A Myth Rebuilt in Alexandria

A Myth Rebuilt in Alexandria All the Learning of the World

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the communal Library of Milan at the Sormani Palace, Umberto Eco was asked to write an ode to libraries. He started to draw up a list of those, that in his opinion, were the most worthy: “I made a first inspection of the libraries which I could access because they were also open at night, that of Assourbanipal at Nineveh, that of Polycrates at Samos, that of Pisistratus at Athens and Alexandria that already by the 3rd Century together with that of Serapeum, contained 700 000 volumes (…)”(1). The architect of one of the most enchanting medieval libraries poetically sums up this mythic library, omnipresent in the consciousness of academics, researchers and dreamers around the world: a place that collected together all the knowledge and scholars of the world, remaining in eternity the most perfect example in our collective memory.

Ptolemaic Ambition
The arrival of the first Hellenic dynasties, starting from the 3rd century BC, led to a tremendous revolution in the Mediterranean, from the onwards Hellenism developed outside the confines of traditional Hellenism found in Athens. In Egypt, at the time the greatest power in the Mediterranean, the Ptolemaic dynasty was particularly innovative in the field of the arts and sciences. Founded in 290 BC by King Ptolemy Soter, the library was born from a political decision to concentrate the greatest number of books possible in one place and to make them available to an elite of scholars and the lettered. For nearly four centuries the erudite of the Mediterranean, through long stays or simple visits to the library or “Mouseion” - the “Alexandrian renaissance”. Fron this period, the idea that the Ptolemaic village contained all the knowledge of the world remained.

All the World’s Men
On the 12th February 1990, at Asswan, the world elite met to sign the “Declaration of Asswan” and to ratify the official birth of a new library on the site of the old one. During the ceremony, the American representative of the International Honorary Commission made quite a surprising declaration, “from an American perspective, one has to remember that the Ptolemaists were immigrants and they built a cultural nation of nations. Homer was republished here, Plato was revised, Euclid reinvented mathematics and Eratosthenes discovered the science of measurement “. This rather original comparison that makes Alexandria the first “melting pot” is enlightening. Alexandria is a founding universal myth that of an elite cosmopolitism and in a wider sense the successful cohabitation of different peoples.

A Library Burns and a Universal Myth is Created
Over the centuries the great vanished library remained the magnificent metonymy of all ideas about libraries, the idea itself, perfect and ideal. For a historian, learning even a small part of its reality means devoting oneself to a very special discipline, an archaeology of the voices, words and accounts of those that loved it, used and then fantasised about. Added to this first layer was the city that sheltered it. Sometimes it seems that it never existed. Alexandria ad eagyptum, two places that are keepers of mythologies: Egypt, home to all fantasies and at the time the greatest civilisation of antiquity, Alexandria, the greatest city founded by the greatest of conquerors. But maybe more than being a crossroads of the greatest of civilizations, Alexandria is above all a crossroads of myths. Alexandria, its founder and library have been crossed by both language and myth and are still as powerful as before. Discourse has conserved their memory, has magnified and transcended them so that they become universal values: the power of knowledge, a place of tolerance where all knowledge is collected. A Myth Rebuilt in Alexandria Due to the fire of the library around the 7th century, it is still difficult to establish the precise reasons for its disappearance (destroyed in part by Julius Caesar then completely by the Arab conquest ?), and consequently a second myth was born, a negative one. In the western and eastern imagination its secret disappearance created a new intellectual phobia: an obsession with excess, the syndrome of loss combined with a fascination for fires and the disappearance of books in flames: “the fire of the library (of Alexandria) is a metaphor as well as an historic event. It expresses the fatal destiny that awaits collections of books” (2).

The Corniche of Alexandria in 2004
Alexandria, 2004: despite everything an immense and magnificent library sits enthroned on the corniche, a few metres away from the site of the ancient royal palace and probably also of the mythic library. On the side of the superb modern building, created by the group of Swedish architects Snøhetta, one can read all the alphabets of the world that spell out meaningless words, leaving writing its central and essential role. According to these false words, in this place masters of different languages and alphabets met to revive knowledge itself.

Inside, in the impeccably clean and cold halls, young students of the faculty of commerce, located a few metres down from the Library’s esplanade, study or pretend to, and go on the internet. And, as in the rest of the world, they flirt a bit, though pretending not to, their noses buried in books. The reincarnation-renaissance of the library on the precise site of its mysterious disappearance some twenty three centuries ago, could, in fact, be a message (3): the reopening of Egypt and the city to the Mediterranean, to the different cultures that surround it and to the world.

