Roving thoughts and provocations

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Saving Alexandria

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Alexandrians join hands to protect the library.

Located near the site of its ancient predecessor, in the heart of historical Alexandria, the remarkable Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the new Library of Alexandria, which opened in 2002, has been uncomfortably close to the turmoil that now wracks Egypt, and especially Egypt’s cities. First a suicide bomber attacked one of Alexandria’s Coptic churches on New Year’s Eve, killing 21 Egyptian Christians and injuring a hundred (including several Muslims worshipping at the mosque across the street). Now, for the past week, tens of thousands of young Egyptians have taken to the city’s streets, calling for more freedom, more jobs, lower prices, and democracy, unfazed by a harsh government crackdown and episodes of violence in which some three dozen Alexandrians have been killed. So it was a great relief to read the message “To our friends around the world” from Ismail Serageldin, the director of the Library, who reports that when unrest broke out on Friday, a cordon of young people rushed to surround the Library complex (which includes conference halls and a planetarium) and protect it from vandalism.

Serageldin’s message specifies “young people” rather than “students” because not all of these guardian angels were enrolled at the University of Alexandria across the street; some were Library employees, some were demonstrators, some may simply have been neighbors for whom the Library has become an essential symbol of Egypt, or perhaps of civilization in general. In any event, the move to protect the Library—as with similar efforts by protesters in Cairo to protect the Egyptian Museum after a group of looters smashed display cases and destroyed two mummies—is not only a matter of guarding the books and other splendid collections housed beneath its circular roof: it is a matter of guarding an idea.

The Library of Alexandria has burned twice before, once, partially, when Julius Caesar made his landing in Egypt in 48 BCE, and again, with devastating effect, in late antiquity. The first burning was probably a mistake, the second the result of religious fanaticism, most probably the same fanaticism that killed the Alexandrian mathematician Hypatia in 415 CE for daring, as a woman, to profess philosophy. Hypatia’s murderers called themselves Christians, but their real creed was an ancient cult of destruction that precedes every known religion, every state, every political system. We pin that cult now on the Germanic tribe of Vandals who sacked Rome in the year 455, but we can read its violent traces just as clearly in prehistoric times. Blind rage cannot understand anything as complex or beautiful as Rome, or a library, or even a person, an animal, a book, a tree, a work of art—but blind rage can make these intricate systems stop, and the ability to make things stop has served many of our kind since time immemorial as a fine substitute for learning, experience, scientific method, artistic creation, philosophy. Destruction, too, can count as hard work.

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Bibliotheca Alexandrina

The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina was erected to reverse that dark history, to reject destruction—even the destruction of millennia past—as final. The building, with its circular face, emerges from the earth like a rising sun (the design is by a Norwegian firm, Snøhetta, people who understand the sun); it faces a glorious bay that laps the ruins of the Ptolemies’ palace. The complex hosts scientific conferences, conferences on women, a massive collection of manuscripts, digital equipment, museums, collections of contemporary art, and a host of other activities; it means to recreate the spirit of ancient Alexandria, for many centuries perhaps the most cosmopolitan place on earth.

In a similar challenge to destruction and chaos, the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century residents of Athens resolved to reassemble the scattered pieces of their Acropolis from a confusion of later, jerry-built fortification walls, reconstructing the little temple of Athena Nike from scattered scraps, bringing forth for display the statues that were ruined in the Persian invasions of 480 BCE, a foray that left the original temples of Athens in smoking ruins. The statues had been solemnly buried the year afterwards, hidden away in consecrated ditches because the gods would disdain imperfection. The ruined temples were replaced by the buildings we know so well, the Parthenon, Propylaea, and Erechtheion. As for those battered, buried statues, brought out from hiding, perfect enough for our human eyes, they are now the pride of the new Acropolis Museum, which sets the archaic lions and monsters of the old temple pediments at eye level and lets us wander among a forest of beautiful marble maidens—the famous Korai, with their secret smiles and carefully plaited hair.

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Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Whatever Egypt is to become now, the Library of Alexandria is surely an essential beacon by which to guide it—in this city where the ancient world’s most powerful lighthouse, the Pharos, once blazed forth (its pink granite pieces are still immured in the scenic Qaitbey Fortress). The Library is not only a national—and international—symbol of civility, but also a safe refuge for private thoughts. From the moment it opened eight years ago, young Egyptians have crowded into its eight levels, all eight sharing a single roof—a place where solitary contemplation lives in evident harmony with collective will. As these same young people now stand guard over their library in these difficult but hopeful days (along with Dr. Serageldin, who remains at his post), they are in fact standing guard for all of us.

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