Vol. 5 / No. 4 / Spring 2010  

The Library of Alexandria

by Caryle Murphy

A Treasure House of Knowledge Rises Again

ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT—Every morning, as a soft breeze floats in from the Mediterranean, long lines of foreign tourists and Egyptian students form outside a prime attraction of this ancient city. Thousands more enter daily through its online portal, www.bibalex. org, accessible in four languages.

These visitors are not arriving to view one of Egypt’s storied treasures from its Pharaonic past. Rather, they come to see an embodiment of what many hope will be its future: the Library of Alexandria, also known by its Latin name, Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

Thirty years in the planning, the Library opened in 2002 in an architecturally innovative building. Its mission: to revive the full-bodied pursuit of knowledge that historians say flourished in this city because of the ancient Library of Alexandria. In existence from roughly 290 BCE to 415 CE, the Library at its peak was a center of vibrant intellectual creativity that led to ground-breaking advances in many fields.

Its modern reincarnation, which draws about 1.2 million visitors annually, aims to become a “center of excellence for the production and dissemination of knowledge, and...a place of dialogue and understanding between cultures and peoples,” according to Library director, Ismail Serageldin.

But resurrecting its ancestor’s intellectual legacy is only one of Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s ambitions. It also aspires to be a major actor in the expanding frontiers of global digital access to knowledge. One of its prime assets is a digitization lab. The most advanced such facility in the region, the lab has already scanned 130,000 of the Library’s books, creating the largest collection of digitized Arabic books in the world.

Even as it seeks to become an online resource for people around the world, the Library is also striving to serve its local community. In a country where public libraries are almost non-existent, it offers programs catering to university students, children, the visually impaired, and ordinary folks who want to learn how to browse the Internet.

Like a tree, the Library is firmly rooted in its surroundings as it branches upwards to pursue serious, uncensored scholarship in a competitive, globalized world. Its dedication to this ideal is manifest in a wide array of projects and programs, including one supported by Carnegie Corporation that aims to spotlight neglected works of important Islamic thinkers.

The Library’s commitment to academic freedom makes it a leader among indigenous intellectual institutions in the Arab world. And in promoting the values that its backers say are necessary for academic excellence—rationality, curiosity, tolerance and openness to others—it offers a challenging alternative to the anti-intellectual religiosity that has dominated Middle Eastern clerical and political circles in recent times.

Still, Library critics say that no matter how sincere its commitment to free speech may be, its close alignment with the Egyptian establishment—the The Library of Alexandria.

Library is “attached to the President” of Egypt by official decree and the government is a major contributor to its budget—means that there are limits to this commitment.

Nevertheless, in a region where freedom of expression is in constant struggle with authoritarian governments, the Library is providing a much-needed platform for pushing the limits of debate and intellectual exploration. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), a graduate-level research center that opened in September, also has declared its intention to be a supporter of unfettered scholarship. But KAUST is brand new, so its promise of academic freedom remains untested.

An Ancient Center of Creativity

The first Library of Alexandria was founded by Ptolemy I, one of Alexander the Great’s generals who ruled Egypt after the death of his commander. Ptolemy’s ambitions were to create a repository of all the knowledge in the empire created by Alexander. Stretching from Greece to India, that world was centered on the Mediterranean and dominated by Hellenistic culture.

The Library that Ptolemy and his successors built—believed to have been located about 200 meters west of the current library—is thought to have held 700,000 papyrus manuscripts, which were catalogued into about 10 subjects, arranged alphabetically by author and stored on shelves. Many scrolls in Babylonian, Sanskrit, and Persian were translated into Greek.

But the Library was more than a collecting place. Its Mouseion, a topnotch research center, attracted some of the best minds of its time, turning the Library into a hothouse of debate and empirically based scientific inquiry.

Some of its famous alumni include geometry whiz Euclid and the library’s third director Eratosthenes, who proved the earth is a sphere centuries before Columbus sailed to the Americas. Others included mathema-tician Archimedes, Herophilus, who advanced medicine with dissections of the human body, and Aristarchus, an early promoter of the idea that the earth revolved around the sun. Callimachus, a Greek poet, is regarded as a founder of library cataloguing because he sorted the library’s manuscripts according to subject matter and author.

“It is no exaggeration to say that for the first time, the principles of scientific methods of research were developed in the various disciplines, with impressive results in mathematics, physics, medicine, astronomy, geography, etc., as well as in textual criticism,” wrote Alexandria University history professor Mostafa El Abbadi, author of The Life and Fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria.

The Library of Alexandria was also where Jewish scholars produced the first Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, which has been a key text for untold numbers of biblical scholars. At the time, Alexandria’s cosmopolitan population included a significant Jewish community.

