The crumbling city of Alexandria has to be one of the most exotic places in the world. A one-mile walk along the Corniche, the historic promenade that runs along the seafront, takes the visitor past the shore where Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, the cafe where Lawrence Durrell and E M Forster wrote, and the Hotel Cecil which hosted Noel Coward, General Montgomery and Somerset Maugham among others. Just across the bay stands Qait Bey Fort, built in the 15th century on the remains of the great marble lighthouse of Pharos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Yet Alexandria once had a greater claim to fame: the monumental library founded by the Ptolemies using manuscripts taken from Aristotle's personal collection. To study in Alexandria, which rivalled Athens and Rome in status, was the ambition of every scholar in the ancient world. In the library, the Greek mathematician Archimedes developed the Archimedean screw for raising water, the anatomist Herophilus carried out the first dissection of the human body and Hipparchos began the study of astronomy. Experts believe the mathematician Euclid devised geometry in Alexandria and that the poet Callimachus originated the concept of cataloguing while, as head of the library, he sorted through its 750,000 manuscripts.
The first great Ptolemy library burned down when Julius Caesar occupied Alexandria in 47 BC, but Cleopatra rebuilt it and Mark Antony is said to have given her 200,000 new manuscripts as a wedding present. In 270 AD the library was again destroyed, this time by the savage Roman emperor Aurelian.
"The achievements of Alexandrian science were lost to the West for more than a millennium," says Professor Mohsen Zahran, an expert on architecture to whom the government of Hosni Mubarak has assigned the great task of rebuilding the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. In February 1990, the Aswan declaration gave him the authority to construct a pound;118 million library on the site of Cleopatra's palace. Work is due to be completed in March, and a grand opening is likely to form part of Egypt's millennial celebrations.
But the project has not been without its critics. Mubarak may have gained the support of UNESCO, and of fellow Aswan signatories such as the late former French president Francois Mitterrand, Queen Sofia of Spain, the late Greek minister of culture Melina Mercouri, Princess Caroline of Monaco and British historian Asa Briggs, but controversy has surrounded the digging up of Cleopatra's palace without first excavating for antiquities.
The prominent Alexandrian architect Mohammed Awad claims the site was "massacred" before anyone could catalogue what was to be found in the ruins.
Professor John Rodenbuck of the American University in Cairo claims large and crucial portions of Cleopatra's palace and Alexander's tomb lie buried beneath the new library. "Salvage archaeology was permitted only in one small area. For the archaeology of Alexandria, this new library is a catastrophe."
Critics are also concerned that the Bibliotheca Alexandrina uses funds that might be put to better use addressing the desperately low literacy levels in Egypt where almost half the adult population cannot read. Other recent projects, such as the Greater Cairo Library and Mubarak Public Library, have been built for a fraction of the cost, and nearer population centres, and have met with public approval. Alexandria, for all its historic associations, is not where a modern library is most needed.
Professor Rodenbuck argues: "A small percentage of the colossal sums represented here could have endowed forever the Alexandria Public Library - a magnificent institution miserably underfunded - and reversed the decay of the Corniche, which could be beautiful and useful but needs radical replanning and repair."
Andrew Hammond, deputy editor of the Cairo Times magazine, says Egypt has always had a liking for grand projects, and many people are reluctant to criticise the project publicly. "After so many arguments and delays, just getting the library up and running is enough. People are really hoping for the best. The disappointment if they get it wrong would be almost too much for Alexandria, and the cultural health of the nation, to take."
A further concern has been that the library's book-buying budget of pound;18,750 a year is too small and will seriously hamper the project's target of one day housing eight million volumes. But Professor Zahran is upbeat about the help Egypt is getting. "Since 1990 we have received 350,000 volumes from all around the world, in traditional and electronic form, primarily in the arts and humanities. Science and technology will be added later."
So far the British Library has offered microfiche copies of its large Arabic manuscript collections and the British Council and the Everyman Classics series. Spain is involved in copying old Arabic manuscripts from the Escorial collection in Andalucia. The library will also house material from the Suez Canal authority, the Ferdinand de Lesseps Association (Suez Canal) in Paris and a wealth of material from the period when Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire.
The General Organisation of the Alexandrian Library (GOAL) is unwilling to publish a list of books that have been acquired by the library, leading Mr Hammond and others to accuse GOAL of undue secrecy. "The heavy reliance on random donations has meant that the acquisitions policy has resembled the clearing out of Granny's attic," he says.
Professor Zahran's project has also been criticised for trying to make the library fulfil too many functions. The new Bibliotheca is intended to be a university in its own right, producing quality research, but it will also be an international resource study centre for the Mediterranean, a public library, a business centre and a museum of local history. With so many goals, Professor Zahran's library risks failing in at least one.
"But whatever the library's faults or shortcomings," says Mr Hammond, "Alexandria, and Egypt, can only benefit from it. It's too late to debate how the money could have been better spent or the project better implemented. It's a fait accompli. And in Egypt that in itself is quite an achievement."
Professor Rodenbuck is less forgiving. "The bandwagon has got sadly out of hand. The kind of institution the new library now represents is out of place anywhere in Egypt - or, for that matter, anywhere in the world I can think of."
However, Professor Zahran remains calm under so much fire. "Having been born, the library will need the support of lovers of know-ledge around the world. We have to help it become what we want it to be." He still aims to create one of the most prestigious libraries in history and go some way towards restoring Egypt's academic prominence. "I see this building as a beacon of knowledge," he says with noticeable pride, "a new Alexandrian lighthouse."
Whatever the eventual function and academic credentials of the Bibliotheca, the finished structure will certainly be impressive. Much of the library will be housed below sea level, but the walls visible above ground will be covered with carved panels representing all the alphabets of the world. The only blot on the landscape at the moment is an anti-aircraft battery manned by Egyptian troops who occupy the rest of the site. Professor Zahran hopes the government will decide to turn this historic part of the Corniche into a park for promenaders.
The circular glass roof of the new building, 160 metres in diameter, tips down gently towards the sea. Viewed from Qait Bey Fort at sunset, the library will look like a great fiery ball dipping into the Mediterranean. Just in front of the library lies a circular planetarium covered in reflective panels. According to Professor Zahran's vision, if the library is the sun, this must be the moon.
For a progress report, see the website www.bibalex.gov.eg between 8.30am and 4.30pm Egyptian time. For information on tours of the construction site, e-mail: email@example.com. For general information, visit the website: www.alexandria2000.com 22 International TESJdecember 24 1999 Under construction: planners hope the new building will be 'a beacon of knowledge', with a reputation to rival the ancient library, last rebuilt by Cleopatra snohetta International 23 TESJdecember 24 1999 gabriella gamini "Most of these children have spent a large part of their lives hiding from death squads": Jaime Jaramillo helps "sewage kids" in Colombia get off the streets and into education. Inset: Sr Jaramillo with one of the children at his school