17 - 23 October 2002
Issue No. 608
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
In the limelightHow did Alexandria prepare for the opening of the Library? Hala Halim has been finding out
It would be tempting, not to mention fittingly dramatic, to begin this article by announcing that the truism that Alexandria has hardly any monuments to show for its heritage will be proven null and void this week. With the Lighthouse, the Royal Quarter, Alexander's Soma, the Serapeum, the Library and Mouseion long since gone, the visual lure of Cairo, Upper Egypt, and the Red Sea has always put a damper on Alexandria's appeal to the tourist's mind's eye to envision what is no longer there. Now a monument will be inaugurated in Alexandria, one that in so spectacularly drawing on a Ptolemaic precursor, opens up the issue of the overall conception of revivalism in Alexandria.
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A terracotta statuette of a mother and child; head of Queen Cleopatra VII wearing a crown of cobras, both now in the Graeco-Roman Museum; head of a statue in a niche in the catacombs of Kom Al-Shogafa; detail of a funerary scene from Kom Al-Shogafa
The postmodern exterior of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and its hoped for digitalised state-of-the-art research facilities need not give the lie to the various ways in which it is under-grid by the predecessor institution. The genealogical reaching back to the ancient library was at first pragmatically undertaken to secure UNESCO backing for a much needed research library. But it is also at work in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina's ambition (whether to be fulfilled is yet to be seen) as an international, secular centre of learning that resolutely buttresses itself in this capacity against the Ptolemies' institution. And for all the parodic effect of the jumbled letters from the world's alphabets wrought on the outer wall of the building (read: Tower-of-Babel rather than Septuagint), the library complex shores up direct references to the ancient city.
An archaeological museum comprises Hellenistic artefacts found in the dig of the site of the new library and the colossal figure of a Ptolemy, brought out in fragments during underwater excavations off Qait Bey Fort, stands guard at one of the entrances. The so-called Hellenistic revivalism that Alexandria is witnessing is often construed as all of a piece and belonging to one and the same phenomenon. The tendency to conflate has its justifications: it is since the mid-1990s, against the backdrop of the expected but long-deferred opening of the Bibliotheca, that the resurgence of interest in the Hellenistic period has been taking place. The other tributaries that have fed into the "revivalism" are the underwater archaeological excavations (the site of the Lighthouse, followed by the Ptolemaic Harbour and part of the Royal Quarter, then the cities of Canopus, Menouthis and Herakleion in Abu Qir) and the proliferation of quasi-Greek statues and street sculptures in the city. The latter tributary originates in Alexandria Governorate's "beautification plan" whereby entrepreneurs were given free rein to put up sculptures of their choosing -- an instant Hellenisation being given the green light as an appropriate setting for the Bibliotheca centrepiece -- in return for publicity. If driving down to Alexandria for the Bibliotheca opening, the first-time visitor to the city arriving by the Desert Road will be ushered into the city via The Gate of Alexandria -- the name given the toll gate after its transformation into an imposing edifice. Preceding the edifice is a little "folly" composed of a cluster of three stunted columns, one of which has had its capital cleanly chipped off, as if by the ravages of Time. The gate itself, a derivitively neo-classical affair, has the word Alexandria inscribed on it in both Arabic and Greek. Once past the gate, another, almost identical, cluster of three columns materialises. ("It was my idea that the word Alexandria should be written in Greek on the gate, because it tells the visitor that he is about to enter a Graeco-Roman city," Ismail El-Adli, chairman of the African Consultant Office, which donated the designs for this and a large number of the beautifying projects, confided to me a few years ago.) Should the visitor then proceed to Victor Emmanuel Square in Smouha, he or she will encounter, standing amid a pleasantly revamped garden, four figures -- two male, and two female -- of indeterminate artistic pedigree; the women are draped -- if virtuously -- so the vocabulary is more Greek than Egyptian. A Grecian theme of urns awaits the visitor in two nearby roundabouts. Midan Ali Ibn Abi Talib, hitherto known by its mosque, now sports a fountain composed of glittering, glided urns. As for the fountain in Midan Nafaq Al-Ibrahimiya, a drab residential area, this sports a tiered constellation of black vases with earth-toned floral designs and human figures -- a kitsch take on ancient Greek vases.
The seemingly concerted phenomenon of Hellenistic revivalism has had its detractors. Among their objections are the overlooking of the Pharaonic anteriority of the site (the Ancient Egyptian settlement of Rhakotis is invoked, and to this i would add the discovery by Gaston Jondet in the early twentieth century of an apparently pre-Alexander and possibly Pharaonic sunken harbour), of the Egyptian contribution to the intellectual greatness of ancient Alexandria (why, they ask, has our city been the only one of the many Alexandrias to attain this achievement, if it is not because it was nourished on Egyptian soil), and the choice and iconography of the statuary (a modern, commissioned equestrian statue of Alexander put up two years ago at a highly symbolic intersection seemed to further rub in his status as conqueror).
