"Where's the library?" It's not the first question most travelers to a great city ask. But it was the question President Richard Nixon asked of his host, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, as their motorcade swept through Alexandria in 1974.
Sadat had to admit that the library for which the city had been renowned -- the first repository of works from around the world -- had been gone for nearly 2,000 years. But Nixon's question planted a seed from which the striking Bibliotheca Alexandrina grew.
Dedicated with great fanfare in 2002, the thoroughly modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina attracts 1.3 million visitors each year, 700,000 of whom are scholars and researchers. But one needn't be an Egyptologist or research scholar to enjoy a visit here.
In fact, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is the ideal first stop when experiencing Egypt. The BA, as it's known locally, is a cultural center and learning institution more akin to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., than to a typical library.
The library's three buildings contain four museums; six specialized libraries, including those for children and the visually impaired; and a planetarium.
The most dramatic of the three, all designed by the Norwegian architectural firm Snohetta AS, takes the shape of an elegant slanted disk, symbolizing the rising sun, and is surrounded by a pool of sparkling azure water. The gray granite walls are incised with letters from all the world's alphabets.
From the complex's north side, I gazed upon the site of the Pharos, the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria, the most technological of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World. That's fitting, since the BA is also a technological wonder. "It is the heir of the old library but it was created in the digital age," Ambassador Hagar Islambouley, BA's head of external relations, told me.
The BA boasts 1.5 million physical volumes, nine academic centers and an international conference facility. But the library's leaders emphasize the ever-expanding digital collection, including an immense digital book archive, a supercomputer that archives the Internet (yes, the whole Internet) and 45 databases accessible onsite.
Ancient library set the stage
This modern incarnation of the ancient library arose near the site of the ancient mother of all libraries.
Athens, Rome and Alexandria are the three cities that formed the axis around which the classical world revolved, the legacies of which are still felt today. While the Greeks gave us the foundations of government and the Romans our architectural prototypes and civic infrastructure, Alexandria's greatest export was knowledge. Here, Euclid invented geometry, Galen conceived modern medicine, Claudius Ptolemy constructed the building blocks of astronomy, and Archimedes teased out the basics of mechanics.
The Great Library of Alexandria -- built by Alexander the Great's successor in Egypt, Ptolemy I, in the third century B.C. -- was the first place where knowledge was stored in written form and made accessible to scholars.
Ptolemy's minions canvassed the Mediterranean and into Persia and India to collect and catalog all available written knowledge. They brought back scrolls, parchments and papyri from every corner of the world. Directed by history's original librarian, Demetrius of Phalerum, the Alexandrian library became the first and greatest of its kind.
Unfortunately, modern Alexandria mostly hides the physical remains of its ancient glory. But glimmers do shine through, not so much in preserved Greek and Roman ruins (although there are some), but in the tradition on which its fame was built -- the exchange of ideas.
Egypt's second largest city, Alexandria spreads southward 15 miles from its broad double harbor on the northern coast of Africa to contain nearly 5 million people. Hipper and less chaotic than the capital -- Cairo, 140 miles away -- Alexandria is nonetheless very Egyptian.
Rife with cacophony and stark contrasts, it is a city in which the ancient juxtaposes with the contemporary, sometimes discordantly, often nonchalantly. Braying donkeys pulling carts navigate traffic-choked streets alongside honking Fiats, and women in Western dress walk next to those in hijab and niqab (a veil with an opening for the eyes), many of them chatting away on mobile phones.
Patrons of the library reflect the mix. In the massive main reading room -- made up of seven cascading tiers filled with natural light -- veiled women work at computers alongside men and women from around the world.
Museums alone worth visit
A good place to start a visit is the BA's Culturama, a panoramic multimedia presentation that uses nine screens to introduce visitors to 5,000 years of Egyptian history. Starting with the pharaohs, the presentation moves quickly (actually, too quickly) through the country's Greek, Roman and Coptic periods and concludes with a look at modern Egypt.
From there, most visitors venture to one of four museums: Manuscript, Antiquities, History of Science and Anwar Sadat.
The manuscript museum is a softly lit respite from the sun's glare and traffic blare outside. Among its most remarkable items are an elaborate Torah and several brilliantly hand-lettered Korans and commentary books, their margins scribbled with notes from the pens of ancient scholars. The highlight, though, is the gigantic Kiswa, a 30-foot-long black brocade cover sewn to adorn the Kaaba, the holiest building in Mecca. Foot-high letters were hand-stitched using thread made of gold and silver.
The antiquities museum contains the requisite hieroglyphics, mummies and sarcophagi (this being Egypt, of course), as well as a fine compilation of Greek, Roman and Christian artifacts collected from throughout Egypt.
Antiquities are underfoot just about everywhere in this part of Egypt. Still, it seems somehow providential that digging for the new BA should have revealed more ancient artifacts.
Two relics excavated from this spot particularly evoke ancient everyday life. These are a pair of room-size Roman-era mosaics, one depicting Greco-Roman wrestlers and the other a guilty-looking brown dog standing next to an overturned vase.
In the newest museum, devoted to the life of President Anwar Sadat, we found Sadat's personal effects and memorabilia. Some items are as expected, such as letters of state and ceremonial gifts. Others are touchingly ordinary, including Sadat's bathrobe and his Gillette Adjustable razor.
A few are profoundly moving. In particular is the photograph of a smiling, confident-looking Sadat taken just minutes before he was assassinated during a Cairo military parade in 1981. Displayed below the picture is the blood-stained military uniform he wore when the bullets ripped into him.
In this small, dark room, the sense of reverence among guides and visitors of all ages and origins is palpable. Near-silence reigns.
While the museums may be a reason to visit, it is the library's book collection and enormous digital archives that are its raison d'etre. Few institutions are affected as directly by digital technology as are libraries. The Internet and other digital information sources have become a sort of giant de facto information repository that comes close to reaching Demetrius' original goal: an all-encompassing information portal from which nearly every bit of knowledge of the world can be accessed; where every poem, song, story and scientific fact can be stored and retrieved ... in multiple languages.
If that's so, then the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is perhaps the most beautiful and inviting portal since the time of Ptolemy.
William Gurstelle is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.