One reason for the ancient Library’s abundant output, some historians say, was its drive to catalogue and organize the written works in its collection. This synthesizing of contemporary knowledge facilitated its transmission to upcoming generations, thus stimulating new discoveries.

The Library suffered a major blow in 48 BCE when much of its collection was burned during a Roman attack on the city. It recovered, however, and prospered for some time until a slow decline set in, with no record of its existence after 415 CE.

A Dream of Revival

 Sixteen centuries later, historian Abbadi came up with the idea of reviving the library. First proposed in the 1970s, his dream was taken up by the University of Alexandria, and then the Egyptian government, with Egypt’s First Lady Suzanne Mubarak taking a special interest in the project. Egypt worked with UNESCO and other governments to raise funds for the new Library’s construction. Its unique design, created in Norway, was chosen by a UNESCO jury from more than 500 entries.

Unlike much of the Middle East’s modern architecture, whose stark, Stalinist lines and heavy bulk are out of sync with their settings, the new Library fits snugly into Alexandria’s skyline along its semi-circular corniche. And yet, the Library is immediately recognizable because of its eye-grabbing appearance.

Shaped like a cylinder, the building’s circular roof slants downwards until part of it disappears below ground. This design is meant to repli- cate the disk of the rising sun, evoking the important role the sun has played in this country’s culture. A curved granite wall around part of the building is engraved with one letter from 120 different alphabets, symbolizing the library’s openness to all cultures. A planetarium, 3,000-seat conference center and open-air plaza complete the Library’s complex.

The Library itself has 11 stories, four of them underground. Inside, an atmosphere of openness is accentuated by the design of the reading rooms, which cascade from the seventh to the first floor and are all visible at once. Overhead, the slanted disc-like roof, which is really a latticework of windows, lets in natural light.

Altogether, the reading rooms can accommodate up to 2,000 readers, making them “the largest open reading area world-wide,” said tour guide Miral Kamel. Visitors can use more than 350 Internet-connected computers stationed around the library. And the stacks, which can hold up to 8 million books, so far have about 650,000 volumes in 20 different languages. Books are available to anyone but only for in-house use. Guides escort throngs of tourists through the building every day, and the visitors quickly discover that it offers far more than a library. It houses several museums and art galleries, an historical archive of 70 billion Internet pages going back to 1996, a rare book collection, a manuscript museum with a copy of the only known papyrus from the ancient Library (the original is in Vienna). There also is a supercomputer for advanced work in such fields as linguistics, and equipment to create three-dimensional simulations of research.

In a small theatre, Egypt’s history is unfurled in 180-degree panoramic view, using an interactive projection system developed by the Library. And the Arts Center boasts a 14-string chamber orchestra.

The Director:

Leading the Library’s 1,988 fulltime staff in its multiple missions is its Egyptian-born director Serageldin. Educated at Cairo and Harvard Universities, Serageldin worked at the World Bank from 1972 until 2000, serving as a vice president in his last eight years with the organization. A prolific writer, Serageldin, 65, has eclectic interests ranging from architecture to water resources to urban planning to anti-poverty programs. He speaks fluent Arabic, English and French.

In a recent interview in his 10th floor office, Serageldin was oblivious to a black-clouded thunderstorm raging outside his window as he described his vision for the Library. Its “biggest accomplishment...so far,” he said, “has been its ability to be faithful to the ideals of the ancient Library...[which] means a commitment to excellence and openness to the other.”

The library is viewed as both an Egyptian and an international institution, and “has emerged as arguably the strongest advocate of free speech—in Egypt, certainly,” Serageldin said. “I do not believe in banning books of any kind...They tell me, ‘Could you conceive of getting Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses?’ And I said, ‘Not only can I conceive of it. It’s actually in the Library and you can look it up in the catalogue and it’s available.’”

The Library’s biggest accomplishment so far, says its director, “has been its ability to be faithful to the ideals of the ancient Library...[which] means a commitment to excellence and openness to the other.”

Rushdie’s 1988 novel offended many Muslims for what they regarded as its blasphemous portrayal of Prophet Muhammed. The book led Iran’s late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa condoning Rushdie’s murder as punishment, which forced the novelist to live under guard for several years.

Serageldin said the Library’s collection also includes books about Israel, ones written by Israelis, and ones “thoroughly offensive to Jews like Mein Kampf and Protocol of the Elders.”

At the same time, he added, “I also have books that are offensive to Muslims and to religious people generally,” including ones by “vehemently atheistic” authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. “It’s all here. As it should be [in] any half-way decent institution that prides itself on being open to thought.”

