Presidents and royalty gathered Wednesday to help Egypt inaugurate the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a modern version of the famous ancient library known for a freedom of thought and expression lacking in today's Middle East.
While the new library cannot match the 500,000 scrolls said to have been housed in the Great Library of Alexandria before it burned down in the fourth century, it has a digital archive that includes 10 billion Web pages dating back to 1996.
French President Jacques Chirac, Queen Sofia of Spain, Queen Rania of Jordan and Greek President Costis Stephanopoulos are among some 300 dignitaries invited to help President Hosni Mubarak open the library with his wife, Suzanne, a prime advocate of the project.
A special act of parliament last year guarantees the library administration independence. Ismail Serageldin, a former World Bank vice president, said he believed that action would ensure freedom of ideas.
Freedom of expression is at a premium throughout the region where governments, including Egypt, have imposed censorship and jailed those who express unpopular ideas.
Egypt is capable "historically, geographically and culturally" of providing a library dedicated to discourse, understanding and tolerance, he said. But already, the library has been at the center of controversy. A photo book in the collection showing Egyptian slum neighborhoods brought complaints that it reflected poorly on the country.
The international project, envisaged in the late 1980s, has been delayed many times. A 1990 UNESCO declaration called for international support to revive the ancient center of learning, but the Gulf War curtailed contributions. An official opening scheduled in April was put off as inappropriate because of violence in the Palestinian territories.
Since a "soft opening" last October, the library has hosted conferences, exhibits and concerts. It will begin receiving scholars and tourists next week. Ceremonies marking the opening will continue to the end of the month.
The $230 million project - which drew financial and logistical support from around the world - aspires to reflect the spirit of the ancient Bibliotheca, founded around 295 B.C. by Ptolemy I Soter, the successor of this city's founder, Alexander the Great.
Scholars in the ancient library are thought to have produced the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament; edited Homer's works; and found that Helios, the sun - not Earth - was the center of our galaxy.
The new library stands on what archeologists believe is the site of the ancient one, and UNESCO statements have said it could help change the cultural map of the region.
In the modern Middle East, the spirit of scientific inquiry and the free exchange of ideas seems to be under siege.
In Egypt, Islamic extremists have sought to muffle expression they see as blasphemous. The government has banned books and plays deemed immoral. Moustaba al-Abbadi, an Alexandria historian who inspired the library's revival, has complained Egypt has been reduced to "scientific dependency and backwardness."
The library - which has a capacity for 4 million books- now houses some 240,000 volumes, a minor collection compared to the 18 million volumes of the U.S. Library of Congress or the 12 million of the National Library of France.
By Sarah El Deeb
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