds on the deep blue of the Mediterranean Sea and silhouettes ancient minarets and modern apartment buildings alike in red. But it is on another sun—nearly 500 feet in diameter and made of glass and aluminum—that many have hung their hopes for a return to a former glory of Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city. After two decades of planning and construction, Bibliotheca Alexandrina now stands on Alexandria's waterfront just 130 feet from the sea. This new library, meant to be an architectural signature like Australia's Sydney Opera House and Spain's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, opens to the public April 23, 2002.

Though it possesses only about 500,000 books, it is drawing worldwide attention, both for its bold architecture and for its proximity to the site of the most famous library of the ancient world. More than 2,000 years ago Alexandria boasted the world's first and greatest public library, whose aim was to contain a copy of every book ever written in Greek. It was created by rulers of the Ptolemaic dynasty, descended from a Greek general who inherited part of Alexander the Great's empire. Under the Ptolemies, Alexandria attracted the intellectual elite of ancient times.

One day, or perhaps over centuries—no one knows for sure—the great library and its half million scrolls (the form in which books were written in Greek and Roman times) disappeared. Although the old library's fate is still mourned and debated, some discourage comparisons between old and new. "We are not reviving an ancient library," says Mohsen Zahran, Bibliotheca Alexandrina's former project manager and now its senior adviser. "We are reviving the idea of the pursuit of knowledge that thrived in the ancient library. The old library encouraged the public to debate, create and invent. The new library is carrying that legacy forward."

But will scholars come here now just because they once did? Can Egypt, a poor country by any standard, maintain a library worthy of one that housed the wisdom of ancient Greece? And, trickiest of all, can the bibliotheca succeed, given the geopolitical fissures in the region?

"We must remember that the ancient library took hundreds of years to prove itself," Zahran says. "We can't expect Bibliotheca Alexandrina to acquire the same importance right away. That's why an eternal design, not one ancient or modern, was chosen. So long as the sun remains circular, the library will be in fashion."

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