Visiting the Alexandria Library

When I first read about the rebuilt Great Library of Alexandria years ago, I wanted to see it. But it never occurred to me that someday I’d be able to casually stroll there after breakfast.

That’s exactly what we did this morning, after enjoying a plate of fuul and some tomato-and-cheese salad at our favorite coffee shop. We walked along the Corniche, enjoying the morning breezes and watching fisherman casting their lines, until the Alexandria Library came into sight.

Woodcut illustration of the ancient Great Library of Alexandria
Woodcut illustration of the ancient Great Library of Alexandria, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ancientlibraryalex.jpg

I wasn’t much of a history buff as a kid, but the Great Library of Alexandria caught my imagination at a certain point in my childhood. Public and school libraries were important places for me, so I imagined the Great Library of Alexandria as something between a fairytale palace full of treasure rooms, each filled with more glittering rarities than the last, and the high-ceilinged, wood-panelled library at Van Nuys Junior High School.

The Biblioteca Alexandrina was opened in late 2002. When I saw the photos and read about the vast ceiling, sloped towards the Mediterranean and with specially designed windows that let light flood in without admitting any rays that could damage the books, I felt my imagination stirred exactly as it was decades earlier. But now the place was real. Someday, perhaps, I could see it.

As we walked towards the library this morning, I stopped to take pictures of wall art near the library complex.

 

 

The library’s plaza-like entrance invites the visitor to approach (despite the necessary security gates), and the entire structure slopes towards the Mediterranean, as if connecting the vast repository of human knowledge within to the world beyond the glittering sea.

When you first enter the library’s reading room, you really feel the power of the design. The vast space before you indicates wordlessly the immensity of human knowledge. Below the shelter of the sloping ceiling with its light wells, a series of terraces cascades hundreds of feet downward, each terrace holding a separate collection of books and rows of beautiful wooden tables and chairs for the people who come to read and study.

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Within the vastness, the space available for reading, research and computer use feels intimate and comfortable. It’s just as I’ve always felt in the libraries I’ve loved most, when I take my chosen books to a table, and settle down for a couple of  hours of reading pleasure.

 

There’s plenty of art in the library space, and many pieces are both beautiful and imaginative. We loved the bench that’s shaped like an open book, inscribed with several Shakespeare sonnets (including Sonnet No. 12).  I also admired the busts of famous Egyptian writers.

 

It was after we left the building and went walking around the library that I got the sense of grandeur and grace I know the architects intended for the building’s exterior. I love the outside walls of the library, inscribed with many different scripts, both ancient and modern.

Outside wall of the Alexandria Library, inscribed with many scripts, both ancient and modern.

We ended our outing in the usual way: at a local coffee shop, sipping our drinks and watching people talking, laughing, smoking and passing the time, just as they have in Alexandria coffee shops for more than 200 years.

Africano Cafe near the Alexandria Library

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