Alexandria Lost and Found

I haven’t yet seen the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the UNESCO-sponsored library which opened last October in Alexandria, Egypt, amid much verbiage about “intercultural dialogue.” The library, designed by the Norwegian architectural firm Snøhetta, is meant to reconnect Egypt and us to the ancient lost library of Alexandria, although just how it could possibly do so is difficult to say. Recently I (re)read Alexander Stille’s account of the background to its construction, in his engaging book The Future of the Past. Stille reminds us that in the rush to lay the foundations for the new library, the contractors may well have demolished archaeological remnants of the ancient one.

Benny Ziffer, literary correspondent of Ha’aretz, has a travelogue in yesterday’s paper, telling of his pilgrimage to this new post-post-modern library, set in the decrepit squalor of contemporary Alexandria. Ziffer:

It was pleasing to see how Eastern nonchalance is already having its effect, moderating with humor the building’s serious messages. Take, for example, a guard in a well-worn uniform whom we passed on the way to the main door. This guard has apparently been assigned to watch over the broad esplanade in front of the library. He placed his straw chair in the middle of the covered passageway leading to the entrance. Next to the chair is a box, for the teacup, and a tin plate left over from lunch, spread with sauce of ful on which lay the tail of a receding pita. And doesn’t he also need a tattered rug for praying on? He does. And he speaks, the guard, in shouts with two maintenance workers who are walking across the monumental glass slope carrying a metal pipe. The pipe falls and rolls to the foot of the monumental wall on which are engraved the words in the world’s languages, including Hebrew. Thus shall it be done, and rightly so, to symbol-laden buildings.

Actually, Ziffer got one thing wrong. This isn’t just the fate of “symbol-laden buildings,” it’s the fate of most Egyptian public buildings. In my student days, I spent a couple of months reading Arabic newspapers in what was then called the new national library (Dar al-Kutub) in Cairo. It was new, but it was already in an advanced state of disrepair. A couple of months ago, its oldest Arabic manuscript went missing, presumably joining all those famed lost scrolls of the ancient library.

So make the effort to see the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina. It will be history-in-motion to see it transformed (through “intercultural dialogue”) from something Norwegian into something else.