The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is a place of learning, dialogue and tolerance. If you ever get in that is.
For nearly 2,000 years the ancient Library of Alexandria, Egypt, has been nothing more than an illusion, ever since it was destroyed by a fire or two in ancient times. It was considered the largest library in the ancient world, an antique academic institution and thus perhaps it was the oldest ‘university’ in the world.
When I first visited Alexandria some 30 years ago the idea of reviving the old library already was a project in the making. A committee set up then by the Alexandria University selected a plot of land for its new library, between the campus and the sea front, close to where the ancient library supposedly once stood.
I revisited Alexandria last year. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina had now been built. This huge modern library with its amazing building was designed by Norwegian architects Snøhetta. It was inaugurated some five years ago, in 2002.
Alexandrian people are lucky to have this library in their city. Sometimes they call it Egypt’s fourth pyramid. But as luck would have it, again I could not visit the institution because the Bibliotheca was closed for a day of rest. If you wish to go, do not visit on a Tuesday. Rumour has it that the Library is now, in 2007, open seven days a week, but you just may want to check on that before you go.
I only went to Alexandria for the day, by taxi from Cairo. I nearly missed my unsuccessful visit to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina because my taxi broke down on the motorway, but that is another story.
Alexandria is a bustling, vivid melting pot of peoples, cultures and religions. There are Egyptians, of course, but also Turks that mingle with Jews, Arabs with Copts and Syrians with Armenians, plus there are Italians and Greeks, and have been since Alexander the Great. Plus tourists from all over the world, Europeans, Scandinavians, Japanese, Americans, you name it.
Alexandria is completely different from Cairo, where I had come up from for the day. Cairo is scorching in the heat and is chaos and madness, with the sheer expanse of it, plus the hustling buzz of some 20+ million inhabitants. Alexandria is small compared to Cairo, with a population of ‘only’ 4 or 5 million, but it is the second-largest city in Egypt, and Egypt’s largest seaport. Cairo is Egypt pure and Arab to the core. Alexandria is cooler due to its seaside location, and feels closer to Europe and its Western values.
After my disappointing non-visit to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina I was off to the Constantine Cavafy museum. Constantine Cavafy is a famous poet of Greek descent but born in Alexandria. His home of the last 35 years of his life is considered a ‘must’ for all visitors to Alexandria and for all lovers of poetry. Do you really want to know that this one was also closed on my only day in Alexandria?
But there are other great places to see when in Alexandria, for instance the ancient Roman Amphitheatre or the opulent Graeco-Roman Museum.
Lawrence Durrell, author of the famous four novels that make up ‘The Alexandria Quartet’, went for his coffee to ‘Pastroudis’ in al-Horriya Road, as did the poet, Cavafy and also the Grand Old Lady of Egyptian music, Oum Kalthoum. You would be right had you guessed already that ‘Pastroudis’ is now boarded up and not ready for coffee, tea, shishas or anything else. As far as rumour has it, McDonald’s have acquired the place and no prize for guessing that Coke and burgers will be served there soon instead of Baklava or Falafels. But the terrace at the famous ‘Cecil Hotel’, now managed by the Accor Sofitel group, is also a great place for having one’s coffee and watching the world go by.
You might get the impression that I had a rather unfortunate and unsatisfying day trip to Alexandria, full of mishaps and near-misses. Well, far from it. I had one of the best days of my life, ever. It can be an exciting adventure to suffer a car break down in the middle of a desert motor way. It took an hour and a half to get the engine repaired and I was intrigued to learn that it cost 20 Egyptian Pounds for the mechanic’s labour (that’s the equivalent of 3 Euros). And it is thrilling, sometimes scary, to be driven from Cairo to Alexandria and back, mishaps or not. I can’t wait to go back to the city of Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen. But perhaps next time I will take the train.
I just hope that on a future visit the Bibliotheca Alexandrina will be open for me.
Talking of novels, here’s an Egyptian novel that you should not miss: ‘The Yacoubian Building’, by Alaa Al Aswany. It is available in English and I for one was thoroughly immersed in its spellbinding, multi-layered story.