|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
18 - 24 January 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
There is no doubt that the revival of the Alexandria Library is one of the greatest achievements of 2000. Equipped with the most up-to-date information technology, the building itself is an elegant expression of modern architecture.
The ancient Alexandria Library existed at a time when it was unique in the world. Julius Caesar's experience in Egypt led him, according to an article in the International Herald Tribune, to reform the Roman Calendar based on the superior knowledge of Egyptian astronomers and mathematicians who were working in the Alexandria Library. Furthermore, Caesar planned a public library in Rome modelled on the example of the Alexandria Library, "whose size and scope was unparalleled in the ancient world."
Now, however, the situation is different. There are quite a number of libraries in the world that stand in competition with the revived library. Among these libraries with tens of millions of books from all over the world where does our library come in?
I am a great believer that any new institution should present something new. The revived Alexandria Library should, therefore, offer something unique. Most obviously it could showcase the history of that great city in which it is located, a city which in times past was the centre of culture.
The history of Alexandria, of Egypt at large, can be found in documents, manuscripts and art objects scattered in many libraries and museums. I was reminded of this when I read reviews of an exhibition of Cleopatra-related objects held at the Fondazione Memmo at Plaza Ruspoli in Rome and which, at the end of February, will then move to the British Museum in London and from there to the Field Museum in Chicago. It is surprising that the organisers of the exhibition have found enough material to hold such a show, with 350 objects collected from different museums. These artifacts clearly demonstrate that the period of Cleopatra's rule was -- as Roderick Conway Morris writes in his interesting article for the International Herald Tribune -- "extraordinarily interesting from the artistic point of view."
Alexandria during Cleopatra's rule was the centre of fashion, so much so that in Morris's words, there was "a rampant Roman Egyptomania": even Emperor Augustus, Cleopatra's arch-enemy, had his private study frescoed in Ptolemaic Egyptian fashion. After Cleopatra's defeat and death so much booty poured into Rome. "Along with the gold and silver," Morris writes, "came quantities of obelisks, sphinxes and other artworks great and small which were mostly employed out of context for purely decorative effects". There was some kind of rage in Rome about all that was Egyptian, including pyramids and Egyptian gardens.
The Fondazione Memmo exhibition contains a few images thought to be of Cleopatra, but the "pièce de résistance" is a superb full-length black basalt Egyptian statue on loan from the Hermitage in St Petersburg. There are also two marble heads from the Vatican Museum and the Berlin State Museum.
And now I come back to my proposal that the revived Alexandria Library should have something unique to offer in order to be able to compete with other world libraries. What could be more appropriate than to afford to the public, including researchers, both from Egypt and abroad, something that they can get only in the Alexandria Library. Of course it will be difficult to retrieve manuscripts and art objects from other museums and libraries, but at least copies should be made. A special section in the library should be devoted to the history of the city. The library's function should go beyond lending books and providing reading rooms and access to Internet and computer. It should arrange exhibitions of that great period in ancient Egyptian history, where Alexandria was the main centre of Egyptian civilisation, and, of course, what can be more appropriate than to house the Graeco-Roman Museum in the library.
A very bookish phoenix 21 - 27 December 2000
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