Shrugging off fears that tension with Iraq could cause another delay, officials are forging ahead with plans for the October opening of the new Alexandria Library, a Phoenix rising from the ashes of the ancient one.
“Preparations continue, and we have just negotiated television broadcast rights for the inauguration” with a European network, according to Frenchman Jean-Marie Compte, advisor for the library’s director Ismail Serageddin.
He did not name the network.
Planned for April, the inauguration of the Alexandria Library was postponed until October 16 because of almost-daily student protests in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities in support of the Palestinian uprising against Israel.
A US invasion of Iraq, which has appeared less imminent since Baghdad decided to readmit UN arms inspectors earlier this week, would plunge the region into chaos, Arab leaders have warned.
Such an attack would spoil the climate for the inaugural festivities, which are to be attended by several international public figures, including Queen Sofia of Spain and President Jacques Chirac of France.
It is a vast glass and concrete facility which sits among modern apartment blocks on the shore, looking like a solar disc tilting toward the Mediterranean Sea.
Inside the building, the immense and lofty reading room, which the library director boasts is the largest in the world, contrasts with what Serageddin describes as the “modest and elegant design” projected outside.
Bookshelves and desks are arranged on terraces of light wooden parquet flooring which divide up the space and soften the view of the stark concrete pillars which soar up to the skylights of the angled ceiling.
Abandoning part of its ambition to become a new world beacon of culture, as was the ancient one, the purpose of the establishment has evolved with the years to serve mainly Egyptians.
“We will never rival the Library of Congress in Washington, which has just about everything,” said Serageddin, a former vice president of the World Bank.
The Library of Congress enjoys an operating budget of $435-million, “while we will have only 20-million to 25-million,” he added.
Several sections of the library, such as the antiquities museum, the planetarium and the science museum, will serve as a “cultural complex”, Jean-Marie Compte explained.
“It will be a place where students and the young, which are close by, will come to work and meet each other,” he said. However, the library has not abandoned its “mission for excellence” in several fields, he said.
Officials say the complex will reflect the spirit of the ancient library, which held more than 700 000 catalogued volumes in its heyday in the centuries after Alexander the Great founded the city in 332 BC.
The legendary place of learning suffered several fires — one of them during Julius Caesar’s siege of Alexandria in 48 BC — before the first major public reading place in history was finally burnt down around 1 600 years ago.
Since the Norwegian architects — Snohetta — first put pen to paper, the ambitious project has come under fire from various quarters.
The harshest criticism came from archaeologists whose protests forced building work to be interrupted in 1993, accusing the constructors of having made no serious investigation of the site, where Ptolemaic palaces are known to have stood not far from the library.
Around 240 000 volumes will be available in the library when it opens, far short of the eight million originally expected.
Last but not least, since the project was launched in 1988, it has been burdened by millions of dollars in cost overruns, with the figure now at $225-million.
It is financed by Egypt, dozens of other countries — almost all of them Arab and European — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, and by the UN Development Programme.