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Egypt's Jewel Of A Library Reopens, Thanks To Demonstrators

When Egypt's army asserted itself during the country's recent unrest, a main goal was to protect historical sites. But when it came to the Library of Alexandria, the demonstrators protected the building themselves — by forming a human chain around it.

The legendary library of Alexandria, also known as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, reopened this week. It was closed for the last few weeks during the demonstrations, both to protect it from vandalism, and to protest the army's curfew.

And the library's director, Ismail Serageldin says that in all the protests, not a stone was thrown at the library, and not a pane of glass was broken.

"What happened was pure magic," he says. "People from within the demonstrations broke out of the demonstrations and simply linked hands, and they said 'This is our library. Don't touch it.'"

The ancient library has been destroyed several times by vandals and conquerors — most notably by a fire, several centuries ago.

But, Serageldin says, this time was different.

"This revolution in Egypt was a liberal revolution. People who believe in democracy and freedom of expression, in pluralism, and openness," he said. "And I'm proud and happy that the Library of Alexandria may have contributed in some small way to supporting the kinds of ideas that have found their expression in the young people who led this revolution."

Since the huge new library opened a few years ago — at a cost of more than $200 million — it's been a bastion of intellectual openness, holding conferences on human rights and standing firm against censorship.

The library also hosts hundreds of events, including an annual meeting on Reform in the Arab world — which is scheduled for this weekend.

In past years, conference attendees have complained that there was no reform to speak of.

"Now, I think nobody can say that nothing is happening, the young people have taken over, and God bless them," Serageldin says. "It really is an entire societal transformation."

The library is creating an archive of that transformation, collecting flyers, official documents, videos and so on.

Serageldin notes that former president Hosni Mubarak was very involved in the creation of the Library of Alexandria. His wife Suzanne was even the chairman of the board.

"When the history of the Mubarak era is written," Serageldin says, "I am sure the Library of Alexandria will be one of the positives."

In fact, Serageldin says he believes that the library, by promoting tolerance and freedom of expression, also contributed to the intellectual climate that led to Mubarak's eventual overthrow.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.