The library of Alexandria is being rebuilt, perhaps on the site where the original library once stood. Well, not “rebuilt” exactly. “Even if we wanted to rebuild the old library,” UNESCO spokesman Richard Holmquist says, “we don’t know what it looked like.”

Instead of trying to reproduce the ancient library’s appearance, the Egyptian government, UNESCO, the UNDP (United Nations Development Project) and other sources have raised over $172 million to revive its function—as a vast research and learning center. The new library’s main structure, designed by a Norwegian firm to resemble the sun rising out of the Mediterranean, will consist of a large glass disk inclined toward the sea and partly submerged in a pool of water. It will house about 8 million books (by contrast, the Library of Congress holds about 20 million volumes), along with collections of rare manuscripts and musical recordings, a conference center, a science museum and planetarium, and a calligraphy institute. According to Ihssan Wali, the cultural attaché at the Egyptian embassy in Washington, D.C., the library has now collected about 100,000 volumes.

The new complex is being built where the first-century C.E. Greek historian Strabo indicates the original library stood. This has caused alarm among archaeologists who fear that information about the ancient library will be destroyed in the construction process. Two University of California archaeologists, