Capital of memory

In the ancient library of Alexandria, scholars first calculated the circumference of the earth and m

In 1974, during a presidential visit to Alexandria, Richard Nixon innocently inquired about the city's august ancient library. Where, exactly, had it stood before being ravaged by fire? An embarrassed silence ensued. His Egyptian hosts had no idea.

They responded by ordering an investigation. Its fruits were to become the foundation for the revival of the building that, as the repository of around 700,000 papyrus scrolls, and the home of Euclid and Archimedes, was fabled to have housed the sum of human knowledge.

Now, for the best part of two decades, the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina has been in the making. Along the town's crumbling, dust-tormented streets, locals have watched as the edifice, uncannily reminiscent of an upturned beach bucket with a microchip-shaped lid, has slowly been erected.

From the seafront, women escaping the tortuous heat - their bodies hidden in hijabs, their faces masked with veils - have watched as workers have toiled, relentlessly, into the night. They have watched as the behemoth's spectacularly odd roof assumes an even odder bluish glow when the sun goes down.

They have looked on as the men have carved letters, from the alphabets of all ages, in tongues both known and forgotten, along the circular building's graffiti-resistant granite walls. They have watched as the workers have laid its foundations, erected its 11 waterfall-style floors, placed papyrus in its surrounding moat, installed automatic smokescreens, planted palm trees and buffed its multitude of multicoloured glass panes. And they have watched as a footbridge has been built to link the complex to the sea.

"It's like the Titanic: unsinkable," Dr Mohsen Zahran, the library's former director, reputedly exclaimed, in a somewhat unfortunate choice of phrase. "Architecturally, this is a very clever building," says Christoph Kapeller, an architect with the library's Norwegian designers. "Its circular shape, for example, symbolises the ancient idea of a sphere containing all knowledge. Its tilted roof symbolises the rising sun. It is a beacon of light on the shores of the Mediterranean."

Egypt's veiled women, and djellaba-clad men, have watched and heard all this. And they have watched and heard for much longer than anyone had expected - the $200m library opens, after a three-year delay, on International Book Day next spring.

Britain, as a member of the United Nations cultural organisation Unesco, has shared in the cost of constructing this, the world's first globally sponsored archive. But while no expense has been spared, the library's cultural significance, and indeed its political prestige, appears lost on the vast majority of Egyptians, who have little interest in their country's pre-Islamic past. The likelihood of their ever being able to use it seems, in spite of refutation, undeniably slim.

In the words of Lawrence Durrell, Alexandria is a "capital of memory". Its streets, shabby and poor since the Nasser revolution, now hum to the tune of nostalgia. Durrell, brought to the city by the Second World War, felt compelled to write, after the exodus of its cosmopolitan elite (Greeks, Jews, Armenians), that "the present town is depressing beyond endurance". Yet he also noted that the "echoes of an extraordinary history" had their pull. Macedonia's Alexander, the Ptolemies, Cleopatra, Mark Antony, Julius Caesar, the Ottomans and Napoleon himself all passed through the seaport facing Europe.

For the writers and poets who have lived here - E M Forster and the legendary C P Cavafy, no less - Alexandria's past has, in itself, been enough to inspire. Though critical, both men were ardent admirers of the town; Forster's own appreciation being further inflamed by his erotic entanglement with Mohammed, a native tram conductor.

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, in keeping with such drama, is not short of ambition or noble aspiration. Few have forgotten how it was in the Great Library that scholars first calculated the circumference of the earth, mapped the stars and discovered the power of steam. However, it is not clear what exactly the new library aspires - or is able - to be.

Because record-crunching has become its thing, the Bibliotheca is destined to have the biggest reading room in the world. In terms of books, it will rank among the first in shelf space, with an estimated eight million tomes. And, as with the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, it is hoped that its timeless design will go some way towards achieving its avowedly universalist aim of becoming a "lighthouse for thought".

But in this age of digitalisation and virtual study, when the very need for libraries is being debated, important questions remain. Will the Bibliotheca, imitating its ancient namesake, cater exclusively for scholars as a research institute in, say, Arabic, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Graeco-Roman studies - fields in which it would like to excel? Saddam Hussein, for one, jumped to contribute to the project, investing around $20m before the Gulf war. Or, with talk of a children's wing also being established, will it attempt to be something more? Would international scholars really want to spend time in a place that even Cavafy - a man with vast experience of its less salubrious quarters - felt fit to describe as a little "disturbing"?

In Ismail Serageldin, its new director, the library has found a leader with vision and dreams. Serageldin, formerly vice-president of the World Bank, hopes the Bibliotheca will not only help resurrect Alexandria, but see Egypt re-emerge as an intellectual, cultural hub in the Levant.

He has already changed the library's controversial collection policy by adopting a more rigorous approach. (To bypass Cairo's censorious bureaucrats, Serageldin has ensured that he is answerable only to President Hosni Mubarak.) Previously, all manner of donated books were being stocked. With only 400,000 tomes amassed so far, the new director has gone on record saying that around 200,000 are "so-so". Many are little more than antiquated travel and investment guides.

But Alexandria is not what it was in the third century BC. Then, the Ptolemies thought nothing of parading a 180-foot golden phallus through the streets. And they took delicious delight in seizing passing ships with the sole purpose of purloining scrolls (invariably returned to their owners in the form of copies).

Today, Egypt imprisons writers, censors the press and bans the books it deems to be offensive to Islam. More worryingly, to placate militants, Mubarak has stepped up the suppressive measures in recent months. Marrying the library's academic pretensions with mounting Islamic pressures could prove impossible.

Some beg to differ. After all, Alexandria has of late been experiencing a bit of a renaissance, courtesy of its energetic, army-officer mayor. The stunning, neoclassical houses along its fin-de-siecle corniche are being spruced up, palm trees planted and streets stridently cleared of litter.

"Why shouldn't scholars go and sit in Alexandria, on the great continent of Africa? Do you think sitting in a research institute in LA or Indiana or Utah would be any better?" asks David Wardrop, who heads, on a voluntary basis, Friends of the Alexandria Library in the UK.

What is certain is that the savants who inhabited the ancient library might well feel at home in the Bibliotheca. Enough archaeological evidence has been found to suggest that the site once housed the august building itself. Nobody is saying it too loudly (or at least, not any more), but the irony of ironies is that the Alexandria Bibliotheca of the third millennium may be standing on the ruins of its illustrious namesake. The new beacon of learning could have eclipsed, once and for all, any chance of finding the real thing.

Helena Smith has just completed a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University