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The Library of Alexandria Lives Again

The Library of Alexandria Lives Again

The Library of Alexandria Lives Again

IT WAS one of the most famous libraries of its time. It made its host city, Alexandria, Egypt, a mecca for the world’s greatest minds. When it disappeared​—how, no one knows for sure—​gone with it were priceless works whose absence adversely affected scholarship. Now, that grand library has, in effect, been brought back to life.

The rebuilding of Alexandria’s famous library has produced a structure of unusual shape. The main building of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, as the new library is officially called, resembles a giant tilted drum. The glass-and-aluminum roof (1)​—which is nearly the size of two football fields—​is slit with north-facing windows that illuminate the main reading room (2). The broad, truncated cylinder contains the main public spaces and extends partly below sea level. The building’s flat, shiny surface slopes gently down from a height of seven stories to carve out a deep well. From a distance, with sunlight reflecting off its metallic surface, the building looks like the rising sun.

The outside of the central drum presents a sheer, sweeping curve of gray granite, carved with rows of letters from ancient and modern alphabets (3). Arranged in tiers, the letters fittingly represent the building blocks of knowledge.

An open, multitiered reading room fills most of the cylinder’s interior (4). Storage space for 8,000,000 volumes is tucked into the building’s underground recesses. Other features include exhibition spaces, lecture halls, special provisions for the visually impaired (5), and a planetarium​—a separate spherical structure resembling a satellite halted in mid-orbit (6). Sophisticated computer and fire-extinguishing systems complete this state-of-the-art institution.

The Making of a Legend

In ancient times the city of Alexandria was known for such lost marvels as the Pharos​—a lighthouse said to be more than 350 feet [110 m] high and considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world—​and the tomb of Alexander the Great. The Greek dynasty of the Ptolemies inherited Egypt from Alexander and ruled the country until Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra in 30 B.C.E. Under the Ptolemies, Alexandria was transformed. Indeed, it “became for a time commercially and culturally the center of the world,” states the Atlas of the Greek World. At its peak, Alexandria was home to some 600,000 people.

The city’s greatest attraction was its royal library. Founded early in the third century B.C.E. and lavishly patronized by the Ptolemy family, the library along with the Mouseion (Temple of the Muses) became a center of learning and invention in the Hellenic world.

It is believed that the library contained 700,000 papyrus scrolls. In comparison, in the 14th century, the library of the Sorbonne​—which boasted the largest collection of its age—​housed just 1,700 books. Egypt’s rulers were so intent on enriching their collection that they had soldiers search every incoming vessel for texts. If some were found, they kept the originals and returned copies. According to some sources, when Athens lent Ptolemy III the priceless original copies of the classical Greek dramas, he promised to pay a deposit and copy them. Instead, the king kept the originals, forfeited the deposit, and sent back copies.

The list of great thinkers who worked in the library and museum of Alexandria reads like a roll call of ancient genius. Scholars in Alexandria are credited with great works on geometry, trigonometry, and astronomy, as well as language, literature, and medicine. According to tradition, it was here that 72 Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, thus producing the famous Septuagint.

A Library Vanishes

Ironically, chroniclers felt little need to describe Alexandria’s institutions in detail. A statement of Athenaeus, a third-century historian, is typical: “Concerning the number of books, the establishment of libraries, and the collection in the Hall of the Muses, why need I even speak, since they are all in men’s memories?” Such comments frustrate modern scholars, who yearn to know more about this intriguing ancient library.

By the time of the Arab conquest of Egypt in 640 C.E., the library of Alexandria probably was no more. Scholars still debate exactly how and when it vanished. Some say that many of its contents were probably lost when Julius Caesar set fire to part of the city in 47 B.C.E. Whatever the cause, the library’s demise meant the loss of a wealth of knowledge. Forever gone were hundreds of works of the Greek dramatists, along with the first 500 years of Greek historiography with the exception of some works of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon.

Between the third and the sixth centuries C.E., the city of Alexandria was often in tumult. Pagans, Jews, and so-called Christians frequently battled one another and fought among themselves over arcane points of doctrine. On numerous occasions the church itself encouraged rioters to sack pagan temples. Countless ancient texts were destroyed in the process.

Living Up to Past Glory

The rebuilt library opened in October 2002, and it contains some 400,000 books. An elaborate computer system allows access to other libraries. The main collection focuses on eastern Mediterranean civilizations. With space for 8,000,000 books, the Library of Alexandria aspires to enhance the stature of this ancient city.

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ARCHIMEDES: Mathematician and inventor, third century B.C.E. Credited with numerous discoveries and early scientific efforts to compute the value of pi (π).

ARISTARCHUS OF SAMOS: Astronomer, third century B.C.E. First to speculate that the planets revolve around the sun. Used trigonometry in attempts to calculate the distance to and the size of the sun and the moon.

CALLIMACHUS: Poet and a chief librarian, third century B.C.E. Compiled the first index to the library of Alexandria, a work that established the canon of classical Greek literature.

CLAUDIUS PTOLEMY: Astronomer, second century C.E. His geographic and astronomical writings were standard texts.

ERATOSTHENES: Polymath and one of the first librarians of Alexandria, third century B.C.E. Calculated the earth’s circumference with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

EUCLID: Mathematician, fourth century B.C.E. The father of geometry and a pioneer in the study of optics. His work Elements was the standard geometry text until the 19th century.

GALEN: Physician, second century C.E. His 15 books on the science of medicine became the standard texts for over 12 centuries.

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All photos, both pages: Courtesy of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina: Mohamed Nafea, Photographer