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A greatness reborn.

It's 2,000 years ago, and a visitor to Egypt is lost. He was visiting the city of Alexandria, a teeming metropolis set in the green, wet Nile Delta overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Now he's stumbling through a maze of dark corridors inside the city's library with an oil lantern as his only guide. The walls are honeycombed with deep slots that hold books and scrolls; he glances at their titles only to move on, searching for a good treatise on mathematics. Before he can shout for a staff member to rescue him, he turns his light onto the aisle corner and finds what he's seeking. On the wooden panel above one slot, Greek lettering is meticulously carved reading Elements of Geometry by Euclid.

Founded in 323 BCE, the Great Library of Alexandria was the world's premier study center, an antediluvian Internet, a repository for every book in the Western world, and a laboratory for creative minds to debate politics or test the latest inventions. Then, after standing for seven centuries, it fell victim to two hideous episodes of intolerance that erased it from the world map.

Flash forward to June 2003 CE. An international conference on science and mathematics education is held in Alexandria, in the conference room of a new Great Library. Experts from the global community arrive to discuss the necessity for scientific education in developing countries.

Is this a miracle of rebirth? A renaissance, occurring in the fractured, largely theocratic Middle East?

Or is it all a charming delusion?

On October 16, 2002, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced a veritable re-creation of the fabled Great Library of yesteryear or, more accurately, a modern incarnation, called the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. "Egypt has exerted all efforts to make the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina a civilized message in its roots, mode, content, and international in its role and research," Mubarak said at the unveiling ceremony. An unexpected sentiment, it seems, given the prevailing history of his nation.

As the old library was the crowning intellectual jewel of the Ptolemaic and Roman Empires, attracting visitors from around the ancient world, so has the Bibliotheca Alexandrina had a prodigious start. At the unveiling ceremony held in the building's Great Reading Hall, representatives from several Middle Eastern and European nations were present: Queen Rania of Jordan, French President Jacques Chirac, Queen Sofia of Spain, and Greek President Costis Stephanopoulos. Even China has expressed an interest in contributing to the new library; earlier this year, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Yang Wen Chang spoke with the library's board of directors about his country's desire to showcase Eastern civilization's achievements in one of the halls. And in keeping with the promise of multicultural dialogues, it should be noted that international contributions to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina's construction were reported to be $100 million, roughly half of the total cost.

At the unveiling ceremony, President Mubarak made a symbolic toast to the success of this bold endeavor. Will it last?

The Ancient Library

In 332 BCE the young Macedonian King Alexander the Great arrived in Egypt. For ten years, the country had been occupied by Persia, the world's reigning military heavyweight at that time. The Persians hadn't been magnanimous overlords. Under their rule, Egyptian males were massacred and homes and temples plundered. The arrival of Alexander changed all that. He was already a superstar of antiquity, having led his peerless army into an unbroken string of victories across Asia Minor, when he decided to turn west and free Egypt. The Persians, who had already lost territories to Alexander, fled to Mesopotamia to regroup. Alexander chose to winter in the liberated Egyptian nation; there, his weary troops could recover from months of incessant battle and the young conqueror could enjoy the praise of the natives and be received as their savior. Before he left them for adventures further east, the Egyptians presented him with the crook and flail of pharaoh and hailed him as a god on earth.

While in Egypt, Alexander toured the entire country along the snaking length of the Nile, but when he reached the green delta where the river emptied into the Mediterranean, he decided the nation needed a new metropolis. While attendants followed at his heels, Alexander paced out the length of his new city and sprinkled fistfuls of grain to draw its shape. As he was completing the vast outline, he glanced back and had a dreadful surprise. Birds had descended on the grain-trail, devouring their fall. Fearful of what he felt was an ill omen, the conqueror was quickly reassured by his soothsayers: "It is a good sign. Your city will feed many mouths."

And many minds. True to the soothsayers' words, the city named Alexandria soon flourished and, by the time the Romans conquered Egypt in 30 BCE it was known as the breadbasket of the world. Yet its most notable feature wasn't its grain stores but its library.

The Great Library became a physical embodiment of the Greek thirst for knowledge. After the death of Alexander, Egypt came under rule of the Ptolemies, who pursued knowledge with an insatiable hunger. They sought to collect every book in the world. Ptolemy III was so bent on this objective that he ordered all foreign ships boarded and their books confiscated to be copied for the library's vaults. He even went so far as to "borrow" from Athens original works by the celebrity playwrights of the age; he had their plays copied, kept the originals, and returned the copies. In the end an estimated 700,000 works were gathered, catalogued, and stored in the bins and shelves of nine colossal chambers of the library. It was, quite simply, the most massive collection of learning in the world.

