Travel + Leisure

May 2009, Travel + Leisure

Egyptian Library Seeks to Change Islamic World

Successor to ancient marvel intends nothing less than to remake Middle Eastern mindset

Poised amid the crumbling buildings that line the beachfront of Egypt’s second-largest city, the hypermodern reincarnation of the ancient library of Alexandria looks as if it dropped from outer space. The disc-shaped design, by Norwegian firm Snøhetta (which also created the bold National Opera House in Oslo), resembles a high-tech, concrete-and-glass rendition of the sun rising over the Mediterranean. Or a massive computer chip lodged on the shore.

The institution it houses is as unusual and as ambitious as the architecture. While the original library functioned as classical antiquity’s leading storehouse of knowledge, the resurrected version has an even more ambitious goal: transforming modern-day Egypt and the Islamic world. But the Bibliotheca Alexandrina–the library is formally known by its Latin name–has its work cut out. Thirty percent of Egyptians are illiterate; the country struggles with poverty. The government, led by octogenarian president Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled under emergency law for more than a quarter of a century, faces mounting opposition from militant Islamists.

Ismail Serageldin, the 64-year-old, Harvard-educated Egyptian economist who directs the library, calls it a key tool in “a battle for the hearts and minds of a generation of young Egyptians, promoting rationality, tolerance, openness, dialogue, and understanding in the face of obscurantism, extremism, and xenophobia.” Discussing this struggle in his sun-filled office overlooking the sea, Serageldin defiantly proclaims, “I’m optimistic we’re going to win.”

The library opened in 2002 on roughly the same site where its ancient predecessor disappeared 1,600 years ago. The re-creation, funded mostly by UNESCO, the Egyptian government, and other Arab nations, came amid questions about its prospects in a country that limits press freedoms and censors books. Others have wondered whether a brick-and-mortar library is still relevant in the Internet era. But this is far more than a book repository: the complex also contains four museums, a planetarium, a children’s science center, a library for the blind, and seven research institutes. “This was an institution that was born digital,” Serageldin explains.

With 630,000 volumes at present, the collection is more modest than what’s on offer at a small U.S. liberal arts college like Swarthmore, and far humbler than that of major American universities. But the library does have access to 36,000 electronic journals–academic, professional, scientific, and more–and one of the world’s few databases to be actively archiving every Web page that appears on the Internet. Foreign tour groups can routinely be found among the youthful students and scholars of all ages eagerly making use of the holdings.

The revived library is already setting new standards for Arab nations, introducing technology considered cutting-edge anywhere. Its researchers have devised optical character-recognition software for Arabic and are digitizing key manuscripts for dissemination over the Internet. With more than 500 events”lectures, conferences, concerts, exhibitions–and some 1.4 million visitors a year (the U.S. Library of Congress also receives 1.4 million), the Bibliotheca Alexandrina has become a gathering place for scientists, literary figures, and other thinkers from around the world.

Serageldin insists that there has been no government interference. And many Egyptian citizens, frustrated by repression and economic stagnation, look to the library as a beacon of hope. “Everybody with a problem in the whole country comes to Dr. Serageldin and asks, ‘Why don’t you do something?’ ” says Sahar Hamouda, deputy director of the library’s Alexandria and Mediterranean Research Center (Alex-Med). “He says, ‘I’m not the answer,’ but to be sure, the library is filling an important gap.”

The drumlike exterior wall of the building, clad in gray granite, is inscribed with characters from some 120 languages. Inside, the soaring main reading room is divided into multiple levels that cascade downward beneath a glass canopy, held aloft by slender concrete pillars inspired by papyrus stems. It certainly seems like an anomaly in a teeming city of 6 million people, many of them indigent, that does not even have a local newspaper, but the library aims to restore to Alexandria at least some of its cosmopolitan stature. Founded by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., the city became the intellectual capital of the Western world when it drew antiquity’s finest scholars–in large part because of a library that aimed to compile all knowledge. What led to the library’s destruction remains a mystery, though fire, earthquakes, and war likely played a part.

