Can a Library Bring Back a City?

By Susan Postlewaite

The gleaming edifice rises on the edge of the azure sea a few blocks from where Cleopatra killed herself in 30 B.C. On its land side, hieroglyphics and the script of 120 other languages cover a massive curving concrete wall. Facing the Mediterranean is a huge, tilted glass skylight that allows natural light to stream in. Outside, sunlight shines off a surrounding pool of water. Inside, the American oak floor, Zimbabwean black stone staircase, ergonomic chairs, and big study desks with new computers create a stark contrast to the crowded urban alleys and dingy ambiance of Egypt's second largest city. The structure houses the largest library space in the world--85,400 square meters. Its seven floors of shelves will be filled with books and manuscripts that Director Ismail Serageldin says "will revive the spirit" of ancient Alexandria, the world's center of learning for seven centuries.

But reviving a decrepit city two millennia after its heyday is a tall order for a library--especially one that many people say will have problems just doing what a library is supposed to do. The grand opening of the $220 million building is scheduled for Apr. 23, with President Hosni Mubarak hosting the ceremony, and kings, queens, and heads of state in attendance. For now, shelves designed for 4 million books contain only about 200,000 titles, and critics are sniping. Some fear there will never be enough money to buy all those books, while others worry that many tomes will draw flak in a country edgy about fundamentalists and ready to ban anything they might object to.

Despite the sniping, the library has sparked dreams of a new golden age. Alexander the Great founded this city in 331 B.C. to serve his empire as a bridge to the civilization on the Nile. Alexandria flourished for centuries under the Ptolemy dynasties. The port's lighthouse, which no longer exists, was one of the seven wonders of the world. The library, with 700,000 scrolls, reached its peak of fame in the third century B.C. Hipparchus used its resources to calculate the calendar to be 365.25 days a year, and Euclid founded geometry there. It continued to attract the greatest scholars until repeated sackings sent Alexandria into decline. By the third century A.D., the library was gone.

The city regained its cosmopolitan atmosphere for a time during the 20th century. Its wartime raffish chic inspired Lawrence Durrell to write the Alexandria Quartet. But by the 1950s, with the rise of Gamel Abdel Nasser and extensive nationalization, the sophisticates fled, and Alexandria was left to decay. The idea to rebuild the library was born in the 1980s, when the University of Alexandria agreed to donate land and the government offered support. Norwegian architectural firm Snohetta won a design contest supervised by Unesco. Construction began in 1995. Lead architect Kjetil Thorsen says the design seeks to create "harmony" with the sea and the city.

Unlikely as it may seem as an anchor for economic revival, the library project already has had a beautifying effect on Alexandria. Vanished, in an ongoing $4 billion upgrade paid for by the government, business, and residents, are the piles of smelly garbage that used to line the streets. The winding miles of decayed corniche are now adorned with ornate bridges and wide new tile walks that glisten in the bright light off the sea. The beaches, once trash-covered, have also been cleaned up and sport colorful new umbrellas provided by the city. Fresh yellow paint and new facades cover the cracks and stains on aging apartment buildings on the corniche. The face-lift fades as you go deeper into the alleys that house most of the city's 5 million people. But the improvements are impressive. "It's all because of the library that the city is so clean," says Layla Abdel Hady, head of library services and a member of the committee that has worked on the project for more than a decade.

The new tidiness may please Alexandrians, but it's mainly designed to lure travelers who have been shunning the city. The project has already spurred a building boom: Two new luxury hotels and a big residential and shopping mall are going up, and a license has been issued for a floating hotel in front of the library. The port where cruise ships dock is scheduled to be improved soon. "Before, nobody took care of Alexandria," says Mahmoud El Wakil, a real estate developer and officer of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce.

Director Serageldin figures the library will boost not only Alexandria's standing but also Egypt's. The 57-year-old former World Bank vice-president energetically describes conferences he's planning that will return the city to the global intellectual map. "We'll invite the best scholars and scientists," he says. A Cairo native, Serageldin has the contacts: He earned two advanced degrees from Harvard and has 13 honorary doctorates from universities around the world. He says the library's collections will focus on such topics as Islam and the ethics of Mediterranean cultures, as well as on Egypt and Alexandria itself.

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." Only a few weeks ago, Newsweek offended some Muslim readers when it ran pictures of medieval Iranian drawings of the Prophet Muhammad.

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.

Postlewaite writes about business and finance from Cairo.

Edited by Harry Maurer

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