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Landmark for a new millennium

The story of Alexandria Library. Words by Richard Thompson, photos by Adrian Greeman and James Willis.

Two thousand years ago the great library of Alexandria, repository of all the knowledge of the known world, was destroyed.

The ancient building, on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt, is said to have contained more than 700,000 manuscripts. No one knows quite where it stood, what it looked like or exactly how it disappeared.

Earthquakes, fires and even Julius Caesar's misdirected fireships are all blamed for its demise.

Today in Alexandria a new library is emerging to take its place on the world stage as a centre of learning and as an international landmark for the new millennium.

'We aim to make this building take the place of the Sydney Opera House as the most famous in the world, ' says Dr Mamdouh Hamza, founder and chairman of Hamza Associates, the engineer for the project in consortium with Norwegian architectural practice Snohetta.

'It is a cultural building, like Sydney. It is in water, like Sydney, and on top of that it has over 2000 years' history. It is only a matter of time before people around the world seeing pictures of this striking building will immediately recognise it as Alexandria and Egypt.'

Completion of this unique building, by a joint venture of Arab Contractors of Egypt and British contractor Balfour Beatty, is the final phase of a project which was conceived more than 25 years ago.

In 1974 the president of the University of Alexandria, Dr Mohamed Lofti Dowidar, first suggested reviving the great Alexandria Library. This idea was adopted by the Egyptian Ministry of Education, which in December 1988 set up the General Organisation of the Alexandria Library (GOAL) to implement the project.

Most of the funding comes from the Egyptian government.

President Hosni Mubarak and his wife Suzanne have taken a close interest in the project.

The president laid the building's cornerstone on 26 June 1988.

Mrs Mubarak chairs an international commission set up to help the development and regularly visits the site.

Unesco is supporting the project in technical matters relating to the running of the library and the provision of manuscripts and books.

Additional, limited funding and other resources have come from around the world following an appeal by Hosni Mubarak and the Unesco director general in 1987.

Completion of the library represents much more than the establishment of a new centre of learning. The journal of the client, GOAL, records that the circular shape represents 'the rising sun, the symbol of the ancient civilisation, as well as the glowing radiance of knowledge'.

This comparison with the rising sun is in step with Egypt's expectation of becoming a leading modern nation in the new millennium.

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