30 March - 5 April 2000
Issue No. 475
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Special Focus Travel Living Sports Profile People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons
Reviving an ancient traditionBy Nevine Khalil
At a fund-raiser for the Alexandria Library, Mrs Suzanne Mubarak told an audience of around 600 that the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is destined to be "a centre of intellectual ferment." In particular, she stressed the new library's ambition to recreate the spirit of its predecessor, by encouraging lively and innovative intellectual debate, and by serving as a meeting place for different cultures, as well as providing a world-class resource for scholars and academics.
Tickets for the Monday event, organised by the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt and the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, sold for $1,000 each, and the evening drew a galaxy of prominent economic, academic and intellectual figures from all over the world.
The following is a slightly abbreviated text:
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I remember clearly my first visit to the Library of Congress. My particular interest at that time was in the Children's Literature Centre, as we had just initiated a national programme for the production of quality children's literature as part of our "Reading for All" project. It was just the beginning of a dream to make books accessible to the largest number of children and their families. The Reading for All programme has evolved over the years and has succeeded in encouraging a large number of readers to use the widespread network of libraries established during the last decade (...).
We have come a long way since that first meeting with Dr Boorsteen, who was the Congress librarian at that time. I have always been dedicated to the promotion of education and life-long learning, while my faith in reading as a basic element in a person's continuing development has never wavered.
Today, the setting and the topic I have come to present have rarely been so well matched; for we stand here within the famous Library of Congress, the world's greatest library, to discuss the revival of the ancient Library of Alexandria. With its some 120 million books and artifacts, its enormous research facilities, and its outreach programmes, the Library of Congress is for today's world what the Library of Alexandria was for the world of antiquity.
AN INSPIRATION FROM THE PAST: The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, as it was known in ancient times, was both an Egyptian and an international enterprise. Conceived at the beginning of the third century BC, the library transposed Alexander's dreams of empire into a quest for universal knowledge. It was not only a repository of books; it was also a museum, a school and a centre of scholarly research.
During the six hundred years of its existence, from the third century BC to the fourth century AD, it was the world's centre of learning, the promoter of communication and tolerance among peoples and cultures, and the beacon that lit the way for the sciences, the arts and the humanities to flourish in the midst of ignorance and superstition. The study of the theories of the masters of Greek thought, complemented by the new Alexandrian spirit of critical and empirical inquiry, yielded major new insights within various branches of science, mathematics and philosophy.
Furthermore, by bringing together the scientists, philosophers and thinkers of the time for the purpose of scholarly investigation and research, it became the precursor of the modern research institute and the university.
And then, in the fourth century, disaster struck. The loss to fire of the Alexandria library, with its half million volumes, along with its museum, was a terrible loss for all humanity.
THE DREAM OF RENEWAL: Today, we are embarked on an ambitious venture: to revive the ancient library on its original site and to help it attain a new grandeur in this new millennium. Our dream is for the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina to embody the spirit of the ancient library and become a centre of scholarship and learning, and of dialogue, tolerance and understanding between our region and the other nations and peoples of the world.
Mrs Mubarak receives a gift from the head of the International Special Olympics, observes plants with a disabled youngster at Melwood Centre, and is presented with an award at the luncheon hosted by Health Minister Donna Shalala
This is very much an international enterprise on Egyptian soil, a gift from Egypt to the world and from the world to Egypt. For knowledge is the only commodity that can be freely exchanged leaving both parties richer. Conceived within the framework of the World Decade for Cultural Development, the Alexandria Library will be open to researchers, not only from the Mediterranean countries, but from all over the world. (...)
We hope that the world will be as deeply committed to this enterprise as Egypt is. We have spared no effort in making this project a reality. President Mubarak has placed the project under his patronage. For myself, I have been closely involved in all stages of its development and have chaired the international Commission for the Revival of the Ancient Library of Alexandria since its inauguration in Aswan in 1990.
Egypt has donated the land, the convention centre, the expenses of the General Organisation of the Alexandria Library, and the design and materials for the construction. To date, we have contributed about 170 out of the total cost of 200 million dollars. But all this is just the prologue. For the building, however beautiful, and the equipment, however lavish, have little value without the programmes and activities that can meet the lofty goals we have set for our ambitious library project.
A WINDOW ON THE WORLD: The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina, like its ancient model, will be more than just a traditional library. Attached to it will be a science museum and a planetarium; and it will have four distinct but complementary functions. Allow me to share with you my conception of what these are.
First of all, we want the Library to be Egypt's window on the world. It should lay open to our people the scientific, literary and artistic marvels of the Mediterranean cultures, as well as those of the rest of the world.
We also want it to be the window of the world onto our own Egyptian culture and civilisation -- the longest continuous civilisation on earth -- with its Pharaonic, Graeco-Roman, Judaeo-Christian, Coptic and Arab-Islamic heritage, and its present day realities. We shall make every effort to ensure that the library incorporates the best collection of books and manuscripts, so as to do justice to the richness of our history and culture.
We would like the Alexandria Library to rise to the challenges of the technological opportunities of the new millennium and the dawning of the digital age. Today there are over 850 million pages on the Internet, and the number is expected to reach eight billion by the year 2005. We would like to link up with the programmes of the leading institutions of learning in the world, such as the Library of Congress's pioneering "American Memory" programme, and thus have access to the almost limitless resources available in the world, as well as making our own contribution to them.
One of our principal goals is to make the Bibliotheca Alexandrina a centre of intellectual ferment -- that it should be a place as much for discussion and lively debate over original and imaginative ideas, as for careful scholarship and scientific analyses. We shall also strive to make it a meeting place for cultures and a forum for enlightened dialogue between civilisations, in order to help promote peace, tolerance, respect for differences, and the appreciation and protection of cultural diversity within our globalising world.
NOTHING BUT THE BEST: I am proud to say that we have made every possible effort to create a world-class facility. Now it is time to give it life and start it on its important functions. In order to do that, we are committed to engaging the best national and international capabilities, for nothing less than the best will turn our vision into reality. These experts will face enormous challenges, as they have to chart their course through a new territory. The dizzying pace of scientific and technological advances -- and the transformations these induce -- challenge us, as never before, to create dynamic institutions of learning that can anticipate and meet the needs of an ever-changing world.
I am confident that we can meet this challenge. Our forefathers did; and I have no doubt that, with the support of the rest of the world, we can do it again. I am most gratified by the interest in the project already shown by other nations, at the governmental level as well as at the level of private institutions and non-governmental organisations. (...)
Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,
I have shared my dreams with you, which I believe are the dreams of all those who care about creating a better future for all. We have come a long way towards realising these dreams. The elegant structure rising in splendour in Alexandria will, hopefully, be ready to serve Egypt and the world by the end of this year. Egypt's support for the project will never wane, and hopefully neither will that of the community of nations, for it is as much our project as that of the whole world (...).
We very much need such institutions in this troubled world of ours -- institutions that can bring people together in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding and encourage cultures to meet and connect, rather than hate and clash. Can we not today, with our new technologies that defy time and space and allow instantaneous communication and interaction between all parts of the world, realise the dream of reviving the traditions of the ancient Bibliotheca Alexandrina? I believe that, with the generous support and contributions of the international community, we definitely can.