Greeks of the Ptolemaic era, for all their contributions to philosophy, science, and politics, have been unfairly criticized as being couch-potato intellectuals, more interested in theorizing than in creating something practical. While it's true that the Romans were history's ultimate pragmatists, the Great Library saw droves of thinkers making some real applications out of their thoughts. Chief among these was Alexandria's scientist Heron, whose manuscripts Automata and Pneumatics outlined concepts for machines like the pipe organ, robot, and steam engine.

This latter idea was more than just a scribble on a scroll. Heron went ahead and built one. Why, then, weren't trains lapping the miles on the Ptolemaic horizon? In a word: economics. When Heron presented his idea to the rulers of his age, he was advised to bury it. "What would we do with all the slaves" he was asked, "if this invention of yours is applied?" Heron did find a less-controversial application: inside several temples he built subterranean engines to enhance a worshipper's religious experience. When the pious would kneel before an altar pit and light the sacred flame, the heat from the fire would stir the underground mechanism and a pulley would wind a rope, opening the doors of the inner sanctum as if by magic to reveal the statue of the patron god.

Today schoolchildren are taught that Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan discovered the roundness of the Earth. Yet 1,500 years earlier the Great Library's chief librarian, Eratosthenes, accurately figured out the planet's size and shape--all because he was intrigued by a shadow. Eratosthenes happened to read in an astronomical journal that on June 21 at noon in the city of Syene shadows disappeared; the sun, thus, was directly overhead. Intrigued, he waited until June 21 in Alexandria and found that, contrary to the journal, shadows continued to be cast. The only explanation, Eratosthenes concluded, was that the Earth's surface must be curved--causing the sun's rays to impact different locations at different angles. Excited by his theory (people at the time believed the Earth was a flat disk), he calculated that this difference was seven degrees, one-fiftieth of a full circle. Then he paid someone to pace out the distance from Alexandria to Syene, who came back reporting a total of 800 kilometers. Finally, he plugged the numbers into a simple equation: 800 kilometers multiplied by 50 is 40,000 kilometers--the accurate circumference of planet Earth.

In 267 BCE Archimedes of Syracuse left his home and went to study at the Great Library. There he invented the screw that still bears his name. He also designed fantastic war machines which were successfully used in the defense of Syracuse against the Romans in 212. But Archimedes' first love was "pure mathematics." He charted the value of pi--the ratio of a circumference of a circle to its diameter. He also discovered that water is displaced by physical objects--the story is still told of how he cried "Eureka!" and leapt out of his bath at the climax of this epiphany.

The field of medicine saw extraordinary growth from Alexandrian scientists. Herophilus was an anatomist at the library; his research led him to chart the purpose and function of all bodily organs, including the brain and nervous system. His successor, Galen, studied at the library for five years and wrote a fifteen-book series on anatomy and medicine.

The list goes on but the point is clear: the first Great Library of Alexandria was a dynamic, interactive place, a tangible chatroom where scholars studied direct from the hands of the greatest thinkers in history. As there was no movable type, an works were either originals or painstakingly copied by hand. Never before or since has the cause of learning been furthered with such voracious energy.

Murdering the Library

This happy state of affairs met a brutal death in three acts, with the first occurring during the reign of Queen Cleopatra, last of the Ptolemies.

In 48 BCE, Julius Caesar landed in Alexandria with a conquering army. In a naval skirmish with Egyptian resistance, the Romans started a fire that rapidly spread through the harbor, alighting much of the city. Before the bucket-brigades of the local fire department could extinguish it, the flames reached the library. Over 100,000 scrolls were said to have perished in this calamity. Mark Antony, to his credit, tried to make amends for the disaster by taking 200,000 scrolls from Persia and offering them as replacements.

The next horror arrived not under Roman banners but beneath the cross of Christianity. In 311 CE Emperor Constantine decreed that Rome was now a Christian nation; raiding the treasuries of other faiths, Constantine filled church coffers and laid the groundwork for a state-sponsored theocracy. Eighty years later Emperor Theodosios took the next logical step; except for Christianity all other faiths were outlawed, their temples destroyed, their priests murdered. Rome was now a theocracy, and this would prove ill for the classical age.

