Saturday, February 26, 2011

Bibliotheca Alexandria, Egypt

Bibliotheca Alexandria, Egypt
The Bibliotheca Alexandria was opened for the first time this week, after the onset of the Egyptian Revolution of January 25th. Peter and I were the only foreign visitors to attend the noon guided tour. Normally, the groups are as large as 70 people, we were told.

Although I was wowed at the amazing architecture of the new Bibliotheca Alexandria, inaugurated in 2002, I was disappointed to hear that only one scroll from the ancient library survived from fires and earthquakes.

The new library has space for 8.0 million books, but its sleek back lit shelve spaces houses only about one million books, half of them in French, a gift from the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. It has been estimated that it will take 80 years to fill the library to capacity.

My disappointment with the content of the library was short lived as I was quickly distracted by its striking architecture. The 100-feet high roof tilts out towards the Mediterranean sea and it looks like a rising sun. The main reading room occupies 17 acres (equivalent to approximately 17 football fields) and it is designed with eleven cascading levels. The roof, eyelid shaped skylights allows a northern light to fill the reading room and offers views of the Mediterranean Sea from the top levels.

Outside the building, the gray Aswan granite wall carved with characters from 120 different human scripts was created to elicit knowledge and unity with the rest of the world. The complex also includes four museums; four art galleries for temporary exhibitions; fifteen permanent exhibitions; a planetarium; a conference center, a manuscript restoration laboratory and an active copy of the internet archive.

Built in the 3rd century BC during the Ptolemy dynasty as a major center for scholarship, the Royal Ancient library of Alexandria was the largest and most significant of the ancient world and the first of its kind to gather a collection of books beyond its country's borders.

The ancient library achieved its greatness through an aggressive and well-funded royal mandate involving trips to the book fairs of Rhodes and Athens. There was also a policy in place to pull the books off every ship that came into port, and a decree that all visitors to the city must surrender all books and scrolls in their possession. The library clerks made copies to send back to their owners and the original stayed in Alexandria.

According to Wikipedia, in a further attempt to enrich the library, Ptolemy III allegedly requested permission from the Athenians to borrow the original scripts of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, for which the enormous amount of fifteen talents (900 pounds of a precious metal) was demanded as guarantee. Ptolemy happily paid the fee but kept the original scripts for the library.
Other than collecting works from the past, the library was also home to a host of international scholars, well-patronized by the Ptolemaic dynasty with travel, lodging and stipends for their whole families. As a research institution, the library had books in mathematics, astronomy, physics, natural sciences and other subjects.

The Royal Ancient Library of Alexandria was burned possibly between the first and second centuries AD. Either by Julius Caesar, or following the war between Marco Aurelium and Queen Zenobia of Palmyra in the second half of the 3rd century.

After the ancient library was destroyed, Mark Antony gave Cleopatra over 200,000 scrolls as a wedding gift. This collection was housed at the Serapeum temple and it was known as the “daughter library.”

God Serapis, was invented at the orders of Ptolomy I during the 3rd century BC in an effort to integrate the Egyptian religion with the Hellenic rulers. Serapis was half Zeus (Greek) and half Osiris (Egyptian.)

The Serapeum Library helped Alexandria maintain its title of the Mediterranean’s intellectual capital for three to seven centuries after the Royal Library's destruction. Records indicate that the destruction of Serapeum library may have happened in 391 AD by a Christian mob led by Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria. This event marked the end of paganism. It is also speculated that the Serapeum temple and library was destroyed by the Caliph Omar after Alexandria was captured by the Arabs in the 6th century.

Whatever the case, the great international center of learning in Alexandria is gone, maybe forever, unless the new Egyptian revolutionaries find a way to become great patrons of knowledge and restore the city to its greatness.

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