Inside the Middle East
January 21, 2010
Posted: 903 GMT

From Inside the Middle East's January show.
By George Webster for CNN

London, England (CNN) - As a man whose vision of paradise is "some sort of library," Ismail Serageldin must sometimes feel like he works amid the Garden of Eden.
The former World Bank vice-president is director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA) - Egypt's $220 million reimagining of the ancient world's most celebrated library, built on its historical site in the city of Alexandria.

Exteriors of the new Biblioteca Alexandrina
Exteriors of the new Biblioteca Alexandrina
Head of the library Ismail Serageldin shows off one of the BA's treasures - a hand-operated printer from 1825.
Head of the library Ismail Serageldin shows off one of the BA's treasures – a hand-operated printer from 1825.

The 66-year-old Egyptian - who has authored more than 50 books on a variety of topics including biotechnology, rural development and sustainability - has become the first person in over 1,600 years to be officially named "Librarian of Alexandria."
The original Library of Alexandria, founded in 288 B.C., housed hundreds of thousands of scrolls by some of the greatest thinkers and writers of the ancient world. Drawn by this center of knowledge, scientists, mathematicians and poets from all cultures gravitated to Alexandria to study and exchange ideas.

But in 48 A.D. many of the ancient library's treasures were irrevocably lost after an accidental fire, and after falling into a gradual decline the once-famed library completely disappeared around 1,600 years ago, according to according to Biblioteca Alexandrina's Web site.

Despite the the library's commemorative reference to the past and the antiquated grandeur of Serageldin's title, Alexandria's library is unmistakably modern.
Standing in the library's main reading room - the largest in the world, covering 70,000 square meters over eleven cascading levels - Serageldin emphasizes the symbolic connection between the design of the library and its purpose as an institute of learning.
"This is an incredible space," he told CNN. "It is a space where the unity of knowledge is reflected in the cascading levels of the library, in the soaring columns, in the gentle natural light that comes in ... in the intermingling of the art and the science exhibits."
And the exhibits are many: From an ancient Greek bust of Socrates, to an elaborately inscribed Islamic lantern, Serageldin is keen to show off his library's rich and colorful treasures.

Serageldin's favorite artifacts relate, unsurprisingly, to the first printing press transported to Egypt: "From such modest beginnings, knowledge exploded, newspapers appeared, modern debate took place, translation movement occurred, and all of the modernization of Egypt started."

What's left of these ancient presses are on display including the oldest existing moveable letters in Arabic, the first page of the official journal where modern laws were first codified and a primitive machine for rolling prints one page at a time.
While Alexandria's past continues to be important, Serageldin is aware that he must also be at the cutting edge of the Library's digital future.

"The ancient library tried to have all the written books in the world," he explained. "Well, we have the digital memory of humanity by maintaining a complete copy of the Internet archive. And sooner or later other books will migrate to digital form." The Internet archive is stored copies of Web pages , taken at various points in time
Our mandate, our hope is to be able to provide all knowledge to all people at all times for free.

Serageldin points out the extent of the library's other digital resources - such as its Virtual Reality Environment, an immersive system that allows researchers to transform two-dimensional data sets into 3-D simulations - and to step inside them.
"We are one of the most advanced digital libraries in the world," he argues. "Both in terms of digitization of new material as well as developing advanced techniques for informatics for the 21st century."

When he turns to the issue of political and religious censorship, Serageldin's opinions are unambiguous: "I do not believe there is any justification for limiting access to knowledge."

The tri-lingual recipient of over 20 honorary doctorates relates how, when the library first opened in 2002, there was an expectation that he would ban books like Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses," which was the topic of some controversy in 1989.

At the time, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - then Iran's spiritual leader - issued a fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie. The novel was considered blasphemous by some Muslims because of its fictional treatment of Mohammed.

"Western media people would ask me about censorship and so on. They asked me 'Can you possibly consider having "The Satanic Verses?"' Serageldin told CNN. "To which my answer was, 'Not only would I consider it, but I do have it, and it's in our catalogue and you can go and look it up.'"

As far as Serageldin is concerned, no subject is off limits: "We have books by Israeli authors, books about Israel, books about Zionism, books against the regime in Egypt. We have books that are frankly atheistic and aggressively so - Dawkins and Hitchins and so on - we have books that not just Muslims find offensive but that some other religions find offensive as well."

It is in this spirit of openness and tolerance that Ismail Serageldin finally casts his vision for the future of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

"Our mandate, our hope is to be able to provide all knowledge to all people at all times for free."

Filed under: Archaeology •Culture •Egypt

Share this on:
miriam   January 21st, 2010 1:11 pm ET

Good luck to Serageldin and the Alexandra Library.

