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Construction of new Alexandria library enters final months

model
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, seen in this 1990 model, is scheduled to be completed in October with an early 2001 inauguration date  

In this story:

Fate of original library a mystery

Global project


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ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (Reuters) -- An imposing cylindrical structure standing like a huge shining beacon on the shores of Alexandria's coastline teems with workers toiling round the clock to complete it.

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the brainchild of Alexandrian historian Mustafa al-Abbadi more than 20 years ago, is located in the same city as the famed Pharos lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world which stood for 16 centuries before collapsing in an earthquake in 1349.

The ambitious project has taken just over five years and non-stop work to prepare it for inauguration early next year.

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The 11-story building, located in what is thought to be the original site of the ancient Alexandria Library, tilts about 20 degrees towards the sea to the north, with the front part sunk below ground.

To the south, a windowless wall of granite, a favorite Pharaonic building stone, carries alphabetic letters from all of the world's languages.

"The circular shape of the library symbolizes the entire knowledge of the world," Christoph Kapellar, the project architect, told Reuters.

Kapellar works for the Norwegian architect Snoehetta, whose design for the library was chosen over 526 other contestants.

"We also chose the picture of a microchip for the roof to express an institution that would not just be a repository for books, but an active institution that exchanges information from the outside in and the inside out."

Construction will be completed in October. The inauguration in early 2001 is expected to attract dignitaries from all over the world.

Fate of original library a mystery

The original library, built under the Greek Ptolemies who ruled Egypt for the last 300 years of the first millennium B.C., also doubled as a university.

Its fate is still shrouded in mystery. Some historians say it burned down when Julius Caesar's legions sacked the city in 48 B.C., others say parts of it survived until the Arab invasion of Egypt more than 600 years later.

"The Bibliotheca has never disappeared from its ancient site. In physical reality maybe, but the contributions of the scholars, the knowledge emitted from this library, has formed the basis of our current civilization," said project manager Mohsen Zahran.

The modern library will contain around half a million volumes initially, with an eventual capacity of 8 million books. It will accommodate around 2,500 people in 300 study cells at a time. An estimated 10,000 visitors are expected to visit it daily.

The library will include space for audio-visual items such as slides, tapes, CD-ROMs, Internet access and videos. A planetarium and conference center will seat over 3,500 people.

"This hall is the greatest single reading hall in any library in the world," Zahran said. "As the ancient library has been the source of knowledge for our present civilization, this one is also ours. We owe the Bibliotheca Alexandrina its revival. Visitors from overseas feel it is theirs. They are part of it."

Global project

The $200 million project, sponsored by the U.N. cultural body UNESCO, benefited from donations from countries around the globe, either in monetary or book form.

Zahran said there were no problems from the state regarding censorship of books or volumes received through donations from abroad.

"It is known that this is a public research library," said Zahran. "According to a policy drawn up by UNESCO experts in the late 1980s, we are required to use various research library references to comply with world-class standards."

He said a panel of local and international experts were brought in to recommend which references would be used in specialized fields.

Arab countries contributed around $65 million to the library, Norway donated furniture worth 30 million krone ($3.44 million), Japan gave audio-visual equipment and Germany contributed a telelift book transport system.

Egypt provided the land and the conference center and supervised the implementation of the project.

"This is an Egyptian project from the very beginning that has been implemented with international support," Zahran said. "It is everybody's project now. It is going to serve the world community."

The inauguration date was delayed because of the late arrival of certain shipments due to adverse weather conditions in the Mediterranean.

Zahran said more than a thousand workers were working 24 hours a day in two shifts to meet the construction deadline.

"We are extremely happy with the outcome. The end project was almost exactly what we envisaged when designing it," said project architect Kapellar.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



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