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Wednesday, 16 October, 2002, 01:16 GMT 02:16 UK
Library reopens 1,700 years on
A windsurfer sails past the new Alexandria library
The space-age looking building sits on an ancient site

A new library is to open in Alexandria, built on the site of the original destroyed by fire in the Fourth Century AD.

A ceremony is set for Wednesday, to be attended by the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, and some 3,000 foreign dignitaries, before the library opens to the public on Sunday.

A firework display at the library's opening
Fireworks heralded the opening of the new resource
The new library - officially called Bibliotheca Alexandrina - took some 12 years to build and cost $220m - half spent by Egypt, half by other nations.

It was originally to have been opened last year, but the Egyptian Government feared that a lavish ceremony would not have been appropriate while the Palestinian uprising was at its height.

Now there is a rush to inaugurate this historic site before an expected US-led war with Iraq.

Celebrated centre

A library originally stood in Alexandria some 2,500 years ago and, until destroyed by fire, it was the ancient world's most celebrated centre of learning, used by Archimedes and Euclid among others.

Inside the library at Alexandria
It is hoped the library can avoid censorship, but a Nobel Prize-winning book is absent
The project to rebuild it has been dogged by controversy, from claims that valuable antiquities were destroyed during construction to criticism that it is an expensive gimmick which will do little to improve education in a country of 68 million people.

The founding declaration of the library speaks about encouraging a new spirit of critical inquiry.

The Egyptian Government has awarded the library special status which makes it answerable only to the president.

Censorship fears

That is an attempt to assuage fears about censorship in a country where the religious authorities have banned a number of books, even including one by the Egyptian winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Naguib Mahfouz.

The director of the library assured me that this book would be available, but when I looked, I could not find it in the Mahfouz collection.

Privately, senior officials admitted that such "difficult" books would be acquired only slowly.

The library would, they said honour the principle of freedom of expression, but a degree of pragmatism - even of stealth - was required so as not to offend increasingly radical Islamic sentiment.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Paul Wood
"They're dancing in the streets outside the Alexandria library"
See also:

16 Dec 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
24 Sep 00 | Middle East
03 Jun 00 | Middle East
07 Oct 02 | Country profiles
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