These objections have their legitimacy, and merit further discussion in and of themselves -- and indeed much of the excavation work has uncovered Pharaonic elements. However, the point to be made here, also going beyond and reading through the aesthetic gaps and fissures between archaeological artefact and modern kitsch simulacrum, is the lacunae in the conception of revivalism whereby conservation seems to have all but dropped out of the agenda. Asking myself what sights related to the Hellenistic city the guests attending the opening of the Bibliotheca might want to see, I spent last Monday touring archaeological sites and museums.
Planning my itinerary, I knew that Qait Bey Fort was out of bounds as it is being restored -- in itself a laudable move, but is it timely? I could no longer visit the Necropolis of Qabbari, a portion of which I had first seen five years ago during French-Egyptian excavations. A huge complex of catacombs dating back to approximately 250 BC and going up to the seventh century AD, the Necropolis had yielded a wealth of data on the syncretic culture of the ancient Greeks of Alexandria, together with fascinating scenes such as a ceiling of a tomb complex adorned with an Eros and dolphin motif that could have turned the site into a premier tourist attraction. But, most of the portion of the Necropolis excavated has been destroyed in the process of the construction of the access ramp of a flyover. This has happened despite UNESCO recommendations that the course of the ramp be altered to preserve portions of the site and while the Grecian urns and the like were sprouting elsewhere in Alexandria. I therefore began my trip at the Maritime Museum in Stanley. This has yet to be opened to the public, a state of affairs that used to be explained away by the dearth of artefacts. The museum has in recent years been stocked by a substantial number of artefacts from the underwater excavations (three statues from Abu Qir, wrapped in plastic sheeting, greeted me on the way in), as well as hosting the collection of the excavation of Napoleon's sunken fleet in Abu Qir (this used to be housed in a museum within the Qait Bey Fortress until thefts dictated that that museum be closed).
The international guests of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina who have no doubt heard about the high-profile underwater excavations may well want to see some of the antiquities brought to light in the process. Apart from those littering the lawn of the closed Maritime Museum, a few others (busts, heads and statues) line a pathway in the Roman Amphitheatre, which I also visited, but then there is no sign indicating where these came from. A proposal repeatedly mooted by Alexandria University professors, and also recommended by a UNESCO mission in 1998, was of a combined underwater and on-shore museum at the Qait Bey Fort. This too has not materialised. Instead, as I was told at the Maritime Museum, there is a private sector outfit that provides diving facilities in the Eastern Harbour (site of the Ptolemaic Harbour and part of the Royal Quarter) through a special agreement with the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) -- a make-shift and far from ideal substitute to the proposed museum.
At the Graeco-Roman Museum, a heartening flurry of scrubbing and scouring greeted me, together with the markedly spruced up aspect of the building itself as it is undergoing renovations. And yet, I could not help wondering why at least one room was out of bounds since renovation work has not been completed: the date of the Bibliotheca opening was originally scheduled for April, and the October date to which it was postponed has long since been announced. At the Kom Al-Shogafa Catacombs trees were being hosed down and leaves swept away. While I could not buy the brochure I wanted because the man in charge of the souvenir shop was not to be found, I was certainly grateful for the greater access to the site afforded by the drainage of underwater seepage which the SCA conducted in the mid-1990s. And here, as at Pompey's Pillar, security was at its tightest, possibly because of the "popular quarter" context of the sites (merchants at the nearby "Biassa", or piazza market for textiles have been given a holiday for the duration of the Bibliotheca opening). As for the Anfushi Catacombs, these were derelict with only three of the five Hellenistic tomb complexes accessible, raising the question why the underground water seepage here could not likewise be treated by the SCA. There is of course more to be extrapolated from this brief bird's-eye-view of the condition of the various archaeological sites in Alexandria. One could, for example, broach the issue of why no new Egyptian excavations are taking place; the issue of the measly funding for underwater archaeology, not to mention the demoralising conditions under which the archaeologists work (the archaeological divers have neither life- nor medical-insurance). And one could certainly broach the museological issue of display of artefacts -- not only the total absence of son et lumière effects but the insufficient lighting, the dearth of explanatory signs, the ware-house aspect, and so on.
Granted, the so-called revivalism has made for a more salubrious better-functioning city. However, what is needed is coordination between the hand that takes away a Necropolis and the hand that grants a Bibliotheca Alexandrina. In other words, a more over-arching, holistic approach to the heritage that is being so persistently revived is sorely needed.
Letter from the Editor
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