This monumental, $190 million, UNESCO-sponsored project began with an instinctively appealing idea: to resurrect the Great Library of ancient Alexandria, once one of the world's major centers of learning. Its location near the Silsileh Peninsula on the edge of the Eastern Harbor has tremendous symbolic resonance, having been the royal quarters in ancient times and one of several possible locations of the original library.
The modernist Norwegian-designed building is in the form of an enormous multitiered cylinder tilted to face the sea, with a roof of diamond-shaped windows that allow controlled light into the seven cascading interior floors. The most impressive feature, however, is the curving exterior wall covered in rough-hewn granite blocks from Aswan that have been engraved with letters from ancient languages.
With an aim to promote intellectual excellence, the library is a repository for the printed word—it holds millions of books including rare manuscripts—but
is also a facility to store knowledge in all its forms, from tape recordings of the spoken word to electronic media. It is a robust academic organization with seven specialist research centers and has the Virtual Immersive Science and Technology Applications (VISTA) system, which transforms 2-D data into 3-D simulations so researchers can study the projected behavior of theoretical models. The library also acts as a forum for academic cross-cultural discussion and is home to more than 10 institutes. Membership allows you to explore the archive and use the Internet for research, but don't expect to be able to use the facility like an Internet café. Personal e-mails are not allowed.
Once you've enjoyed the view of the vast interior from the mezzanine gallery, there's little to hold you in the main hall, but the library has several small museums and exhibitions that are of more interest. The Manuscripts Museum has a large collection of rare documents, parchments, and early printed books. The Impressions of Alexandria exhibition features paintings and sketches of the city dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries and photographs taken in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Antiquities Museum on the basement level has a collection of finds from Pharaonic, Roman, and Islamic Alexandria. Examples of monumental Roman statuary include Huge Forearm Holding a Ball (nothing else remains of the immense piece), and a finely chiseled bust of the Emperor Octavian (Augustus). Egypto-Roman artifacts include the mummy of Anhk Hor, governor of Upper Egypt, and several 2nd-century funerary masks showing the prevalent cross-styling between the classical Egyptian and Roman Egyptian styles. A planetarium and IMAX theater are the latest additions to the complex, offering a range of science- and astronomy-based activities including stargazing and constellation identification and interactive museum displays.