The Hidden Seeds of the Alexandria Library

Buy, borrow, or steal was the motto. Alexandria was the capital of world knowledge, and ships using its coast were searched for books of any kind.[1] Knowledge was more expensive than gold. When constructing the new library, it was very clear that a new building would have to honor this deep search for knowledge. The Bibliotheca Alexandria stands off Egypt’s north coast, honoring history, uninviting of ignorance, and a penetralia of its own. 

In 2002, a new library, the Bibliotheca Alexandria, was constructed, upholding the greatness of what The Great Library of Alexandria once was. This house of immense knowledge, stood once alongside the sea. The Great Library of Alexandria was approximately the same location as the new Alexandria Library.[2] The goal of Athenian stateman and Philosopher in 317 BC, Demetrius, was to hold every book worldwide.[3] This caused a spiral of immense research and, book collection and created a world-renowned learning center. Even with three known destructions, Caeser setting it on fire, Caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab’s destruction, and another fire with an unknown start, the Great Library of Alexandria was still able to define the city as a major knowledge center. Nicknames such as “Cure of the Soul,” “Universal Library,” and “Capital of knowledge” perfectly portray the value it held.[4]

Along the corniche of Alexandria, Egypt, stands a tilted cylindrical disc—honoring the knowledge collected through a fluid cyclical impression and possibly incorporating nature through the most natural shape, as natural light and colors are implemented in the roof and structure. Maybe it is a tribute to the hieroglyphic single disc letter, meaning sun.[5] Nevertheless, a dramatic form stands frozen in time demanding attention.[6]

A modern building form surrounded by antiquated buildings grasps one’s attention, but only invites a type of individual. The official entrance and ticket booth are not accessible off the harbor road, creating one challenge. Once ticket is obtained, a long entrance path is embraced. Combined with a non-transparent façade/roof, it creates a sense of the interior’s hesitance of exposure. To experience the space, one must desire with purpose. Only a knowledge seeking citizen would value a visit to such space. Difficult accessibility seems to be the goal, rendering the main reading room obscure. This creates a targeted audience of hard-working, intellectually researching individuals. In modern-day Egypt, this allows for a separation from the politically declining country and the young adults with bright futures. This is allowing the politically involved Egyptians to have a safe space to gather away from the “typical” Egypt—the Egypt that doesn’t honor education as it once did. The same Egypt that commenced the Arab Spring, once upon a time. 

Under the tilted roof is a shining beacon—a grand reading room. It is the largest of its kind, used primarily by college students from neighboring colleges, students who embark on research and excessive knowledge and who seek justice.[7] The presence of this building has brought out the well-mannered and most potentially promising of each generation to come within Egypt. 

During the 2011 Revolution, led by young adults, the value of the library was so great that protestors, not police officers or military men, stood outside defending it from looters.[8] This building is a place where insignificant factors have no space. 

The historical aspects contribute immensely to the new library. With the establishment of the original Alexandria by the Greeks, specifically Alexander the Great, and their famous Greek columns, a tribute seen in the entrance is a lifted part of the cylindrical building, allowing exposure of simple columns. The reading space has a fully exposed vertical structural system of columns flourishing into a flaring tree shape (see cover image). This is a tribute to the history and an integration of nature. This flaring propels one’s eyes upwards towards the roof which emphasizes its greatness. Not only is it the façade and structural roof and ceiling, but its form also emulates a rising sun of knowledge, which alone contributes to the greatness of the history being resembled.[9]

The library as a whole references the history, while incorporating a modern architectural style. Boats were once stripped for any and all books when approaching this coastal city. The circular library that stands today has a tide pull in effect, much like how these boats were dragged into the coast due to a quest for knowledge. It is spotted from far away into the sea, and from neighboring neighborhoods. The circle seen is the facade, roof, and ceiling. Under this grand roof is the prime space, the great reading room. Even though this space forms a very contemporary architectural presence, it still manages to reference the Great Library that stood during the Greek era. Artifacts are placed throughout the eleven terraces. As a college student finishes their assignment, a tourist can be a meter away acknowledging a statue from ancient times. This doesn’t include the one museum for antiques and the artifacts found during the excavation phase of the project.[10]

In today’s architectural struggles to in design new libraries, architects desire to invite the sun into the room/atmosphere, but must acknowledge the bright sun rays that can damage old books. The existing pitch is just one aspect of the nature-based concept embedded within. The pitch allows for the most sunlight and eliminates any destruction to the books. “The place of the cure of the soul” was carved into the old shelves that once stood.[11] Visitors experience this today differently, through the accessible sunlight. The light comes in and meets the sky and trees. Skies and trees, but how? A lulling green and blue lighting illuminates the roof (Figure 1), executing along the sunlight and parallel to the flaring columns. All together they form a lotus flower figure (see cover image). 