He should beware, however, of the Egyptian Culture Minister, Farouk Hosni.
In May 2008, in response to a protest by an opposition member of Parliament over the existence of Israeli books in the library, he said, "Let's burn these books: if there are any, I will burn them myself before you".

His excuse, when confronted over these remarks was that it was "hyperbole" and that it was "a popular expression to prove something does not exist" ie Israeli books in Egyptian libraries.

Only two Israeli books have been translated into Arabic in Egypt.

This episode followed repeated anti-Israel and anti-Jewish statements by the minister throughout his 22 years in the position.

One only hopes that the vision of Serageldin for the spirit of openness and tolerance will be realized and that the collection will not suffer the same, but not so accidental, fate as the original Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

earle,florida   January 21st, 2010 8:50 pm ET

Absolutely wonderful article! It not only proves mankinds resiliency for adaptability, ...but thusly adheres to the good,and bad of past historicity ageless appetite for knowledge with the abandonment of any timeline-vaccum. The true cytoplasm of organic thought. Bravo,..."Bibliotheca Alexandrina"!

Bruce   January 22nd, 2010 4:34 pm ET

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri has expressed concerns over a possible Israeli attack on the country, citing an escalated violation of Lebanese airspace by Israeli aircraft.

Hariri, who arrived in France on Thursday on his first official visit to a Western country since forming his government in 2009, made the remarks in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde.

He said that Israeli aircraft violated the Lebanese airspace 25 times in one single day last week.

“I also mentioned the necessity to end the daily Israeli violations of this resolution (United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701), the escalation of the Israeli threats against Lebanon and its government,” Hariri said.

The Lebanese premier said it seems that Israel thinks hitting the southern part of Lebanon does not mean that it has attacked the whole country.

Hariri said when Israel attacked southern Lebanon in 2006 “it damaged the country’s infrastructure. I wondered if that should not be considered an attack on the whole country.”

Israel launched an attack on Lebanon in 2006, but was met with stern resistance from Hezbollah. The 33-day war resulted in a heavy defeat for Tel Aviv, after the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 called on Israel to withdraw all of its forces from Lebanon.

“Naturally, this topic is part of a wider problem, the one of Israel’s refusal to go forward in the [Middle East] peace process, especially with the Palestinians,” Hariri was quoted by Reuters as saying.

A. Smith, Oregon   January 23rd, 2010 7:28 am ET

Library of Alexandria accidentally placed on fire? What? Christian mobs repeatedly attempted to murder the Curator of that great library and had repeatedly attempted to burn it to the GROUND! What was the Vatican afraid of? The Facts that the Vatican 'gospel' was not truefully accurate when compared to historical collections at that period of time? What was the Christian leaders so afraid of?

In 624bce, Cyril, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Alexandria, Egypt, ordered his parishioners to burn the library, because it stood for evil.

But first, they had to eliminate the curator, Hypatia. She was no ordinary female citizen. She held seven PHDs in mathematics, philosophy, medicine, the physical sciences, and more. A former prostitue, she had intimate relationships with rulers of cities, states, and countries. Two decades previously, she had single handily thwarted Cyril’s first attempts to torch the library. She was awakened and told of the angry Christian mob’s plans. She jumped out of bed, totally naked, ran and stood in front of them. She gave them a most impassioned speech, which somehow calmed them down and made them see the error of their actions. Before the oration was over, they not only gave up their destructive end, but cheered Hypatia for saving them from committing such a great crime against the world and their unborn. Her courage was legendary.

Cyril must have suffered a tremendous blow to his ego & power, for it took him another 20 years before he could strike again. He did learn from his errors though. The key to success this time was to keep Hypatia from speaking. That fateful morning, on her way to work, Cyril’s religious thugs pulled Hypatia from her chariot, gagged and dragged her into one of their Christian churches. They repeatedly beat and gang raped her, for hours until they were spent. Then they set to skin her alive, flaying her skin with sharp abalone shells, through out the night. Incredibly, Hypatia, a woman of 70 years, actually lived into the next sunrise before she breathed her last. The Christians then burned her body, went to her home, and burned all of her works. Then invaded the great sacred repository, and irretrievably burned more knowledge than the mind can comprehend.

Archbishop Cyril was beatified and made a saint for his instrumental role in cutting our ties with the great ancestral minds of the past and marks the beginning of a thousand year plague we now call the “dark ages.” Where progress and ingenuity was condemned as evil, and history was lost. It was a crime to take a bath, under pain of death. As was to read the bible. Women were routinely tortured and burned for witchery. Their possessions were taken by the church, which shared a percentage with the accuser. The three plagues the Europeans suffered through, were each caused by once again the churches, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox. Cats were outlawed for representing the devil. They slaughtered all the cats, and anyone who even looked as if they were protecting them. No surprise when the rodent population exploded, raining diseases.

Imagine the Christian leaders making such a horrific MONSTER a saint!

