Disclaimer: while the entire complex at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is three buildings, a plaza, and sculpture installations, the name “Bibliotheca Alexandrina” also refers to the building holding books, computers, meeting rooms, and reference desks open to readers. While English speakers may refer to the complex and library as the “Library of Alexandria,” the Latin translation is the official name, besides the Arabic (here, transliterated) Muktaba al-Iskandreya. In this post, I refer to the complex as the “Bibliotheca Alexandrina” and the library building as “the library” for sake of clarity, though this system runs against common speech.
Driving through Alexandria en route from Cairo, we swept past the famed Bibliotheca Alexandrina for the first time. We got the chance to take a tour during orientation. Since then, I’ve been frustrated in my attempts to go back. But, I have a feeling it’s a untapped resource that I should be able to utilize.
The building was designed by a Norwegian firm in conjunction with a committee of Egyptians. Their goal was to recreate a setting where culture from all over was celebrated, and the design reflects this. The exterior is surfaced with blocks of concrete impressed with pieces of script from as many real human languages and alphabets as you can imagine. Though sometimes letters from the same alphabet end up next to each other, there was no intended hidden symbols to be conveyed to people literate in this or that language. I think that’s really cool, and it robs innovative thinkers like Dan Brown from profiting off of the “hidden symbolism.” (Look hard at the right photo, and you’ll find a reconstructed statue of Ptolemy II, the original financier of the first, destroyed Library of Alexandria. His statue, combining Greek style facial features with the Pharoanic male standing statue, was found in the Eastern Harbor. I’ve got more classical archaeological knowledge where that came from!)
But the Library itself is part of a complex of three buildings. This diagram was just inside the library building. The big circle on the right is the library itself, and its roof does slope like that, to symbolize the sun rising from the sea. To the left of the library is the complex’s oldest building, a convention center. I’d not been in the center until Thursday. The third building is a small sphere, visible as a black dot between the two aforementioned buildings and the Corniche, which is the only thing separating the Bibliotheca from the sea and harbor. That sphere is a planetarium, hosting purely scientific shows on astronomy, anatomy, and evolution. I’ve not been to a planetarium show, but the outer edges of the planetarium connect with the Library building underground, so I peeked into a playroom designed kind of a memory of the Iowa Science Museum, before it moved downtown.
As the library, if not also the planetarium, was finished in 2002, the firm included modern art installations in the lobby and outdoor plaza-like space connecting the three buildings. This piece, and its closeup, is built exclusively of painted gears, bike chains, and nails. It’s a pretty crazy cool image of underwater.
The library has 11 floors from its highest edge to the underground floors. There is potential space for something like 5-10 million printed books, the library also hosts a machine that can print and bind books under 5 minutes (the second in the world) as well as hosts online archives of digitized books, and the library is the backup server for the San Francisco-based Internet Archive – saving every webpage that has ever been online for reference and study. My blogs are a part of that!
So, I’m a big fan of Norwegian architects in part because I see a lot of innovation coming from the Scandinavian architects. The right picture looks down into a couple floors of the Reading Room, which is stepped because of the exterior form. Pillars of course hark to Pharoanic times with the lotus shape, and the windows are designed to let in as much light as possible without ever having direct sunlight distract readers or UV rays hit books. Wow. The left picture is taken from the bottom of the sloping windows, so you can get a better idea of how the windows are designed. On the outside, the windows create a neat visual when walking along the Corniche, an added aesthetic bonus. The middle picture is a shot of the planetarium at night from the Corniche. The yellow blur at the bottom is a taxi cruising along.
Back inside the Reading Room, if you follow the slope of the whole room to its apex, you see an interesting form kind of hovering around a couple pillars, as if a couple of Lórien elves had built in metal and concrete instead of living trees. These are conference rooms for board meetings or presentations that don’t require an auditorium setting. What a meeting that would be.
Go down a couple flights of stairs, at the very bottom floor of the Reading Room, and you find a bunch of near-museum quality galleries. Here, Moutaz poses next to one art piece. Modern art is displayed next to story boards, costume designs, and recreated rooms from a famous Egyptian cinematographer’s life. One gallery is dedicated to Anwar Sadat’s life, and the nationalism feeling ripe within that room is familiar to anyone who has visited Atatürk’s mausoleum in Ankara. It’s a reverence combined with an intolerance for criticism overlaid with videos of speeches resonant with Hitler’s tones unlike anything in the US. I appreciated to have the chance to visit it, but it’s definitely not somewhere I’d frequent, especially not the ever-present knot of people around a case containing the suit of Sadat’s assassination, accompanied by the video of the assassination. Also present are installations from different media, including traditional outfits from Iraq, Siwa, Upper Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and elsewhere in the Middle East. I remember seeing a similar gallery in Amman, Jordan, around visiting Roman-period amphitheaters. Camera flashes are banned in many galleries, so I have only this photo. Also, if you want to visit the galleries on rare manuscripts (YES!!) or another couple subjects you have to pay more, and we didn’t have time to do that then…. Overall, while the rest of the Bibliotheca complex is apparently extremely organized and fancy like the West does fancy, the organization of the galleries (or how we were taken through them) left me confused and feeling haphazard.