“You Cannot Rebuild the Past but you Can Rebuild a City”
A year ago Mme Sohar Hamoudeh, professor of English literature at the University of Alexandria, was called, like many Alexandrian academics and cultural experts, to give a sense to the colossal project. Full of energy and enthusiasm she bravely defends the institution along with the project in general and its charismatic director, Professor Seraggedin. Vice president of the World Bank, the library’s new director follows the project according to the principle that, “Its more than just a library and not just a building”. The slogan answers the critics who see, in the sumptuous architecture, a limit to its vocation as cultural disseminator for the city itself. To every criticism Madame Hamoudeh ceaselessly repeats “give us time, we are still young” and faced with this type of willpower one can only agree. For her, the main reason for the disappointments and the criticisms made about the project justly come from the enormous expectations that its spectacular creation has generated “we cannot resolve all the problems of the city and the country or resolve problems of illiteracy, find an answer to sustainable development and at the same time instantly become a great cultural centre”. She adds that the Alexandrians have also been unjustly distrustful of the great project (and in fact each time the library is mentioned to a taxi driver, an intellectual or a priest its always a sense of exclusion that emerges), “the people here say that we do everything in secret or that nothing happens… and yet we have a web site open to everyone where our activities are published. You could say that to be closer to the public we would have to send personal invitations to each person..”. A Myth Rebuilt in Alexandria Despite everything, Sohar is optimistic, from only a year of its opening the library has already made gigantic leaps. Abroad she is in demand a bit everywhere, some want to organise related events, “the world is beginning to take notice of Alexandria” she adds. Currently Alexandria is able to make of us an ideal group of willing men: “the current governor of Alexandria (4), Mohamed Awad (5) and the Professor Seragaddin form a perfect triangle and who are capable and impassioned enough to carry out the project, difficult and ambitious though it is”. When I ask her if it isn’t possible to give back the imaginative power of the ancient Library to the new one she replies, with a determined smile, “you can’t rebuild the past but you can rebuild the city”.

The Library’s Future is not in its Books
With a novel self conscientiousness, Ramez Waguih Farag defines himself as a “representative of the new young Alexandrian cultural elite”. Originally from Cairo, he first travelled to Alexandria attracted by the initiatives of one of the rare independent cultural centres of Alexandria, the Jesuit Centre, also called the “garage”. He then joined the research centre of Alexandria. It is with it that the link between cosmopolitan Alexandrian myth and the creation of the new library is at its most eloquent. Like all the young people of this new elite, he rejects any nostalgic reminder of the city. The cafe where we meet, the Café Tarani is, nevertheless, a decrepit version of the great Alexandrian cosmopolitan period, of the social life of the Corniche. To this paradox he replies without hesitation: “we don’t come here because of some fetishism for the past, but because it isn’t’ a place of consumerism, there is no television, no Nescafe, no Coca Cola. The owner knows that if he introduced any of these three elements we would go elsewhere”. The old café, reconverted into a symbol of anti-globalisation and Egyptianism, is a good metaphor for the new Alexandria that the young elite wishes to build, at the library or elsewhere: “we try to define our own nostalgia, a nostalgia more linked to people, to the chaabi (popular) culture of the city.” The construction of this new culture is Beram al tunisi versus Cavafy. “Isaknderia mich el corniche, mich rushdi, wala sezenia, Iskanderia much betaich we kaman much fil dounia ” are words of the young Alexandrian singer Khaled Shams. Ramez is again defining the group to which he belongs, the refrain represents accurately this new elite “against an aristocratic vision of people that don’t know Egypt well and have Paris, Athens or Spain as a reference”.

The library, in this framework, is a precious tool. In his opinion, its importance is in its role as a “leading institution” that should evolve from the city’s other dynamics and not just from the erudite or westernised public. It is not a question either of competing with the Library of the Congress: “our acquisition policy for books stops at 2 million. The real challenge is digitalisation. The programme plans for the conversion into digital format of more than a million books - that is the future of the library”.

Leaving the library’s esplanade to rejoin the corniche, I am reminded of the words of Madame Sohar Hamoudeh, of Ramez, the Alexandrian critics, the concentrated faces of the young students of the University of Commerce, the amalgams of the American diplomat, the optimism of Robert Solé. One thing is sure, the library of Alexandria, past or present, still remains a myth and an never ending memory.


(1)Umberto Eco, De Bibliotheca, L’échoppe, Paris, 1986.
(2)Michel Delon, article “L’épreuve du feu”, of the Magazine littéraire
(3)Barthes also says of the myth that it is “a system of communication, a message”. The recent history of the city and the Library illustrates well this definition.
(4)the governor is the administrative figure nominated by the Egyptian government for the Alexandrian region
(5)Mohamed Awad, architect is the director of his own preservation centre “Alexandria Preservation Trust” and is currently director of the Alexandria Research Centre of the Alexandrian Library


Catherine Cornet


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