Figure 1. Photo by author.
[Image description: Grey columns dotted around the photo with rows of chairs and tables on a light brown wooden floor.]

But how is this perfect sunlight and lotus flower accomplished? A pattern of carved-out sections, with half an eyelid, allows the north light to enter gracefully.[12] The designer wanted a touch of nature, even though the reader was indoor. A natural wood finish appears on tables, chairs, and even flooring. But a very natural and authentic material is the granite that supports the whole building (Figure 2). This granite comes locally from a formally closed-down quarry in Aswan. But when an architect understands the power it holds in reviving history, a quarry can be demanded to be reopened. This even caused the trade of extracting and hand-splitting stone slabs to be taught to 20 new stonemasons.[13] This is a lesson to all architects; businesses, political views, and community influences are held with the architect. The use of granite holds a remembrance of Alexandria under Caesar’s rule when buildings were built out of marble and granite.[14]

Figure 2. Photo by author.
[Image description: Outside wall made out of concrete with letters and symbols etched into it, photo taken from below.]

Granite can remind one of the old Alexandria streets but can also be unwelcoming. The hard-to-find entrance and complicated path discussed above contribute to this feeling. But how is a grand room meant to be the hierarchical point hard to find? The room has no visual exposure when coming off the harbor road. This same room is wrapped in a windowless granite wall. It was also mentioned earlier that the users of such room were unlike the common Egyptians you’d meet on the street. Some of the most educated, cultured, and sophisticated can be found in this space, most of whom are young adults. But as you enter the ample space outside the main door, it is filled with commoners: kids running around, teenagers taking Instagram pictures, and college students discussing drama instead of the latest political catastrophe Egypt is undertaking (Figure 3). The architecture speaks this division out loud. The granite wall is a bigger metaphor than just “nostalgic Alexandria.”

Figure 3. Photo by author.
[Image description: A public square with a building in the background and a bridge on the right side made out of concrete and glass, people are walking around.]

The division is not just an external hurtle but continues from the inside as well. Security metal detectors don’t face the reading room; a visitor is just naturally directed away from it throughout the entrance process. Mostafa El-Abbadi is the professor who started the idea of reviving the old library. Without him, this magnificent building would not be standing today. But as the opening day approached in 2002, he expressed his concern that instead of a world-class research center, a cultural center would become of this building.[15] As Egypt becomes a trend-following country, leaving its traditions and cultures behind, this highly respected world-class research center has kept its poise. This is a direct result of the unwelcoming concept of the hierarchical space. The unwelcoming sense is a twist on modern-day architecture, especially when discussing a public library. But the unwelcomeness is what is allowing driven Egyptians to have a formal educational space. 

Much of this idea of “targeted individuals” comes to life outside the reading room when a library is constructed. I was lucky enough to experience the annual book fair in the newly added building. It should be noted that the site consists of three buildings: the main library, a planetarium, and an additional building mostly made up of grand rooms for lectures and events. From the outside none of these buildings are connected, making accessibility through one another impossible. But under the big main entrance space, the library links to both other buildings. As you walk through the Ancient Egypt museum, two extensive walkways lead to the same event space where the book fair was held. As you leave another museum space, you are greeted by the entrance stairway of the planetarium. This circulation defines the importance of the library versus the other buildings occupying the site. Circulation through historical objects, and then a welcoming of new modern buildings, brings out the concept of the revival of history through a modern work of architecture. These museums may seem hidden due to their location in the underground, yet they simultaneously define a powerful circulation path protecting the artifacts from light, dust, and large groups of people.

How does this all play into the book fair? Well, with the circulation into another building, such events can be held without disrupting the everyday use of the library. Museums, children’s room, young adults’ room, cafes, and the large reading room stayed open and undisturbed during the three-week book fair event. As for the “targeted individuals,” the same bright and well-mannered young adults worked during the book fair. To understand the significance of these people, one must understand that most of the Egyptian population haven’t visited the library and do not take part in activities such as book fairs. Hence, these specific people and this specific space are unique. With a lack of political freedom occurring today in Egypt, bright young adults selling books about presidents and history that badmouths the Egyptian government is a miracle. That is precisely what happened at this book fair. This is exactly what this library stands for architecturally. Knowledge and freedom of knowledge, regardless of author, political standing, or background, is in this space. Today, this knowledge is more expensive than gold. Sound familiar?   

