Following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, I traveled from Greece to Egypt this month (July 2016) and visited the magnificent library in Alexandria, the city which he founded. More than 2300 years ago, the ancient library on this site was the world’s largest repository of ancient knowledge. By 400 A.D. the library had vanished. The new library opened in 2002.
The idea of a universal library, like that of Alexandria, arose only after the Greek mind had begun to envisage and encompass a larger worldview. The Greeks were impressed by the achievements of their neighbours, and many Greek intellectuals sought to explore the resources of “Oriental” knowledge.
The cruise ships have stopped coming to Alexandria, citing concerns about violence, and so I suspect that this port city is suffering under the same economic woes as Cairo and the Red Sea resorts from the lack of tourism. There were many Egyptians visiting the library on the day I was there, but I saw only a handful of foreigners.
Knowledge is power; making knowledge univerally accessible to anyone with a computer is a powerful act of generosity and love.
I learned from our tour guide that the Library of Alexandria is part of the World Digital Library started by the US Library of Congress. The library has a very active project to digitize resources from many countries, and our guide asked us which country we would like to search in the library’s database as an example. I said “Palestine.” She smiled and typed in Palestine, and up came the list of books and manuscripts that have been digitized to date.
Libraries and librarians have always been special in my heart, and that might explain why I think the CPDS Library in Gaza is so extraordinarily important. Israel can stop the flow of people, concrete and sugar, but it can’t stop the flow of information. Israel’s 20th century strategies — occupation, siege, blockade and humiliation — will backfire in the 21st century. Now anyone in Gaza connected to the Internet will be able to access:
The Digital Assets Repository, the Wellcome Arabic Manuscripts Online, the Institut du Monde Arabe Book Collection, the Digital Library of Inscriptions and Calligraphies, the President Mohamed Naguib Digital Archives, the President Gamal Abdel Nasser Digital Archives, the Science Supercourse Project, the Encyclopedia of Life, the Universal Networking Language Project (my favorite), and much more.
I can imagine space aliens from the future uncovering this library in Alexandria one day, very much as we’ve uncovered the archaeological treasures from the past, and thinking “a society that valued books and knowledge must have been very enlightened.”
Unfortunately, Israel’s occupation and siege of the Gaza Strip prove otherwise. An enlightened society does not treat Palestinians as inhumanely as Israel does. Israel is building a legacy of a very different sort.
I bought a postcard at the library’s gift store, addressed it to the orphanage in Gaza, and then stepped outside into the blazing heat of the afternoon sun to mail it. Maybe Israel will allow my postcard to enter Gaza, maybe not, but that won’t stop the Postcard Brigade.