Egypt's window to the world
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina ... dedicated to recapturing the spirit of the original, it aspires to be a centre for learning, dialogue and understanding.
PHOTOS: SADHANA RAO
STRIKING ARCHITECTURE: The project is a departure from tradition.
BIBLIOTHECA ALEXANDRINA, the unswervingly urban, new library at Alexandria overlooks the city's corniche and the spacious waterfront. The Mediterranean skies and sea reflect their light and colour rather benignly on the infant structure. The curve of the exterior wall is dressed in gray granite on which the alphabets, hieroglyphs and symbols of over 120 languages are etched. I squinted my eyes under the gaze of the sharp sun and looked for familiar and recognisable forms. A relentless search revealed alphabets in the Devanagiri script arranged in random.
A look at the past
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, an attempt at engineering a rebirth of a lost inheritance and heritage, was inaugurated in 2002 and is located in the old Royal Quarter in almost exactly the same area where the first ancient library was located. Under the aegis of the Ptolemaic dynasty the ancient library of Alexandria was founded in the Third Century B.C. within the Mouseion or the temple of muses. A smaller "daughter" library was built later in the temple of Serapis (a Hellenised Egyptian deity). Both these libraries housed in the royal precinct, the Brucheion, were considered a single entity. In that period, Alexandria became a centre of book trade right across the Mediterranean and the library became a focal point of convergence for knowledge, culture and language. An academy, of sorts, where scholars with different disciplines, found a podium to debate and deliberate. Legend has it that under the Ptolemies the library was given protection from the wedges, chasms and separatist tendencies that govern politics and statehood management.
Within the library there were 7,00,000 scrolls ... estimated to be the most extensive collection of that time. Presumably, the matter was written on paper made out of Papyrus (a plant native to the river Nile). The disappearance of the library was a loss to Alexandria's eminence. Various reasons have been cited, war, fire, earthquake. A Greek scholar melancholically lamented, "... . in the longer innings, the Mesopotamian works written on clay tablets proved more endurable than the prodigious works on papyrus."
Before entering the library premises, I ordered an extra shot of espresso coffee, decided to soak in the ambience and took a seat on the library's plaza that is open to the corniche. The "Plaza of Civilization" was conceived and built as a place for reflection; it is dotted with olive trees symbolising the outstretched hands of peace. Amidst the olive trees is the statue of "Prometheus bearing fire", a tad overbearing.
I took a tremulous breath. There was so much history tied up to this tract of land.
In and around this very atmosphere centuries ago,
* Collimachus, a Hellenistic poet became the Father of Library Sciences, by being the first writer of a catalogue of books classified by topic and author
* Eratosthenes proved that the earth was spherical and speculated about sailing around the world 17 centuries before Columbus
* Aristarchus was the first human being who said that the earth revolves around the sun, a full 1,800 years before Copernicus
* Euclid wrote his elements of geometry, still being taught in our schools
IMMENSE: The main reading room is across many cascading levels.
* Archimedes studied hydrostatics and levers
The architectural elements of the new complex have made a clean departure from tradition and history with no Greek columns, no Pharaonic walls or Islamic arches.
In its present location looking across Silsilah Peninsula, the building looks incongruous in its neighbourhood as it has no peers.
What strikes the human eye is the uniquely singular soaring roof, shaped like a slanted disc, which also appears to be in the form of the rising sun. There is a symbolism here, in Egyptian mythology the rising sun is an insignia of new learning and knowledge. Shrugging these lofty analogies a bunch of students compared the roof to an inverted computer.
The building is 160 metres in circumference with the world's largest diaphragm wall. Surrounded by water on all sides, the edifice is 11 stories high but also goes 18 metres below sea level. The intent of the award winning Norwegian firm of architects Snohetta was to get a cascading "Cathedral of the Book" image. I couldn't help but recall the words of Louis I. Kahn ... "Only a work of architecture has presence, and a work of architecture is presented as an offering to architecture ... it has no favourites, it has no preferences for design, it has no preferences for materials, it has no preferences for technology. It just sits there, waiting for a work to indicate, to revive the spirit of architecture... "
In the new library
Inside the library the space is immense and the place cajoles you to walk and explore. You could take a month, a day, or half an hour, given your predilection to books and libraries. Of course, a guide can monitor and shepherd you in a disciplined manner and ensure that you get to see the various levels, the galleries, the conference halls, the "Antiquities" and "Manuscripts" museums in the language of your choice.
Our English-speaking guide, exercising sensitivity, showed me Suzanne Mubarak's (Chair Board of Trustees) foreword in a copy of the library brochure. There is a quote stating "we (as in the library) adhere to the words of Mahatma Gandhi who said, "I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any." She guessed I was from the land of Gandhi and wanted me to believe that a part of our heritage was linked into the library. Though her English had heavy traces of Arabic, the sentiment was not lost in translation.
If I were to choose two special features in the library (though there are many), they would be the special room dedicated to the antiquities found on the site while digging for the foundations of the new building and the gallery that showcased the great talents in world cinema. I felt a sense of delight at identifying pictures of Satyajit Ray in a directorial mood and shots of "Pather Panchali".
The library was milling with people. We got introduced to a student group from the Alexandria University which was right across the street. For them the library was a step into a modern world from intensely traditional homes (Alexandria is really an old old city with very few contemporary structures). We asked them the relevance of a library in the digital age. Having been constant users of the library, they succinctly told us that this space was a physical realm in today's digital reality. They could lose themselves in the world of books as well as surf and browse through the Internet Archive (where over 10 billion pages have been stored since 1996, many of which are not on the internet).
Back at the Plaza, once again with our coffee cups, we sat in a meditative, contemplative mood absorbing the deluge of information. I was sitting on the site of the world's most ancient library looking at a totally futuristic building. An endeavour of engineering as much as architecture. This "Cathedral of Books" reminded me of the step pyramid in Saqqara.
The deepest basement level was devoted to books categorised as "Roots of Knowledge" which were philosophy, religion and calligraphy. The intervening levels were devoted to "Literature", "Language", "Arts and Culture". Generalities such as "Business" and "The U.N." were at the mid-level. The top level was reserved for "New Technologies".
The concept of the circulating library of my childhood was taken to a different level.
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