Inevitably, the Great Library's stores of secular information came to be viewed as an evil, pagan institution. The same year as Theodosios' edict, overzealous Christians obliterated the House of Serapis' adjacent repository of pagan studies and launched a pogrom of censorship, intimidation, and murder that transformed Alexandria from a bastion of pluralism into a pit of intolerance. All this, ironically, during the same decades when the Visigoths and other Germanic barbarians were overrunning Italy to the north.

This latter group is often blamed for the subsequent loss of ancient knowledge; the espousers of this falsity conveniently ignore that the torches and thugs of the new theocrats did far more damage to the era of reason than any iron Visigothic sword. The northern invaders were largely awed by Rome and Roman culture while the theocrats sought to purge or convert every non-Christian notion from the maps and minds of history.

It was the beginning of the aptly-named Dark Ages, when a theocratic elite kept the empire's population shackled in ignorance and fear. In promoting a worldview rooted in theology, many ancient works were destroyed, with exceptions made for those which didn't contradict the Church of Rome--hence, the survival of works by Socrates, Ptolemy, and Aristotle, among others.

The final act of this grisly carnival came in 646 CE when Muslim forces under Amr ibn al-As captured the city. The tale goes that Muslim soldiers, upon entering the Library, were given specific instructions on how to deal with the remaining heaps of "infidel" work: "Either these scrolls contain the Koran," said their general, "in which case we already know it; or they do not contain the Koran, in which case we must not know it." The scrolls were then burned for fuel to heat enough bath water to last six months.

Modern scholars debate whether this last episode is true; some suggest it's a lie perpetrated by thirteenth-century anti-Muslim historians and that all the books had been destroyed during the Christian occupation two centuries earlier. One thing is certain: the Great Library of Alexndria vanished from history and only the scarcest fragments of its distinguished catalog survive. It's hardly coincidence that the loss of this esteemed institution was followed by a thousand years of oppression and ignorance, until the first glimmers of the Italian Renaissance appeared in Florence in the late 1400s.

A Rising Phoenix?

The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina will be celebrating its third anniversary in October 2004. The lost scrolls may never be recovered but the new library boasts four million volumes, a digital archive of ten billion Web pages, and a goal of eventually housing eight million books.

It almost didn't happen. First proposed in the early 1980s, lack of funding delayed the project until 1990, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) attempted to rally international support for the rebirth of the Ptolemaic-era institution. The Gulf War of 1991 delayed the project but in 1995 construction began at last.

The new library has four basement levels and seven floors under the highest point of its sloping circular roof. In addition to reading halls (including a hall for the blind) it boasts six hundred staff members, a planetarium, a 3,200-seat conference hall, and a science museum. Like its bygone ancestor, it stands near the University of Alexandria, overlooking the Mediterranean. "By building it back in place," Mubarak said, "We are reviving human heritage in the area. Here, religions were revealed and prophets lived to sow eternal values of tolerance and coexistence. It was the launching pad of movements of liberation and enlightenment throughout history and time."

These are auspicious words, but are they realistic? In short, will the new library directors be anxious to stock copies of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, the volume that spurred former Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to pronounce the fatwa--death-sentence--against the author? Modern fundamentalist cultures in this global region have already caused irreparable harm to some long-standing relics of the past. Before September 11, 2001, the Taliban government of Afghanistan made headlines when it launched a campaign to destroy all the country's ancient Buddhist statues, some of which dated back to the second century. What reason did they have for this destruction? Former Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar explained: "I don't care about anything else but Islam."

What happens when voices such as these--and they will--protest the efforts at enlightenment and crosscultural pollination that Mubarak hopes to see? Will the library burn again?

It has taken 1,600 years for this most remarkable of places to be reborn. The world the Ptolemaics knew has vastly changed; the webs of technology tether all nations on some level, and global information is no longer confined to one locale. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is a symbol, then, of real change. "The library is an international center," said Mubarak, "a gift to mankind that will enrich the past, the present, and the future." Skeptics may be reminded that a renaissance did emerge from the church dominated stew of medieval Europe. Whether that happens again is a question only history can answer.

Brian Trent is a professional journalist, essayist and novelist who lives in Waterbury, Connecticut.
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Title Annotation:ancient Buddhist statues; Bibliotheca Alexandrina
Author:Trent, Brian
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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