The city went into decline in the fourth century A.D. Its fortunes weren’t reversed until Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. The port’s strategic site gave it a key role in late-19th-century trade, and Alexandria again became a vibrant, polyglot center. “Five races, five languages, a dozen creeds,” Lawrence Durrell wrote about the city in his Alexandria Quartet novels, published between 1957 and 1960. This diversity, though, suffered with the world wars and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalist revolution in 1952, which resulted in an exodus of Jews and foreigners. Economic recession after the 1967 war with Israel accelerated the decay of Alexandria’s modern architectural grandeur.

The city’s beaches, ancient ruins, and hookah-filled cafés are still popular with Egyptians, particularly in the summertime, and local authorities would like to attract more international travelers year-round. But in the city center, horse-drawn carts jostle with Soviet-made taxicabs and rickety trams. Even though the municipal government has made recent advances in cleaning up the garbage-strewn streets, refurbishing ravaged façades, and repaving broken sidewalks, the library stands out as a paragon of modern efficiency.

“We wanted to create a building that would provide a sense of pride to a city that has in many ways lost some of its luster,” says Craig Dykers, one of the principal architects with Snøhetta, who has been struck by how many members of the Egyptian general public, in addition to academics and students, are drawn to the building. “We never planned for that,” he says. “But it provides a calm and comfortable place for serious research as well as everyday use. Alexandria can be so chaotic, with such an enormously energetic culture. You drive through the streets and you see the muck and the donkeys with TV’s tied to their backs, and then you come into this calm, white, simple space with few affectations. You move into the lower area with the information desk and a series of thresholds. It affects your blood pressure. You feel a sense of relaxation–which is hard to get in a place like Egypt.”

Serageldin, drawing on expertise from his 25 years at the World Bank, has also steered the library toward involvement in the local economy and infrastructure. Under an accord signed with the city government to provide advice on urban affairs, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is helping plan an enormous aquarium on a nearby coastal site and is working on rebuilding the local film industry, which had thrived in the 1930’s.

These projects come under the purview of Alex-Med, which resembles a hectic architectural firm with models of proposed new and now-vanished ancient structures arrayed around its bustling offices. Ideas range from a scale model of the Pharos Lighthouse, which once stood on Alexandria’s shore and was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, to a redevelopment of the city’th sides of its existing premises, adding exhibition spaces as well as a hotel for scholars and conference participants.

Debate at library events is described by human rights activists and Western diplomats as open and unrestricted. “We are free to do anything we want,” says Mohsen Youssef, one of Serageldin’s key advisers. Still, while Cairo-based rights advocate Negad Al Borai hails the library as an “oasis of culture, democracy, and free speech,” he and others complain that the Mubarak government has undertaken few genuine reforms since the library’s creation. Youssef responds to such criticism by stressing that “no one is expecting change overnight. It takes a long time.” There is also skepticism within the institution itself about its ability to touch the masses. To broaden the potential audience, Serageldin plans to build a television studio on the premises to broadcast programs on Egyptian and foreign channels.

The library does provide access to materials that are hard to come by in Arab countries. Even the works of Salman Rushdie are available–albeit on request from closed stacks. “Putting The Satanic Verses on the open shelves would guarantee it’s going to be destroyed,” says chief librarian Sohair Wastawy, who’s committed to including a wide range of authors. “If you don’t know what other people think and write, how can you defend any value you have? It’s ignorance not to acquire these things.”

On Alexandria’s street corners, a new Arabic edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf is on sale–yet the library has hosted the Egyptian premiere of Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, vividly portraying Jewish suffering in the Holocaust. “We are working in a country where fanaticism runs rampant,” Wastawy laments. “But we are trying to have an impact. We’re trying to fix Egyptian society through culture and transparency.”

This approach is winning praise from leading foreign peers. “Serageldin has earned the respect of national libraries around the world,” says Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the Middle Eastern Division at the Library of Congress. “The spirit of the original library of Alexandria is being re-created.” And it could end up guiding the Arab world toward positive change.