Now work is underway on an ambitious new building that will help restore Alexandria's position as a city of culture that links the east and the west, the ancient world and the modern, the previous millenium and the next.
In the next few weeks a construction team goes on site to prepare the foundations of a building which will replace the lost library of Alexandria. The Egyptian ministry of education initiated the project, which is sponsored by Unesco, in the hope of reviving the city's reputation for cultural excellence.
The project brings together craftsmen from across the world to create a successor to what was once one of the greatest libraries in history. The architects are Norwegian; the design managers, Schumann Smith, are British, as are the mechanical and civil engineers, YRM.
The library is expected to open in the last years of this century with 200,000 volumes on the shelves, ranging from ancient Greek, Eygptian and Islamic scriptures to modern literature. By the year 2000 between four and five million volumes will be housed there, and space is being built for up to eight million.
Recent attempts to build libraries for great collections have proved controversial. Colin St John Wilson's brutalist British Library in London, has run way over budget with costs soaring to pounds 450m while its redbrick design has been lambasted as akin to a secret police headquarters. In Paris, the new Bibliotheque Nationale, designed by Domin-ique Perrault, has also been criticised for its ``upside-down table'' appearance. Critics say that the plan to house its collection in glass towers is impractical because of the damage the sunlight will cause.
While not yet controversial, the Alexandria library is undoubtedly ambitious. The giant cylindrical structure is being built on a vacant site at the junction of the city's eastern harbour and the Mediterranean. It is budgeted to cost pounds 73m for construction and a further pounds 97m for equipment and book collections. The building, which will be surrounded on all sides by water, requires a diaphragm foundation 3ft thick and 110ft deep to keep out the water. As Mick Schumann of Schumann Smith said: ``Technically this will be one of the most difficult foundation projects ever attempted. Indeed, technically the whole building is very complex.''
Bringing light into parts of the building and keeping it out of others has been one of the key problems the designers have had to address. Baffles will help diffuse the sunlight which will pour into the readings rooms, while the most ancient, precious texts will be stored in the darker reaches of the building.
The library's circular shape will reflect the sun, the ancient Egyptian god represented as a disk in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Existing models and drawings also reveal a building which appears to tilt, cutting through the earth's surface, symbolising the storehouse of knowledge cutting through time. Walls will be covered with carvings from ancient scriptures, while books will be stacked on 21 levels, giving the impression of a ``cascade'' of knowledge.
Architect Kjetil Thorsen, of the Oslo practice Snohetta, said: ``It seems a simple enough building but like many simple buildings its construction is actually quite complex. Light is all important for reading and we wanted to ensure a steady light in the reading spaces. Elsewhere the very delicate manuscripts will be stored well away from the sunlight.''
Little is known of the original library of Alexandria and it is the concept rather than the actual building which has influenced the rebuilding of the library. Mr Thorsen says he has drawn inspiration from the two great Euro-pean library buildings of the 1850s - the British Museum reading room, designed by Sydney Smirke, and the original Biblio-theque Nationale of Paris, designed by Henri Labrouste.
``Unfortunately there is nothing left of the ancient library - but you could also say that is fortunate,'' said Mr Thorsen.
``We have been able to start with a clean slate although we do have a strong link to the ancient building through the new library's symbolism. This is a building which has a relationship through its design and its learning with the past, the present and the future.''