I was able to experience and participate in the book fair. When purchasing a political book, the young man looked at the cover and said, “May he rest in peace.” The cover had Hosni Mubarak on it, an old Egyptian president overthrown in 2011. With the presidential circumstances in Egypt today, many people feel that the conditions protested in 2011, with this man in charge, were much better than the current Egypt. In 2011 people protested for the president to leave and instate a democracy. Today they find themselves with no democracy, and a lack of freedom of speech. At least before 2011 this nation felt like it had a voice. Small comments and side conversations are how activists in Egypt communicate; with political arrestees filling prisons, open political discussions are limited and feared. This library is a space for those conversations to occur. This building is a space for politically active and educated individuals who want to see a different Egypt—overall, a different Middle East. Architecturally, it defines this, but its simple grandness along the sea speaks such a concept out loud. 

Figure 4. Photo by author.
[Image description: A sign with 2 x 10 plates that include floor numbers and descriptions of different departments in Arabic, English, and French.]

This high level of education comes back to the eleven terraces under the sloped circle of unity and knowledge where every level of bookshelves has a designated reading area at the end of shelving units.[16] You are introduced to a new educational realm as you step down from each terrace (Figure 4). In one of the most calming spaces in Egypt, one has nature exposure, knowledge accessibility, and a motivating environment to stay for hours. This space honors all fields, including architecture, with a drafting area at the last level (Figure 5). The concept of a sloped cylinder forces the last few terrace levels to be underground. The drafting space is the lowest terrace space and furthest out. This indicates that the sketching phases are the basis of all architecture, even the one you are standing in. From the entrance level, a grand view of this is accessible before you even enter the reading space. Grand is the constant theme. It must be the theme when reviving all the knowledge the world once had.[17]

Figure 5. Photo by author.
[Image description: Grey columns dotted with rows of chairs and tables on a light brown wooden floor.]

Embarking on knowledge should never feel intimidating; it should be exhilarating. Such a building is almost perceived as intimidating/fierce. But once the visitor enters it, a soothing feeling comes upon them. Artifacts below your feet, sunlight striking down on your reading table, books in the most accessible reach they will ever be. This space isn’t redefining what a library is; this space is honoring what a library in Egypt once was.

[1] Brian Haughton, “What Happened to the Great Library at Alexandria?” World History Encyclopedia (June 8, 2023); Nazmi Tarım, “The Great Library of Alexandria: A Library Whose Aim Was to Contain A Copy of Every Book Ever Written,” Medium (December 11, 2021).

[2] Isabelle Lomholt, “Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria Library,” E-Architect (October 5, 2021).

[3] Haughton, “What Happened to the Great Library at Alexandria?”

[4] Patricia Claus, “Ancient Library of Alexandria One of Greatest Treasures of Mankind,” Greek Reporter (July 6, 2023); Haughton, “What Happened to the Great Library at Alexandria?”

[5] Sarah Zakzouk, “Past And Present: The Bibliotheca Alexandrina,” Culture Trip (August 13, 2021); “Library of Alexandria – Data, Photos & Plans,” WikiArquitectura (July 5, 2020).

[6] Lomholt, “Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria Library.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Zakzouk, “Past And Present: The Bibliotheca Alexandrina.” 

[9] Lomholt, “Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria Library.” 

[10] “Library of Alexandria – Data, Photos & Plans.”

[11] Claus, “Ancient Library of Alexandria One of Greatest Treasures of Mankind.”

[12] Zakzouk, “Past And Present: The Bibliotheca Alexandrina.”

[13] “Bibliotheca Alexandrina,” Snøhetta (n.d.). 

[14] Nazmi Tarım, “The Great Library of Alexandria: A Library Whose Aim Was to Contain A Copy of Every Book Ever Written,” Medium (December 11, 2021).

[15] Daniel J. Wakin, “Successor to Ancient Alexandria Library Dedicated,” The New York Times (October 17, 2002).

[16] “Bibliotheca Alexandrina;” “Library of Alexandria – Data, Photos & Plans.”

[17] Tarım, “The Great Library of Alexandria: A Library Whose Aim Was to Contain A Copy of Every Book Ever Written.”

*Cover image: The Library of Alexandria sits along the Mediterranean Sea commanding knowledge through an architectural lens. Photo by author.

[*Cover image description: Interior view of a large library reading room, with shelves of books and pillars holding up a glass ceiling.]

Edited by Trang Dang, reviewed by Elizabeth Hameeteman.

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