Hope   January 25th, 2010 6:10 am ET

Bruce–"He said that Israeli aircraft violated the Lebanese airspace 25 times in one single day last week."

"the New York Times nominated it its number one destination in the world."

Is it any wonder their a$$'s is itching so badly they feel the need to destroying Lebanon again!

Israel is a no match to Lebanon's glamorous tourism. Never was.. NEVER will. Violating Lebanese airspace a good way of enticing anger, a reaction of some kind..a rocket from the south, a stone or two.. Should that happen, Israel will then have a legitimate reason to defend itself!!! Frankly, we should all be applauding Israel's perseverance and determination in protecting itself. You know stones CAN kill!!

miriam   January 25th, 2010 9:23 am ET


"Lebanon's glamourous tourism"?!
Perhaps a couple of streets in downtown Beirut and a ski resort in the mountains.

Tourists visit Israel for her religious history, her archeology, her Tel Aviv nightlife, her holiday resorts and regional tours combined with Jordan and Egypt.

BTW in a fight between feuding east Jerusalem Arab families on Friday, over the right of residents of one family to use the Arab bus that passed through the village of the other, two were killed by stones and rocks thrown.
When interviewed on camara, one of the residents stated that if the Israeli police hadn't broken up the fight everyone would be dead.

miriam   January 25th, 2010 1:50 pm ET


Israel does not need to be jealous of Lebanon when her foreign tourism is twice that of Lebanon's.
Just imagine what Lebanon could gain if it were to make peace with Israel instead of swearing to be the last country to ever do so and instead of letting itself be blackmailed by an internationally recognized terror organization.
Jordan and Egypt have both acknowledged the advantages of peace with Israel and its effect on tourism.
The Alexandia library may also benefit.

Hope   January 25th, 2010 4:27 pm ET

miriam– Stop beating around the bushes. Why is Israel violating the Lebanese airspace? If Gaza's fishermen stray more then 3 miles offshore, they are met by machine guns!!!! But you people seem (OK!!) entering somebody else's air-land unlawfully!!! It does not take a PHD in psychology to figure, when someone trespass-violates someone else's land-air-waters transcends into anger and retaliation. Sounds what Israel is hoping for!!

Hope   January 25th, 2010 6:39 pm ET

Smith from Oregon–

It does not say Hypatia from Alexandria was a former prostitute. A pagan, a scholar, a thinker with exceptional talents, but not a prostitute. Though her life seems to have been fictionalized and dramatized.

Filipe   January 25th, 2010 8:23 pm ET


Once again I see you speak from a position of complete ignorance. For one, I doubt you've ever been to Beirut. And most certainly, given your disposition and complete bigotry and hatred for the Israelis-- I can most assuredly guarantee you've never been to Israel.

So why is it you are so convinced that there is a "need to destroy Lebanon again"??

A position that many people have voiced in recent months-- Hezbollah, with their known and verified rearmament, not on the south of Lebanon, but in the north, has virtually guaranteed that any future conflict Hezbollah will result in devastation for the vast majority of Lebanon.-– Unless the Lebanese government moves to address the regional threat that Hezbollah represents.

So, you see, the Lebanese government has a very large and significant role to play in the future of their country. They must address the threat from within-– and the puppets of Amadinenutjob and the Grand Ayatolllah.

If the People of Lebanon and the elected government can take charge of their sovereign nation-- they really have no concerns from external forces.

miriam   January 26th, 2010 10:12 am ET


The answer is clear.
Under UNSC resolution 1701, Hizbollah was to disarm and be removed from southern Lebanon, be prevented from re-arming, UNIFIL was to be strengthened and an arms embargo was to be placed on Lebanon. Israel was not required to immediately withdraw from Lebanon but should cease offensive operations. Israel was reserved the right to self-defence.

Since the adoption of the resolution, Hizbollah has built up its weapons stores between the Blue Line and the Litani (ie South Lebanon), especially within civilian villages and houses, has fired rockets into Israel, has infiltrated into Israel and prevented UNIFIL from searching and investigating explosions and other activities thereby preventing the fulfilment of their mandate.

Evidently, Hizbollah has violated the resolution and since Israel has the right to self-defence, she is therefore able to enter Lebanese air space to access the activities in southern Lebanon that can only be intended for a future attack on Israel.

UNSC Res. 1701 was passed under Chapter 6 and is therefore non-binding. However it contains language from previous binding Chap.7 resolutions wrt Lebanon's arms embargo and UNIFIL.

In the Oslo Accords signed by Israel and the PA, Gazan fishermen were allowed to fish up to 20 nautical miles (37 km) from their coast. As a result of the second intifada the distance was reduced to prevent weapons smuggling.
When Hamas violently threw out the PA from Gaza, they simultaneously rejected the Oslo Accords, thereby negating the previous fishing rights.
BTW, 3 nautical miles is 5.5km.

