Print Email

A Story from Old Alexandria

A small boy waited quietly on the dock. The port of Alexandria was crowded and noisy. The boy named Jahi could smell the fish that had just been caught. Soon his mother would be grilling some of those fish for dinner. The boy watched as workers unloaded colorful woven rugs and boxes of spices from a ship that had just arrived from India. But Jahi was waiting for something even more special than black pepper or bright yellow turmeric. He was waiting for the ship’s captain to give him the scrolls carried on the ship. He would strap the scrolls on his back and carry them to the Great Library of Alexandria.

There were no books in ancient Egypt. There were scrolls. Scrolls might be filled with poetry or stories of battles. There might be explanations of astronomy or geometry or medicine. Thousands of scrolls were carefully stored at the Great Library. Jahi could not read, but he understood that the scrolls were precious. They were read by students and scholars who wanted to teach mathematics or geography or study the stars.

We have imagined there might have been a boy like Jahi. But everything about the Library itself is true. Ships coming to the port of Alexandria were ordered to give their scrolls to the Library where they were copied by scribes. The copy was given back to the ship’s captain and the Library kept the original.All the scrolls were translated into Greek and sometimes Hebrew.

Since the days of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, men called scribes had written stories and information on scrolls. A grass called papyrus grew easily in the soil washed by the Nile River. Papyrus reeds were flattened, pressed together and dried in long sheets that could be rolled into scrolls. Readers unrolled the scroll slowly as they read. When readers finished one scroll, they rolled it up in the opposite direction so the next reader could begin at the beginning. Some books were on scrolls that were 150 feet long; sometimes it would take twelve scrolls or more to tell one story or explain one subject.

In 331 BCE, Alexander the Great ordered the city of Alexandria to be built on the land he had conquered in Egypt. Alexander died before the city was built and one of his generals, a man named Ptolemy, became king of Egypt. Ptolemy wanted to collect all the knowledge of the world in one place, so he built the Great Library of Alexandria. Historians believed the Library of Alexandria contained 700,000 scrolls – about the same as 100,000 modern books.

The Library included several buildings, almost like a university today. There was a small museum, a temple to the ancient God Serapis and ten Great Halls, each assigned to a different subject. There were ten great halls each for a different subject. From 300 BCE until 400 CE, the Library was a center where great thinkers, scientists, mathematicians and poets came to study and share ideas. It was at the Library of Alexandria that Eratosthenes discovered how to measure the size of the Earth and another man named Euclid figured out the rules of geometry.

A man named Aristophanes was in charge of all the poetry in the Library. One story says that he was standing in the back of one of the great halls during a poetry contest when his ears began to tingle. He rushed out of the room, whispering to a guard, “That young man is not a poet. He is a fraud!”Aristophanes knew exactly where to find the scroll he wanted.

He returned to the hall and spoke to the judges.

“Stop the competition,” he said with both dignity and anger in his voice, pointing to a student who had finished reciting his poem.

“That young man has dishonored the Library. He did not write his own poem. He stole it. The original poem is right here on this scroll.” And indeed it was.

The student was disqualified from the competition. He could never study in the halls of the Great Library again.

The scrolls and the crocodiles and the ancient Library itself are all gone now. It is strange that all that knowledge was collected in the Library but no one knows for sure what happened to the Library.One story says the Roman emperor Julius Caesar set fire to Egyptian ships in the harbor of Alexandria and wind carried the fire to the Library. Other stories blame either Christian or Muslim leaders for burning books that did not agree with what they believed.


A Story of Alexandria Today

In the 1970s, people began talking about building a new library in Alexandria. Professors from the University of Alexandria, city planners, writers and thinkers, even business people who wanted more people to travel to Egypt all became excited by the idea.

An international organization called UNESCO helped organize a competition to design the new library.Other countries wanted to help.Norway gave furniture for the reading halls. A university in Mexico donated CDs.Spain gave the new library a gift of valuable historical reports written in Arabic.Shanghai, China, donated books.The Bibliotheca Alexandrina opened to the public in 2002.

“Bibliotheca Alexandrina” was the name of the ancient library in Latin and it is also the name of the new library.It is one of the largest libraries of the world and like the ancient library, it is expected to share knowledge among people and cultures from all over the world. The very modern building was designed by a company from Norway but it includes many symbols of Egypt. When the pharaohs ruled Egypt, many Egyptians worshipped the sun god Ra.He was considered the creator of everything in the universe.Tomb paintings show Ra traveling across the sky in two boats with the sun on his head. The circle shape of the new library represents the sun shining on the world. The slanted roof allows the sun to shine into the library.

Alexandria Library RoofAlexandria Library Granite Wall

All around the outside of the building are stones made of granite from Aswan, a town on the Nile River in the south of Egypt. Workers carved a letter or a sign from 500 different alphabets into each stone – from cave drawings to Egyptian hieroglyphics to modern English, Arabic and Asian alphabets. This stone wall rests in a pool of water. As the day and the seasons change, the stone wall appears to change as the light moves.The new library is right next to the beaches where families and visitors come to swim in the Mediterranean Sea.

Inside the Library, a sculpture made out of metal covers one wall.Stairs climb to the sky. There are computers and tables and desks everywhere. The books are on many shelves behind the computers. The new library has room for more than three million books. They are no longer carried to the library by small boys like Jahi walking from the dock – but Egyptian boys DO still eat fresh fish grilled by their mothers!

The Bibliotheca has seven floors above ground and four floors underground. There are six special libraries, seven research centers, three museums, a cafeteria, several art galleries and offices. Jahi could visit the Children’s Library, which has its own website with links to Disney, Batman, and Sesame Street.Jahi could take classes in Arabic handwriting or learn how to make maps. He could meet authors reading children’s books aloud in the library and watch a puppet show.Children pay 30 Egyptian pounds (about $6) a year to be a member of the Library so they can borrow books.

Alexandria Library InsideAlexandria Library Sculpture

One of the Egyptian scholars who helped create the Bibliotheca Alexandrina said, “The old library encouraged people to debate, create and invent. The new library is carrying that legacy forward.”