Inland from Silsilah, the city’s futuristic Bibliotheca Alexandrina resembles a giant discus embedded in the ground, representing a second sun rising beside the Mediterranean. Pictograms, hieroglyphs and letters from every alphabet are carved on its exterior, evoking the diversity of knowledge embodied in the ancient library and the aspirations of the new one. Seventeen years in the building at a cost of $355 million, the library was controversial even before its inauguration in 2002 (when an exhibition of books from every nation featured the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as Israel’s entry), but no one doubts its impact on the city’s cultural scene or its must-see status with tourists.
In and around the library
On the inland side facing Sharia Bur Said, a colossus of Ptolemy II dredged from the Eastern Harbour watches over ticket kiosks and a cloakroom (where all bags must be checked in). Inside, maps, engravings and photos in the Impressions of Alexandria exhibit show how the city has evolved since antiquity and its ruination by the British in 1882. A fine Antiquities Museum in the basement displays a giant head of Serapis, a black basalt Isis salvaged from Herakleion and two mosaic floors unearthed during the building of the library, one depicting a dog beside a brass cup, the other a gladiator locked in combat. Ancient scrolls and tomes can be seen in the dimly lit Manuscripts Museum on the entrance level. Or simply wander at will through the vast reading area – a stunning cascade of levels upheld by stainless-steel pillars suggestive of the columns in pharaonic temples.
The library’s stunning design (by a Norwegian–Austrian team) is matched by the diversity of events at the Arts Centre in the block opposite the entrance – see the website for what’s on. The entire area is a wi-fi zone, where Alexandrians gather with their laptops and smartphones. There’s also the Planetarium, a Death Star-like spheroid on the plaza facing the sea, screening IMAX science movies (£E25) for children.