The Ancient Library Of Alexandria:
April 30, 2002 3:21 PM   Subscribe

The Ancient Library Of Alexandria: Its long-awaited re-opening has been postponed, supposedly because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So it seems the age-old dream of historians and poets everywhere(Jorge Luís Borges comes to mind)will have to wait a bit longer... I wonder, though, if Egypt's ever-stricter censorship laws and practices will ever be compatible with a true, universal library such as, by most accounts, the original Alexandria Library was.[Via Nutcote]
posted by MiguelCardoso (9 comments total)
Although, according to the linked Wired article, it has "quietly" been opened to the public.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 3:27 PM on April 30, 2002

Did you ever read that Neil Stephenson article Mother Earth Mother Board? Relevant Excerpt:

" vestige of the first library remains - not even a plaque stating 'The Library of Alexandria was here.' If you want to visit the site, you have to do a bit of straightforward detective work. Ancient Alexandria was laid out on a neat, regular grid pattern - just the kind of thing you would expect of a place populated by people like Euclid. The main east-west street was called the Canopic Way, and the main north-south street, running from the waterfront toward the Sahara Desert, was called the Street of the Soma. The library is thought to have stood just south of their intersection.

Though no buildings of that era remain, the streets still do, and so does their intersection. Currently, the Canopic Way is called El Horreya Avenue, and the Soma is called El Nabi Daniel Street, though if you don't hurry, they may be called something else when you arrive.
But one can argue that the intersection's continued presence is arguably more interesting than some old pile that has been walled off and embalmed by a historical society. How can an intersection remain in one place for 2,500 years? Simply, both the roads that run through it must remain open and active. The intersection will cease to exist if sand drifts across it because it's never used, or if someone puts up a building there. In Egypt, where yesterday's wonders of the world are today's building materials, nothing is more obvious than that people have been avidly putting up buildings everywhere they possibly can for 5,000 years, so it is remarkable that no such thing has happened here. It means that every time some opportunist has gone out and tried to dig up the street or to start putting up a wall, he has been flattened by traffic, arrested by cops, chased away by outraged donkey-cart drivers, or otherwise put out of action. The existence of this intersection is proof that a certain pattern of human activity has endured in this exact place for 2,500 years. "
posted by jeb at 3:33 PM on April 30, 2002

The Bede has an interesting attempt to solve the mystery of the original's demise.

I don't actually think this library can in any way be the modern equivalent of its namesake. Especially given the constraints on it -- Egyptian political climate, accessibility, funding, mandate -- it's destined more likely to be a kind of tired UNESCO backwater. The dream of Alexandria today has as much to do with the lost manuscripts as any useful purpose it may have served as a center of research. In its day they acted like an inveterate backup program, grabbing manuscripts off passing boats and copying them into inventory. The fact is those manuscripts were lost in many places, not just Alexandria. Eco (who would have participated in the opening ceremonies) wrote an entire book about the tantalizing promise of lost knowledge.
posted by dhartung at 3:56 PM on April 30, 2002

I am not sure why the Egyptian government has said that the fanfare opening was not to be because of the tensions of the Israeli/Palestinian chaos. In fact, the library, if I read this account correctly, opened "quitely," so that it seems the public celebration was forgone but the library has opened nontheless.
Perhaps the govt was worried that Mossad agents would sneak in to read books.
posted by Postroad at 4:04 PM on April 30, 2002

thanks for the links, dhartung. There seems to be something sad and futile about an attempt like this to re-build the past. I wonder what Cavafy would have thought of this. The next great library will be on the Internet, as soon as we can solve a lot of pesky transcription and copyright issues.
posted by vacapinta at 4:40 PM on April 30, 2002

Not to mention fact checking.
posted by y2karl at 6:11 PM on April 30, 2002

i just tallying the catering bill...if hunter s thompson goes, check his suitcase, his friends suitcase, his eyes. (perhaps his credit)
posted by clavdivs at 6:54 PM on April 30, 2002

BusinessWeek had a good article on it a few weeks back (Can a Library Bring Back a City?: registration required) which talked about how the library is in some ways revitalizing the city. It did touch upon the concern Miguel raised in the FPP. I am quoting from it since I am not sure whether it is available to all yet (they take a few weeks to make content available to those not subscribing to the print edition):

"But others point out that some books may draw the ire of fundamentalists, especially books on religion. "The people will be angry if any books have a different view of Islamic issues. It's not the government, but the people will be upset," says real estate businessman Muhammad Nasr. "This will need time." ...

Library officials say they will deal with the problems as they arise. "Our priority is to have good books on the shelves. If the fundamentalists aren't happy, we will see what they want. We can argue with them and see if we can accommodate their views," says Hady, who directs book acquisition. Serageldin says the library must become the world's authority on Islam or lose credibility: "If the Islamists want to repudiate The Satanic Verses, where else to find the book than in the Library of Alexandria? How else to judge it but by reading it?" But skeptics doubt that an open-minded approach will work in Egypt. "If he wants to put Salman Rushdie on the shelves, he won't get away with saying, `It's a library, and it's not my fault somebody printed the book,"' says Michael Lange of Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation, who visited the library to report on whether the foundation should help sponsor the opening. It decided not to.

Despite the worries, donations for the library have poured in from the Arab world and Europe. Egypt put up $120 million for the construction costs; Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates together put in $65 million, and 32 other countries came up with the remaining $35 million. Individual Americans contributed about $1 million for book collections. That isn't a lot yet, but Serageldin says he can tap American foundations later. He estimates the library will need up to $25 million a year to operate.

Even skeptics grant that whatever happens, having built the library is an accomplishment. The Adenauer Foundation's Lange says: "Without this library, we wouldn't even be asking all these questions [about fundamentalism]. Now we'll see how many problems it creates." And the library has one powerful advantage: the patronage of the President. "It will get all the facilities it needs," says Aida Nosseir, vice-president of the Egyptian Library Assn. and a former member of Parliament.

That may be an exaggeration, but the Mubarak signature does carry a lot of weight in Egypt. The question is whether it carries enough political weight to prevent fundamentalists from carrying out attacks on the library--thus scaring off the very tourists that it's meant to attract. "

posted by justlooking at 10:22 PM on April 30, 2002

Hey, thanks jeb, dhartung and justlooking!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:48 AM on May 1, 2002

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