Texts are the most perishable, and the most imperishable, of things. As papyri, scrolls, manuscripts and books, they are material objects, subject to time and tyrants. Yet, the magic of reading and remembering, and the technologies of reproduction and conservation give them an enduring life, both in the universe of the mind and in the fragile world of things. Marking this union of destruction and continuity in the life of texts, the ancient library at Alexandria was ceremonially reopened a few days ago. Looking like a giant disc rising out of the Mediterranean, this vast modern structure can hold eight million books and two thousand readers.
Since Alexander made this Egyptian seaport a link between Macedonia and the Nile valley, Alexandria had been at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa. Founded and maintained by the long succession of the Ptolemies in the 3rd century BC, the library in Alexandria became one of the greatest centres of learning in the Hellenistic world. Its ethos was always richly syncretic. Bringing over from Athens the Aristo- telian philosophy of rational enquiry, the scholar appointed by the first Ptolemy to look after the library established a tradition that fostered science, philosophy, theology and poetry. Alexandria saw the flowering of gnosticism and neoplatonism, complicating Christianity with pagan and Arabic mysticism and heresy. It produced the Septuagint, the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. Pagans, Christians and Muslims have all contributed to the destruction of this magnificent syncretism. These include Julius Caesar, early Christian zealots and the first caliph of Egypt, who ordered the burning of books to heat the public baths.
It is this ancient tradition which the new library wishes to revive in a part of the world whose cultural, political and economic status is very different now from what it used to be in classical antiquity. Egypt is now one of the poorest countries in the world, and books are regularly banned there according to its censorship laws. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina has therefore invited as much scepticism as encouragement. After the state-of-the-art building and facilities, there seems to be little money left for the acquisition of something as basic to the existence of a library as books. There are only about 400,000 now, most of them acquired from what could be spared by international libraries and private collections. Having Mr Saddam Hussein as a generous benefactor does not also help the library’s image.
Yet an attempt to recreate — in the Islamic world and in the age of internet technology — a “universal library” on such a scale has a compelling symbolic value. Its director places against the reality of “xenophobia and fundamentalism” the ideals of “rationality, dialogue and scientific method”. The library might also be made to embody how modern technology, far from causing the end of reading, has actually brought books closer to their readers, and to one another. The internet may well have become — in the words of that visionary librarian, Jorge Luis Borges — “the catalogue of catalogues”.