Hope   January 27th, 2010 3:38 am ET

miriam–You can Tango with your resolutions all you want, the fact remains:

Israeli aircraft VIOLATED the Lebanese airspace 25 times in one single day last week. You could also say Israel is breaking international laws. Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri wouldn't be expressing his concerns if he did not feel Lebanon's security is being threatened by Israel's aggression. It's not that complicated! Stop beating around the bushes.

Too bad Lebanon does not receive the billions of US $$ in military and economic aid, it would have had a strong Lebanese Army, Air Force, and Navy. Perhaps more internal stability would have been achieved. Look how much of a goliath (Filipe, goliath means gigantic opponent) Israel is!! No wonder the Lebanese Prime Minister is worried about his Country's safety.

miriam   January 27th, 2010 2:17 pm ET


Hariri's remarks were in relation to UNSC res. 1701 so go waltz (or perhaps belly dance) with him.

While Lebanon plays host to one of Iran's terrorist proxies, which as long as it continues to be present and armed in the country violates Lebanese soil and violates UN resolutions, Israel has the right to prevent Hizbollah's planned attacks. UNIFIL's mandate is compromised and therefore inefficient.

The globalization of law does not remove the responsibility of a state to defend her citizens.
Israeli fly-overs are for technical purposes, with no intention of attacking the Cedar state despite the rhetoric of the country's political and terrorist players.

Filipe   January 27th, 2010 10:37 pm ET


If Hariri is concerned he can take the steps necessary to do what is required to alleviate his concern-– he can address the threat to his country by the ongoing presence of an armed and threatening illegal radical militia force called Hezbollah !!!!

It's really simple !!! He has the power and authority to eliminate Hezbollah !!!

If you claim he doesn't-– then Lebanon is nothing more than a state run and ruled by a radical extremist terror organization.

So, like I said before- let the people of Lebanon take charge of their own fate--eliminate the evil enemy from within!

university rector   January 29th, 2010 8:22 pm ET


and what about the Alexandria library?

Why do you feel compelled to spread lies about Israel on a blog about the library

your hatred and bigotry knows no bounds

The Alexandria library!

Hope   February 1st, 2010 4:41 am ET

What lies are you referring to rector? If one disapproves of Israel's racial policies, the mistreatment and ongoing abuse of the Palestinian people, the violation of Lebanese airspace..makes one a hatred bigotry!

Doubt the Grand Bibliotheca Alexandrina (great article btw) was built for imbeciles. But you could still visit your local library, might do you some good.

miriam   February 1st, 2010 12:22 pm ET


Your bigotry is revealed when you incessantly criticize Israel while ignoring or disregarding the fact that those from who Israel attempts to protect her citizens are guilty of the crimes you accuse Israel of.

The Arabs do not want a Jewish state in the ME and have succeeded in almost entirely ethnically cleansing their states of Jews.

Israel has been abused by surrounding states for decades, and the Jews of the region for longer. Military and terrorist attacks have been joined by political and legal rhetorical abuse applied exclusively to the Jewish state.

Hizbollah, Syria and Iran continue to violate Lebanese air, sea and land "space".

Good luck to Bibliotheca Alexandrina in today's internet society. Will anyone visit it or will Wikipedia suffice?

Bill   February 10th, 2010 5:39 pm ET

No more Israel = No more middle east crises.

No more Israel = No more made up war on terror

No more Israel = American congressman will vote for the good of America and not the good of Israel.

No more Israel = Senators wont sell their votes for cash and holidays paid for by AIPAC

miriam   February 12th, 2010 12:52 pm ET


You really believe that?!!!!!

Bill   February 13th, 2010 7:05 pm ET

Miriam, everyone knows its true. Try reading internet news, instead of Jewish owned lame stream media.

Bill   February 13th, 2010 7:15 pm ET

p.s. Miriam,

Israels "fifth column" in Washington is about to crumble. Republicans and Democrats have violated the constitution with unconditional support and financial aid to foreign countries i.e. Israel. These White house stooges are about to be replaced with independent candidates who place Americas needs first. Think about this as the beginning of the end for the fake state of Israel

miriam   February 14th, 2010 8:13 am ET


Actually, most people know it is anti-semitic propaganda being spread on the electronic media by those who abuse freedom of speech and brainwash the gullible.

m.gibson   March 6th, 2010 9:01 pm ET

Miriam,you think alternative views are an abuse of the freedom of speech. This only menans that the alternative views must be correct, as you are a Zionist fascist dictator

subscribe RSS Icon
About this blog

This blog has now been archived and commenting has been switched off. Visit the Inside the Middle East site for news, views and video from across the region.

Read more about CNN's special reports policy