A library for the new millenium, a desert garden and a couple of Aussie beach bums
We took it easy for our second day in Alexandria – a bit of sightseeing and a whole lot of relaxing on the beach. We were lucky enough to awaken to a beautiful morning, and had time for a sleep in and morning cup of coffee before setting off for the day. Our hotel is right on the beach, so this was the view we awoke to….
First stop for the day was the huge, ultra-modern, new Great Library of Alexandria – better known as the Bibliotheque Alexandrina. Opened in 2002, the Bibliotheque Alexandrina was built with funds donated by UNESCO and cost more than $350 million USD. Designed by a Scandinavian architectural firm, the library’s main building is designed to look like the disc of the rising sun – it’s all very futuristic-looking and impressive, though out of place beside the dusty, dirty, sand-coloured buildings of down-town Alexandria that are all around it!
We went on a tour through the library with one of their English-speaking guides; she showed us all their modern facilities and told us a bit about the Libraries of Alexandria – both old and new. She told us first about the Ancient Library of Alexandria, which was the largest and most significant library in the ancient world. Established under Ptolemy I, the Great Library of Alexandria flourished under the patronage of the Greco-Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty and functioned as a major center of learning and knowledge for centuries. With collections of works, lecture halls, meeting rooms, and gardens, the library was part of a larger research institution called the Musaeum of Alexandria, where many of the most famous thinkers of the ancient world studied. The library was partially destroyed during the Roman invasion of Egypt in 48BC, and then totally destroyed in 391AD by early (Coptic) Christians. The library’s reputation lingered however and in the 1980s an idea was born: to rebuilt the Great Library of Alexandria. It took a while, but today Alexandria’s modern library is one of the best in the world.
Built near the site of the original Great Library of Alexandria, the Bibliotheque Alexandrina contains a number of seminar rooms; a planetarium; exhibition halls containing, amongst other things, pictures and photos of Alexandria through the ages, a display on traditional Arabic garbs and a display of North African and Middle Eastern art; and a massive central reading hall and book respository. There were lots of books and computer terminals in the library, as you would expect from any modern library; the bit that was REALLY impressive though were the large print-on-demand printers dotted throughout the building. These are linked to the library’s central database, which includes thousands of scanned copies of books, and can print copies of these books in just a few short minutes. Essentially this means that people can go into the library, choose a book from the library’s database and print themselves a hard copy, complete with cover and bindings, in just 5-10 minutes*. Totally cool! Even cooler is the library’s website, which anyone can use for free from anywhere in the world. With the click of a button you can access all the books scanned into their database, including their extensive collection of 18th, 19th and 20th century Egyptology texts. Very cool stuff – especially if you’re a bit nerdy like us and like a good bit of knowledge! Bored? Check it out: http://www.bibalex.org
*We were wondering why the library would invest in facilities to print hard copies of books when everything is being digitised. The obvious answer is that most of the Egyptian university and highschool students that use the library don’t have easy access too computers. Again, we were quite struck by the juxtaposition of this ultra-modern library against the backdrop poverty and chaos that is Egypt.
From the library we went to Al Montaza Palace. This 19th century palace and its extensive gardens were built on a promontory overlooking the Mediterranean Sea at one end of the corniche in Alexandria. Montaza Palace was constructed for Khedive Abbas II, the last Muhammad Ali Dynasty* ruler to hold the Khedive title over the Khedivate (i.e. state) of Egypt and Sudan. Today the palace is for the exclusive use of the president of Egypt and is not open to the public (though we did admire its mixture of Turkish and Florentine architecture from afar). The Al Montaza Gardens, however, are open to visitors and we had a great morning strolling through the former royal gardens. There we learnt that there are 112 different varities of date palms (examples of which all grow in the garden), and that young couples use the garden for clandestine meetings, away from the watchful eyes of their elders. It was a great place to spend a few hours relaxing.
*Muhammad Ali Pasha was an Albanian commander in the Ottoman army, who declared himself Khedive (i.e. ruler or king) of Egypt and Sudan in 1805 (after almost 300 years of Ottoman rule). He is regarded as the founder of modern Egypt because of the dramatic reforms in the military, economic and cultural spheres that he instituted. The Muhammad Ali dynasty that he established would rule Egypt and Sudan until the Egyptian Revolution of 1952.
Having settled into “relaxation” mode we decided to spend the rest of our day chilling out on the beach (our hotel has a private beach which means no touters, hawkers or gawkers). Not very interesting for you, dear readers, but very nice for us!