Libraries have existed for a long time, dating back to at least the third millennium BC Babylonian times. In the early days, in all regions, a library was essentially a record-room for the storage of clay tablets. The first institutional library in Athens was founded in the fourth century BC by the schools of philosophy.
After the death of Alexander in Babylon in 323 BC, Egypt fell to one of his lieutenants, Ptolemy. Under Ptolemy, Alexandria replaced the ancient city of Memphis as the capital of Egypt. The early kings legitimized their rule through various means, one of which was by patronizing scholarship and learning – they showed off their wealth by accumulating tablets and scrolls. This patronage of learning led to the foundation of the ancient library at Alexandria, which was the largest city in the western world at that time, and the centre of the papyrus industry and book trading. Over the centuries, the library became one of the largest and most significant libraries in the ancient world where the great thinkers of the age – scientists, mathematicians, poets from all civilizations – came to study and exchange ideas. Some historians suggest that as many as 700,000 scrolls filled the shelves. Paid staff included grammarians, historians, astronomers, geographers, mathematicians, physicians, and poets.
The ancient library of Alexandria was dedicated to the Muses – the nine Greek goddesses of literature, arts, and science. In its Greek form, mouseion, meant “seat of the Muses” and designated a philosophical institution or a place of contemplation.*
Having survived many fires and civil wars over time, it was completely destroyed in the fourth century CE. The new library, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, was an international effort commemorating the library of antiquity and rekindling the brilliant scholarship that the earlier centre represented. The construction of the building began in 1995 and was opened in 2002. The design of the building is a simple circle representing the Egyptian sun, to symbolically illuminate the world and human civilization. The exterior wall, made from grey Aswan granite, are carved with letters from the alphabets of the languages of the world.
Bibliotheca Alexandrina was one of the recipient of the ninth cycle of awards of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2004.
Research by Nimira Dewji
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