March 13, 2017

Mostafa El-Abaddi, who recreated the legendary library of Alexandria, has died


Inside the library’s modern incarnation

You read about it in school — the bastion of ancient-world knowledge that was the Library of Alexandria. It was inspired by the far-reaching conquests of Alexander the Great, which revealed to the Greek world the diversity of thought on this great planet, and was bankrolled by Alexander’s general Ptolemy I, who envisioned it as a home for “all the texts in the world that are worthy of study.” [Insert reference to Borges or the internet here]. It was a key component of the Museion, or Shrine of the Muses, at the heart of the city. You’ve also probably read about it being burned to the ground. 

Centuries later, the Egyptian scholar Mostafa El-Abbadi had a vision for recreating the storied institution, and so he brought the Bibliotheca Alexandrina back to the shore of the Mediterranean. He died last month at the age of eighty-eight. The Economist’s short obituary tells the long story of Abbadi’s (re)conception of the library:

It struck him then as sad, when he returned to Alexandria in 1960 from his doctoral studies at Cambridge, that the modern city had no great library. Of course, Egypt had no sacks of silver now to spill out on culture, unlike the Ptolemaic kings. Yet the wonder of the library, despite Caesar’s incineration of it (for he held Caesar strictly to blame), had been seared on the memory of the world and on its image of Alexandria, as a cosmopolitan city of learning. Imitations had been built in Baghdad, Córdoba, London and Washington, DC; visiting world leaders asked after what remained of it. So in the 1970s he began to float, gently, the idea or dream of a new library, following the “spiritual example” of the ancients. The seed did not take for years. In 1986, however, UNESCO agreed to help and money began to flow.

He built the collection of texts as a widening spiral, beginning with Alexandrian subjects, then Egyptian, then African, and so on. Crucially he wanted to recreate not just a collection of books, but a shrine to the muses — the very heart of the previous incarnation’s intellectual revolution.

But the Egyptian government and its then-president Hosni Mubarak had a slightly different vision from this universality. They saw the library as a modern cultural center. So different was their vision, in fact, that Abbadi was not even invited to the library’s ribbon-cutting. The Economist continues:

He was not invited to the opening. He was known to have misgivings, and to have made a fuss when he spotted the bulldozers dumping chunks of mosaic in the sea; for the project involved huge excavations on the site of the Ptolemies’ palace, and he was a man whose idea of a holiday was to tour the ancient ruins of the Middle East. He did not carp about his exclusion, but kept quiet company in his study with his cat, Cleopatra. At least his booklet on the Great Library (only a booklet, he insisted, not a book) had been handed out at the opening. He did his job; they did theirs.

Thank you Mostafa El-Abbadi, in the next world may you have time enough at last.



Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.