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Alexandria revives ancient library amid controversy

Between peeling buildings and the cobalt-blue Mediterranean, construction cranes labor over an ambitious effort to resurrect this city's glorious past.

If all goes as planned, by October the concrete and steel will be transformed into the new Alexandria Library _ capturing the trademark, if not the spirit, of an ancient institution that was the intellectual hub of the Mediterranean.

But as the library's skeleton climbs skyward, doubts are growing. In Egypt, where books are often banned and news articles censored, chief among the doubts is: Can the Alexandria Library nourish the kind of intellectual debate and inquiry that flourished under its namesake 2,300 years ago?

"Intellectual debate has basically been mutated by 40 years of military rule," said Hisham Kassem, publisher of the Cairo Times, a year-old independent magazine. "The attitude here is definitely one of control. The government is only thinking about this library as a kind of global propaganda machine."

While Kassem's criticisms are among the harshest voiced in recent interviews, a number of local and foreign experts say they are unclear about the library's purpose. Perhaps more telling, many scholars and diplomats are unwilling to criticize the project publicly.

The Alexandria Library has spawned controversy since the first bulldozers broke ground facing Alexandria University in 1995. Archaeologists criticized the government for failing to first excavate for potential Roman and Hellenistic treasures. The dig that followed unearthed mosaic floors, statues and a Greco-Roman road among other finds but was faulted for being hastily conceived and poorly carried out.

The ancient library was the brainchild of Egyptian ruler Ptolemy I, who commissioned its construction in the third century B.C. For centuries, it drew some of the Mediterranean's premier philosophers, writers, scientists and mathematicians and became a focal point for scholarly debate and research.

The geographer Strabo, who produced the most comprehensive map of the then-known world in 25 B.C., was an Alexandria scholar. So were the mathematician Euclid and Herophilus, considered the father of anatomy. The library offered the greatest collection of literature and scientific information in the ancient world, and modern scholars think it may have achieved its goal of housing every known book under a single roof.

Whether the library's demise was the result of burning by Romans or Arabs, or whether it simply became obsolete, remains a matter of debate. Today, however, it is hard to find traces of Alexandria's illustrious past.

Egypt's second-largest city is a bustling collection of dusty parks and dirt-caked streets. Thrown up against this homely landscape will be a gleaming, disk-shaped building. The $180-million library may ultimately collect up to 8-million books, along with thousands of manuscripts, tapes, CDs and videos. It's also expected to house a science museum, a planetarium and a school for library studies.

"The library will illuminate the direction for the future," said project director Mohsen Zahran. "The new library will have the latest information and media _ and access to information from elsewhere. This is not abundantly, or even universally, available here."

Some experts who have visited the library applaud its intent. "I think it could add to the full field of librarianship in the world to have a very good research center in the Middle East," said Ruth Monical, library director for the American University in Cairo.

So far, Arab countries have picked up a third of the cost, while other donors have given books and furniture. The U.S. government is not contributing, although private American donors have chipped in.

Still, the facility's ultimate purpose seems unclear. Some members of the library steering committee say it will serve scholars in the Middle East and Mediterranean; others say its priority customer will be Alexandria University. In a modern world with many great libraries, having a distinct niche matters, experts say.

It's also important, they say, that Egyptian students and scholars have access to the library. With a per capita income of less than $800, Egypt is struggling to meet the academic needs of a booming student population. Although the government wants to improve school and municipal libraries and offer students state-of-the-art materials, few Egyptian grade schools have computers. University libraries often have closed stacks.

Zahran said the public will be able to use the library, but provided no specifics.

Mostafa El Abbadi, a classics professor at Alexandria University, has his doubts. It was his idea more than 20 years ago to resurrect the Alexandria Library. Today he sits on a steering committee responsible for selecting material for its shelves. But so far, he said, the one invitation to a committee meeting he received came after the panel had met.

El Abbadi said Zahran, whose field is architecture and urban planning, had ultimate responsibility for book selection. "I am worried about the acquisition of books," El Abbadi said. "For research you have to know what's happening in your field. I am sure the library will serve the purpose of a public library, but I doubt it will serve the needs of research in the proper sense, or indeed in a responsible sense of the word."

Others observers are worried about what will be left out of the library's shelves. Press censorship, for example, is practiced regularly in Egypt.

"Practically every issue, we get people calling in who are threatening to sue," said Kassem of the Cairo Times. Six of the magazine's issues have been banned, although several turned up at newsstands.

Scholars and reporters say censorship has improved in recent months. The type of books the Alexandria Library will acquire will not likely fall under censorship, some analysts say. Zahran says no books will be banned.

But such incidents have not fostered the atmosphere of freewheeling debate to which the library aspires.

Zahran says the early skepticism is unfair. "The library is not open yet, why do you prejudge it?" he asked. "Is it fair to judge a baby at birth as to whether it will be a genius or not? It is participation, and involvement and support that the world owes Bibliotheca Alexandrina."