Another view of the sloping Reading Room, surrounded by the connecting piece of concrete exterior impressed with more human symbols. (Side thought…when rain gathers at the bottom corner, how does it drain out?)
I’ve wanted to take advantage of this library since classes began. I’m a bookworm, get over it, but seriously, I’m out of leisure reading right now. I also have little access to a printer and scanner, something I take for granted as a collections assistant whose Luther College job has largely consisted of digitizing documents. Besides that, every Luther student has access to the Preus Library’s free scan-to-email system…which I need for important documents here. So, I’ve gone over a couple times to the library to figure out the system. To do it right, you buy a ticket (prices differentiate between native and foreign, student and general public), get in line to deposit any excess bags in a locker, walk to the entrance, show the ticket, go through security (which is the toughest I’ve seen in the Middle East outside of airports) to enter the lobby, then go through another round of security measures to enter the Reading Room. When I finally bought my first ticket yesterday, I was turned away from the door because my backpack needed to be checked. I left, frustrated, as the line to deposit bags spilled into the street and wasn’t moving. Apparently many students go straight from the Alexandria University (the gate to the Faculty of Commerce is right across the street) to the Bibliotheca. So, don’t go after class. But, the Bibliotheca opens at 9 Sunday through Thursday. I have class starting at 9 three of those days, and Moutaz had us go to passport control around that time on Wednesday…I admittedly could have gone yesterday, but was prepping ahead of a meeting with my language partner.
I did have time between passport control (we were extending our tourist visas for a several-month residency) and class on Wednesday, but due to a downpour, I got chatted up by an attractive young woman who informed me of a conference going on at the Convention Center. Following her, I checked it out. She was a receptionist for the day! And the conference wasn’t something to ignore – it was a legitimate academic conference. I had stumbled onto the 5th Annual International Conference on Calligraphy, Writing, and Inscriptions! I sat in 5 minutes of a presentation on research concerning the calligraphical forms of Qur’anic verses on Abbasid-era mosques (totally in Arabic, but that’s all from words I picked out from the presentation in context with pictures) until the young woman told me about a session in English. Until a session break, when I left for class, I listened to an Italian researching a Greco-Roman archaeological site that may be also from the Middle Kingdom, a Frenchwoman on astronomical words found in inscriptions at a southern mining site, a couple of Egyptians looking into the linguistic history of names of the Fayoum Oasis during pharaonic periods, and another Italian on the forms of inscriptions found at a central-western desert oasis. I was intrigued by some aspects of the rather esoteric presentations, like the suggestion that mined amethyst is the original reason purple is a royal color, and that deserts have symbolic meanings of death and hidden treasure (my mind connected that to hero myths), and the phonemic connection of Pharaonic Egyptian to Arabic.
Conferences like that are supposedly open to the public, as the entrance was free, and I passed through just by registering my phone number, address, and email. However, a couple elements make me think they’re not open to the public – one large reason is that I saw and heard no advertisement for this event, that should have an impact on Egyptians’ lives. Alexandrians live easily within incredible sources of knowledge, if more people had known about the conference. Another big reason the conference wasn’t open: all presentations were similar to the dry accounts I associate with peer-review journal articles. They were meant for the erudite academic community (though I know enough to understand the vast gist of the presentations and find some interest in them). Last night I listened to a TED podcast on “Talk Nerdy to Me” from a communications prof trying to bridge the gap between jargon-filled, dry presentations seemingly required as part of the scientific process and the incredible thought processes of engineers and scientists. This prof was astounded by the passion, the intellects, and the creative thinking going on behind the outward stereotype of inaccessible scientific talk. She had some great points – look it up on ted.com!
The nature of this session’s academic presentations and format was natural to me, as an attendee to senior project presentations at Luther College. Several rows in front of me was a middle-aged Egyptian man dressed not as an academic – every other man in the room had on a suit. This man had questions for the first Italian presenter, and verbally fought with the session’s moderator to get time to ask everything on his mind. The format of an academic conference seemed alien to this man, and expectations of sifting through thoughts to pick the most pertinent and important one or two per person had not been communicated to him. When finally given a chance to ask, he started in as most Egyptians do during a conversation: with gratitude and greetings. Neither have a place within this format of academic conversation. Watching this unfold, I realized more than ever the difference between academia and the real world. Regardless of whether this man was educated beyond high school, he’d come to learn, but was shoved aside because he didn’t fit within the format. I’m not sure I am fully alright with that situation.
Beyond an overview of this admittedly impressive complex (and the Convention Center had the most comfy auditorium chairs I’ve ever sat in!), now you have insight into something that tickled my thoughts the last couple days. Also, some of my favorite professors and teachers have spent a lot of time getting me to see the beauty of simple language when I saw plain speech as simply dumbed down. A huge belated thank you to Mrs. Mallen, Mr. Dye, Mrs. Niccum, Professor Rue, Prof Moore, Jenny, and Mom.