Serageldin is also adamant about the Library’s need to be in the catbird seat when it comes to going digital, and he likes to say that it was “born digital.” Its efforts in this regard were recognized in 2005 when it was invited to become a “strategic partner” of the Digital Library Federation, a U.S.-based organization of academic libraries dedicated to using modern technologies to extend and preserve their collections.

The Library’s in-house digital lab is a large room on the first floor where 120 employees rotate through two eight-hour shifts a day, seven days a week. Already, they have produced the Middle East’s largest collection of digitized Arabic content, including books, videos, slides, maps and pictures.

Part of that collection is an online archive of historical materials—photographs, movies, television news broadcasts, speeches and documents— associated with Egyptian leaders Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The lab’s handiwork also includes the first complete digital version of Description de l’Egypte, a twenty-volume work produced by the French scholars, artists and scientists who came to Egypt with Napoleon’s occupation army in 1798. The original is in the Louvre, but its digital copy is now accessible online through the Library’s web site. Digitizing a book is a two-part operation, lab director Rami Rouchdi explained. Once scanned, it then must go through a second, laborious process called optical character recognition (OCR) in order to make the text searchable.

The lab’s growing proficiency with this technique has allowed it to produce highly accurate online versions of Arabic language books—so much so that other libraries are using the services of Rouchdi’s lab to digitize their Arabic collections. “It’s because of our experience here,” he said.

The Library is also using its digital capabilities to contribute Arabic content to the “Million Book Project,” a cooperative venture of Carnegie-Mellon University, Zhejiang University in China, and the Indian Institute of Science in India. The project has already digitized more than 1.5 million books, making them accessible online at the Universal Digital Library, www.ulib.org. Under Serageldin, the library sees itself not only as a vehicle for resurrecting “the spirit” of the ancient library, but also as a catalyst for social and political change in the present.

In 2004, it sponsored the Arab Reform Forum, which issued a blueprint for economic, political and social reforms in the Arab world. Entitled the Alexandria Document, it was signed by more than 160 leading figures from 18 Arab countries.

“We were extremely instrumental in pushing the reform agenda in the Arab world,” Serageldin said, adding that he “was very proud” when the Economist magazine called the Alexandria Document something that “‘Even Mr. Jefferson would be proud of.’ I thought, Wow, that is a high compliment indeed.”

The Library is also doing its part to nurture civil society, principally through an online database to help non- governmental organizations around the world share information. Currently, the trilingual site, called Arab Info Mall, has registered 1,800 such groups. The Library also holds about 700 public events a year, including regular seminars on a wide variety of topics.

As a state-funded entity, however, the Library can go only so far in promoting reform, some Egyptians say. Mustapha Kamel El Sayyed, a professor of political science at Cairo University and a consultant on the United Nations-issued Arab Human Development Report suggests that the Library prefers to remain “a forum for debate,” and “does not like to engage in any kind of political activism.”

Excavating a Heritage


Serageldin is candid about contemporary political discourse in Muslim societies and not shy about criticizing what he calls “the currents of obscurantism and fanaticism and xenophobia and bigotry that we have to fight in our society.”

“The extremists and the Islamists dislike the Library very much,” he said. “But that’s okay, that’s normal, because we stand for exactly the opposite of what they stand for.”

Calling extremist thinking “a disaster,” he asked, “I mean, can you imagine in this day and age... [there are] people whose political program, officially, is no women and no non-Muslims will be allowed to high office?”

Serageldin said he has turned aside “an ongoing request” from some conservative Islamist groups to add a mosque to the Library. “I don’t think the Library is an appropriate place to have a religious facility,” he said. “Secondly, I can use the space much more effectively for other things...And thirdly, I also know what they would use it for, which wouldn’t be just to pray.”

Like many other Muslim intellectuals, Serageldin is driven to distraction by the perception that a literalist, ultra- conservative version of Islam is the only one sanctioned by its holy book, the Qur’an. Lamenting that young Muslims seem ignorant of the diversity of thought that has always characterized their faith, he believes it is the Library’s “duty” to make young people aware of Islam’s multi-faceted tradition.

To that end, the Library has initiated a project called “Reissuing Modern Classics in Islamic Thought and Culture.” In a move reminiscent of the original Library’s synthesizing of contemporary knowledge, the aim is to reissue between 100 and 150 classic works by Muslim writers that were published roughly between 1850 and 1950, a period historians sometimes call the “modernist” era.

“My aim is to redress what I see as a totally and thoroughly wrong situation in many parts of the world where the Islamic tradition has been presented in a thoroughly baised fashion by systematically promoting extremist literature and systematically underplaying other types of literature,” Serageldin said.

