Alexandria, Alive Once More with Books

The Corniche, alongside the city’s harbor. Hemis/Alamy

The first and last thing, of course, is the harbor: that perfect blue-green keyhole to the Mediterranean, sheltered by two slender spits of land extending toward one another. Sphinxes sit underwater at the old shoreline, long ago submerged by rising sea levels. Today the ancient harbor is nearly ­empty—it’s not large enough for the tankers and barges of modern commerce—but looking out over it toward open water, one is tempted to imagine fleets of triremes decorated with painted eyes. Conquerors have looked upon that harbor and dreamed of empire: Alexander the Great (after whom the city is named), Caesar, and Napoleon. The Arabs broke with centuries of tradition when they built their capital at Fustat, an old military encampment on a bluff overlooking the Nile to the south, which became the city we call Cairo. For almost 1,000 years, Alexandria was the seat of power and learning in Egypt.

The most renowned symbol of the city’s power was the Bibliotheca—the Library of Alexandria—and so naturally debate flourishes over who was responsible for burning it down. Received wisdom blames the early Christians, who, having decided Hellenic knowledge was too pagan to be useful, torched the place in the name of God (an event dramatized in the 2009 Rachel Weisz film Agora). But historians peg Julius Caesar as the real culprit: he set fire to his own fleet in 48 B.C. to frustrate an enemy general, and prevailing winds spread the blaze to the library; what the Christians burned was a much more modest collection housed in the serapeum nearby. Still other theorists blame the Muslim conquerors who swept through Egypt in the seventh century, a suggestion that has been reenergized by our modern fear of Islam.

What excites my imagination, however, is not the burning of the great library, but the fact that it is being rebuilt. Two thousand years after the destruction of the original Bibliotheca, modern Egyptians have brought it back. Today, the Corniche—Alexandria’s main drag—is dominated by a massive glass-and-steel disc, the edifice of the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina. It stands out among the European-influenced façades of the old apartment buildings and hotels along the water and the minarets of the local mosques. Inside, the Bibliotheca features computer workstations with high-speed Internet, an international interlibrary search service, and space for an extraordinary 8 million books—though currently more than three quarters of its shelves sit empty. Exhibits on the main floor feature paintings and sculptures by a dozen of Egypt’s most respected modern artists. The Bibliotheca has been a destination for the Wikimedia Foundation’s annual conference and has played host to lecturers such as Umberto Eco. Despite rumors of inadequate funding and management issues, the Bibliotheca’s administrators seem determined to make it a hub of intellectual life.

And yet the library’s international profile remains slim, perhaps because it contradicts the romantic notion that Alexandria is a dead city, one whose glory days are shrouded in the past. But modern Alexandria is very much alive: it’s a metropolis of more than 4 million inhabitants, the second-largest city in Egypt and its largest seaport, and an ancillary epicenter of the revolution that overthrew former president Hosni Mubarak. The Bibliotheca is a fitting monument to the city’s vitality and also to its reputation for defiance; the library’s outspoken director, Ismail Serageldin, was locking horns with the Muslim Brotherhood long before they ascended to power. In a country where large-scale projects are often prey to official corruption and incompetence, the library is proof of the tenacity of Alexandrian ambition.

That ambition can almost be felt in the air itself. Walking down the Corniche in the evening, past its cafés and restaurants—many of which still sport Greek names—there is a profound sense of confidence and well-being that is often difficult to find in larger, dirtier, ultrapressurized Cairo. It’s as if the city is simply waiting to retake its rightful place on the world stage, an amalgam not of the things it has been, but of the things it will become. Alexandria, for all its history, has never been a backward-looking city. Like its legendary harbor, it gazes outward: at the sea, and at the world to come.