The Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Alexandrian Library) in Alexandria is a wonderful reincarnation of the famed ancient library of Alexandria
The original library held the largest collection of manuscripts in the world and was a great center of learning for 600 years until it burned down in the 3rd century. The dramatic new library, resembling an angled discus or a great sundial, was designed by a Norwegian architect and cost about $200 million.
The Library of Alexandria is of religious significance because of its original role as a temple, its historical association with such Christian theologians as Origen of Alexandria, and its collection of many religious manuscripts (including rare copies of the Qur'an). This article covers both the ancient and modern Alexandrian libraries together, as they share a common heritage and objectives.
Alexandria was selected by Alexander the Great as the capital of his empire in 320 BC, and it soon became the most powerful and influential city in the region. The original Library of Alexandria was founded in 288 BC by Ptolemy I (Soter) under the guidance of Demetrius of Phaleron. It was a temple to the muses (Mouseion in Greek; Museum in Latin) and functioned as an academy, research center, and library. The great thinkers of the age flocked to Alexandria to study and exchange ideas.
The original library was located in the royal district of the city, with an additional building for storage on the harbor, and a "daughter library" located in the Serapeum in the southwest part of the city. As many as 700,000 scrolls, the equivalent of more than 100,000 modern printed books, filled the shelves. The library was open to scholars from all cultures and both girls and boys. At the ancient library of Alexandria:
It is not clear exactly when the ancient Library of Alexandria was destroyed. It was probably badly damaged by fire during Julius Caesar's conquest in 48 BC and may have been destroyed along with the entire royal quarter. during the campaign of Aurelius in 272 AD. In 391 AD, the bishop of Alexandria burned the Serapeum to the ground, which finally put the institution of the library to an end.
Plans began to resurrect the ancient library and its scholarly ideals in 1974. Initiated by Alexandria University, the idea was enthusiastically supported by the international community. In 1988, UNESCO sponsored an architectural competition for designing the new library, which was won by the Norwegian firm Snøhetta.
At a conference in Aswan in 1990, funding was pledged from all over the world, especially from a number of Arab states. Construction commenced in 1994 and was completed in 2002 with a price tag of over $220 million. Today, the library receives around 800,000 visitors each year.
The modern Biblioteca Alexandrina is intended to recapture the spirit of the original Library of Alexandria as a center for learning, dialogue, and rationality. The trustees have set out these four main objectives:
The architecture of the Biblioteca Alexandrina is modern and striking, with a 160m-diameter glass-panelled roof tilted out toward the sea like a sundial. The outer wall, made of grey Aswan granite, are carved with symbols from 120 different scripts.
The spectacular Main Reading Hall covers 70,000 m² on 11 cascading levels and can accommodate 2,000 readers at any one time. It also offers 200 study rooms for scholars and researchers. The collection of books shelved throughout the reading hall have been donated from around the world and cover a wide variety of subjects and languages. The collection especially emphasizes the above-mentioned four objectives for the library that have been agreed upon by the trustees.
The Manuscript & Rare Book Exhibition Gallery is located in the heart of the Library, occupying the space of 344m2. It comprises 12 display cases, donated by Italy within the framework of the cooperation agreements between the two countries, in addition to 20 Egyptian-made display cases. Around 120 manuscripts and rare books are displayed in these cases. Two pieces of the kiswa (decorative black brocade cover, embroidered in gold with Qur'anic verses) of the Holy Kaaba adorn the walls above the Islamic manuscripts.
The Antiquities Museum within the Biblioteca Alexandrina displays the artifacts discovered at the construction site of the modern library. The collection consists of just under 1,100 pieces and documents various epochs of Egyptian civilization dating from the Pharaonic era up to the Islamic period, including the Greek civilization that arrived with the conquest of Alexander the Great and the Roman and Coptic civilizations.
Other exhibitions within the library include “Impressions of Alexandria,” a collection of original engravings, lithographs, early photographs and maps of Alexandria by artists and travelers from the 15th to the 19th centuries, and a permanent exhibition dedicated to the literary, cinematic works and paintings of the celebrated Egyptian director, production designer and film-maker, Shadi Abdel Salam.
The Biblioteca Alexandrina also contains a manuscript restoration laboratory, a planetarium (the large dome on the roof) and a grand conference center.
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