Most importantly, he added, the three-year project intends “to address the younger generation by saying, ‘Look, here is your tradition and there are fascinating things in that tradition that you are probably not aware of.’”

Salah Eddin El Gawhary, who has worked with Serageldin to create the project from its earliest stage, said that when people talk about Islamic heritage, they usually hark back to the Abbasid Empire in Baghdad, and Muslim-ruled southern Spain, known as Andalusia, from the 8th through the 13th centuries.

“But Muslim thought and culture and contributions to civilization continued throughout history,” El Gawhary said. He and Serageldin chose to focus on the modernist era because that was when European colonization presented Muslims with tremendous challenges.

As such, modernist era writings often dealt with issues that are still controversial or unresolved in many Muslim societies today, such as the public role of women, freedom of conscience, and the legitimacy of political systems. They also wrestled with the conflict between science and faith, and the role of secularism.

Serageldin has set up a 20-member advisory board of Muslim academics— three are women—to choose the 150 books. So far, they have come up with about 85 titles. Some are well-known works widely recognized, if not read, by many Muslims. Others are relatively unknown, either because they are out of print, were never translated into other languages, or were ignored by historians.

Given the project’s purpose of bringing attention to what the Library regards as neglected mainstream works, it will not include many well-known writings that have come out of the strongly politicized current of Islamist thought of recent decades. Most of those works are already widely available, Serageldin said.

“There are umpteen zillion editions of Ibn Tamiyya’s fatwas...for heaven’s sake,” he said, referring to the 14th century Islamic thinker whose writings have become an uber-source for contemporary extremist ideologies. “But you can’t find Qasim Amin? The guy who wrote in 1898 The Liberation of Women from an Islamic perspective?”

The same goes for works by major 20th century Islamist thinkers such as Syed Abul A’ala al-Maududi, a Pakistani author who promoted a type of Islamic theocracy, and Hassan al Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their writings don’t need to be reissued, Serageldin added, because they are easily located.

However, some works that highlight a different aspect to the thinking of influential figures in this politicized trend will be included, Serageldin said. For example, Sayyid Qutb’s Signposts, a prime inspirational text for extremist Islamist movements in the late 20th century is not included in the canon of books. But Qutb’s Social Justice in Islam is among those to be reissued.

And Serageldin said he’d like to see Qutb’s Artistic Representation in the Qur’an, which discusses how the Qur’an uses imagery, on the list because “it shows a facet of Sayyed Qutb that is totally ignored by the extremists today,” Serageldin said.

The 85 books selected so far are predominantly by Sunni Muslim authors. But the list also has several titles by Shiite Muslims from Yemen, Iran and Lebanon, El Gawhary said.

Each reissued book will have “an objective introduction,” said Olfat Gafour, director of publishing at the Library. It will cover the author’s biography, major intellectual movements at the time he or she lived, a description of their relationships with students, mentors and other scholars, an explanation of why they wrote the book, its main themes, and finally, the responses it drew, both adulatory and critical. Also, the text of the book will be indexed and footnotes will explain archaic or difficult terms.

The first reissues will come out this year, Gafour said. The long-term plan is to print 1,000 copies of each work in its original language, and 1,000 each of translations into English and French. A digitized copy will be available online.

Serageldin said he also intends to launch a series of public seminars to discuss the ideas in each book in order to “give a lot of young people from the university a chance to...be exposed to a different kind of Islamic thinking.”

Raising Awareness of Diversity

Carnegie Corporation is contributing $1 million over three years toward the project’s costs, which are also being borne by the Library and a grant from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

The project is in line with the Corporation’s Islam Initiative, a multi-sided effort aimed at raising awareness, particularly in the United States, of the diversity within Islamic thought and cultures, according to Hillary Wiesner, the Initiative’s program director.

“We’re trying to increase the accessibility of academic knowledge in the United States about Islam and Muslim societies...to show the diversity of thought and traditions in Muslim societies,” said Wiesner. The works to be reissued by the Library, she added, represent an “important period in history which is not that well-known.”

Carnegie Corporation’s president, Vartan Gregorian, is an international trustee of the Library, which he calls “a symbol of inclusion.” He has long sought to address Western misperceptions about Islam. His 2003 book, Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith, is a survey of Islam’s history that highlights its complexity, including a long-established tradition of rationalism.

“We generally would like to simplify things,” said Gregorian, but “as an historian, I was interested to show...not the diversity of the faith, but the diversity of its institutions, poets, architecture, literature and philosophy.”

In a recent phone interview, Gregorian said that several years ago he became aware of “the paucity of material that is in circulation from major nineteenth and early twentieth century scholarly books on Islam.”

