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A library with great expectations

The Library of Alexandria is trying to become a cultural center for Egypt.

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — It’s a collision of history and culture, where the sea crashes into the coast and Egypt’s storied past passes the baton on to its future. It’s a partnership of symbolism and functionality, a rare melting pot for Egypt’s stratified social structure.

Welcome to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, known in English as the Library of Alexandria, a throwback to the ancient library that stood, experts say, only a couple of hundred yards from the library’s modern incarnation.

The ancient library was among the most advanced centers of learning in the world. Mathematicians and philosophers like Eratosthenes and Euclid studied there while others made astronomic and biological discoveries.

But the building faced a slow demise, beginning with the 48 B.C. Alexandrian War and ending in the third century.

“The ancient Library of Alexandria defined libraries differently,” said chief librarian Sohair Wastawy. “The ancient library embodied learning: plays, poetry, writing.”

But seven years after its founding, the modern Library of Alexandra is struggling to find such a purpose for itself — to balance its role as a cultural center and a repository of written knowledge.

The idea for the library dates back to the 1980s when scholars from the University of Alexandria sketched a plan to re-create the ancient library, both physically and intellectually. By 1990, the Egyptian government had signed off on the idea, and a committee soon approved the design plan of then-unknown Norweigan architects from the firm Snohetta.

Together with an Egyptian team, the designers put together a plan for a building that would represent the library’s mission as a cultural hub in Egypt, with a conference center and planetarium on library grounds.

The library, according to their plans, would take the shape of a rising sun, set slightly underground with a pool of water in front of it. Part of the sphere is missing, because as Wastawy described it, “knowledge is never complete.”

The library cost $220 million to build, with $120 million fronted by the Egyptian government and another $100 million raised by Unesco.

In 2002, it opened its doors.

“The concept that died with the ancient Library of Alexandria,” said Wastawy, “is what we’ve resurrected because learning is not a one-dimensional thing. It’s called a library because of the ancient library, but it’s really a learning center.”

And so the library is home to far more than books: A resident orchestra holds regular concerts; the museum in the basement boasts artifacts representing the many epochs of Egyptian history; an art gallery showcases the work of Egyptian artists.