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Alexandria’s ancient library was one of the greatest of all classical institutions, and while replacing it might seem a Herculean task, the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina manages this with aplomb. Opened in 2002, this impressive piece of modern architecture is a deliberate attempt to rekindle the brilliance of the original centre of learning and culture. The complex has become one of Egypt’s major cultural venues and a stage for numerous international performers, and is home to a collection of brilliant museums.
The building takes the form of a gigantic angled discus embedded in the ground, evoking a second sun rising out of the Mediterranean. The granite exterior walls are carved with letters, pictograms, hieroglyphs and symbols from more than 120 different human scripts. Inside, the jaw-dropping main reading room can accommodate eight million books and 2500 readers under its sloping roof, with windows specially designed to let sunlight flood in but keep out rays that might harm the collection.
In addition to the very impressive main reading room, there are four specialised libraries (a children's library for ages six to 11; a youth library for ages 11 to 17; a multimedia library; a library for the blind) and a huge array of other diversions. There are four permanent museums, a planetarium, a conference centre, a range of temporary and permanent exhibitions, and a full schedule of events. To fully explore this very worthy attraction, you should allot half a day; to just gape at the astounding main reading room and do a tour, you’ll need an hour or so.
The library is right on the seafront, but the main entrance and ticket office are at the back of the complex. All bags must be checked here, though you can bring your camera and wallet inside. Two of the museums inside have individual entrance tickets; these are bought within the building, next to the museums themselves.
The Antiquities Museum has a well-curated exhibition of artefacts cherry-picked from sites across Egypt that romp from the Pharaonic through to the Greek and Roman periods, and into the Byzantine and Islamic eras. There's a fine collection of 2nd-century coloured funerary masks, intricately decorated mummy cases and faience blue shabti (funerary statues), and some gorgeous Greek-era statuary.
Afterwards, head to the Manuscript Museum, which holds a small but beautifully displayed collection of ancient texts and antiquarian books, including a copy of the only surviving scroll from Alexandria's ancient library. Next door is the wonderful Impressions of Alexandria Exhibition, which does a sterling job of documenting the city's long history through drawings, maps and early photographs.
From here, explore the Bibliotheca's exhibition halls which showcase the work of contemporary Arabic artists and are also home to a fascinating heritage collection with gorgeously displayed textiles, folk art and Arabic science equipment from the medieval period. The World of Shadi Abdel Salam (a cult film director, script writer and set designer born in Alexandria) shows a display of his wonderful drawings of film sets. His most famous film, The Night of Counting the Years (Al Momia in Arabic), and other films are shown regularly in the afternoon. There’s also a video program on Egyptian history called the Culturama, displayed on nine screens.
The Planetarium is a futuristic neon-lit sphere, looming on the plaza in front of the library like a mini Death Star from Star Wars. It shows 3D films focused on space exploration, the natural world and Egyptian history, all aimed at educating children, on a rotating schedule (see website). It also has an Exploratorium, as well as the History of Science Museum underneath, also targeted at groups of Egyptian school children. The museum covers the contribution to science of three key historic eras – Pharaonic Egypt, Hellenistic Alexandria and the Islamic era.
Tours of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina run every 45 minutes in English between 11.45am and 4.30pm Sunday to Thursday and on Saturdays from 12.10 to 3pm.
Note that while the library has a wide range of kid-friendly activities and diversions, little ones under the age of six are not admitted to the library room. Helpfully, day care is available during opening hours.