As a result, the Library’s decision to revive modernist classics drew his immediate support. “The goal of this project is to have both the West and Muslim societies become aware of a major scholarly heritage that dealt with important issues still being dealt with now,” Gregorian said.

“For those who want to fight extremists, it allows them a source of information, especially in some societies that have censorship,” he added. And making such works more accessible to the public, he said, will ensure that contemporary debates in Muslim societies do “not become dominated by those who speak the loudest.”

Serving Everyone

 But even as the Library hefts its intellectual legacy into the global debate of ideas, it does not forget those directly underfoot. Another of its duties, staff librarians said, is to serve the people of Egypt, including its disadvantaged.

“One of our goals is inclusion of people with disabilities,” said special libraries director Lamia Abdel Fattah. The library’s annual calendar includes programs to raise consciousness about challenges faced by the physically handicapped, she added, noting that people with disabilities are always invited to participate.

Heba Kholaif can attest to the Library’s impact on blind people like herself. Kholaif, 30, is a librarian in the Taha Hussein Library for the Visually Impaired. It is named for a blind Egyptian scholar whose pioneering form of Arabic literary criticism raised questions about how to read the Qur’an. He was expelled from his post at Cairo University and labeled an apostate. Today, Hussein’s works are essential to Islamic intellectual history; two of his books are among the classics to be reissued.

“I tell you one thing,” said Kholaif, “when we opened in 2002...we were the first place to offer computers with screen readers...the first in Egypt...And now in Alexandria, there are more than three places that do the same as us.”

A screen reader, Kholaif explained, “just reads what is on the screen... whether a book or an Internet page.” Most visually-impaired Egyptians “didn’t use the computer because they didn’t know that such technology exists. When we opened in 2002 we offered something very new for them.”

Kholaif, who got some of her librarian training in the United States, said that most visually impaired visitors ask for assistance in surfing the Internet, using the screen reader, or printing out a document on one of the center’s Braille printers. Some students “don’t have computers at home so they just come here and write any assignment they want and we help them put it on a memory stick drive,” Kholaif said.

The Library also offers computer and Internet training courses for the public five days a week, all day long, according to Omnia Mounir Fathallah, director of the Library’s public services directorate.

“We are the only organization in Alexandria that offers this type of training to the public for free,” said Fathallah, adding that the courses fill up rapidly once their schedules are posted on the Library’s web site.

“They are one of the least broadcast activities of the Library, but they are one of the highest in attendance,” Fathallah said.

The Library’s reading rooms, open all week long, overflow with students from the nearby University of Alexandria, who pay a nominal access fee of about $5 a year.

“This is most of my life,” said Islam Abdelsalam, a 20-year-old medical student who was poring over a book one recent day. “I sit here more than I sit at home. I study here, go home to sleep, and come next day to study.”

Besides its fast Internet access, Abdelsalam said he likes the Library because it “is very calm, and quiet.”

Indeed, the Library’s irenic atmosphere is a stark contrast to its surroundings. Egypt is noted for its gregarious people and horn-honking, clamorous streets. Cairo has been called one of the world’s noisiest cities. And in the Library’s early days, this tumult made its way inside the building.

Reference librarian Ayman Saleh said that when he began working at the Library three years ago “people had different manners, they used to speak in a loud voice, they used to use their mobile phones...The idea of a library wasn’t in their minds.”

But gradually that changed. “Little by little now they start to understand that this is a library and I shouldn’t be doing that,” said Saleh. Now people “have the concept of a library and they come and respect the library.” Security guards patrolling the reading rooms help visitors remember where they are, tsk-tsking those who put a cell phone to their ear.

But enforcement is only part of the reason for the public’s respectful response to the Library. As a capably run public service, whose mission is to foster knowledge for its own sake, the Library of Alexandria is an uncommon institution in the Middle East.

And this novelty is not lost on Egyptians. “When people get engaged and see it’s an Egyptian institution... they say they are so proud to see how well-maintained and efficiently run it is,” said Hala Abdelwahab, head of resource development. “We receive a lot of thank you letters.”

As medical student Abdelsalam noted, “The library is a big thing in Alexandria that doesn’t occur any other place in the world. I’m very proud to have this library in my city.”

 Caryle Murphy is the author of Passion For Islam, which explores the roots of religious extremism in the Middle East. A former reporter for the Washington Post, Murphy now lives in Saudi Arabia, where she works as an independent jour- nalist. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting (1991) and the George Polk Award for Foreign Reporting (1990) for her coverage of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait and subsequent 1990–1991 Gulf War.

Vol. 5 / No. 4 / Spring 2010