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Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Library at Alexandria


I always find it fascinating to see how a country tackles its past. One can reject it, avoid it, be ambivalent to it or, like the Egyptians, embrace it wholeheartedly. The Library at Alexandria, which we visited this Thursday, is a testament to how pride in national heritage can be channeled into productive endeavors rather than narrow-minded nationalism. More than a millennium and a half after the first one faded into history, a great library once again stands vigil over Alexandria’s harbor. Inside its walls is a dizzying array of exhibits and artifacts as well as, naturally, an impressively sizable book collection. It does not now, nor will it likely ever, come close to its predecessor’s goal of collecting all the books in the world. However, the second library has found a niche for itself by attempting to become the foremost repository of the digital, rather than paper, age. A huge bank of super computers in the building houses the only mirror of the Internet Archive, digital records of every webpage ever to exist. In collaboration with other major libraries, it actively supports digitization of books and information, helping to maintain online copies of thousands of manuscripts and disseminating info on Egypt-specific topics to a global audience.

Library of Alexandria from Ross Institute on Vimeo.

It is often lamented by lovers of history that the Great Lighthouse, Alexandria’s other wonder, no longer looms on its shoreline. Though I too wish I could have seen that pinnacle of ancient engineering for myself, it would serve little practical purpose in the modern world. The Great Library, on the other hand, is a beacon that is still needed, even more so now than during the time of the Ptolemies. This land’s temples and tombs are all marvelous places that deserve to be celebrated, but a glorious past alone does not secure a glorious future. Education is the key. The restoration of the library is not the end of the struggle, not even close. It is, however, a promising new beginning.

On the site of the Pharos lighthouse I saw a lot of birds. Looking out into the water, I realized that so much has changed. The landscape, the people, but not the spirit. The birds flew over the water. The wide expanses of open space, so refreshing. Throughout all we have seen there is a sort of mirror present. A reflection of nature into the artificial, the constructed. After seeing all these depictions of nature actually standing on the site of what once inspired so much awe was incredible.

The book binding on a translation of Euclid's Data was a pattern of flowers overlapping. It made me think of the importance of this repetition. Pattern appears both in nature and in the constructed. It emphasizes the small moments where the chaos of the world comes together and thus pattern is born. In this small pattern I see the correlation between math and nature, and therefore, art.

Today we traveled from Caro to Alexandria. We visited the site of the ancient Pharos lighthouse, which now holds a citadel. The citadel looked like a sandcastle; it was white, made of sandstone. Looking out at the Mediterranean from the window, the turquoise water peeked through to contrast with the sandy beige of the walls. This is the first time I've seen the Mediterranean, and I was captivated by the bright colors of Alexandria for the entire day.
The citadel was older than the walls of Constantinople that we walked while in Istanbul, and in much better shape, or at least more thoroughly restored. The climate here is perfect for ancient monuments to survive for thousands of years, especially since there is nearly no rain

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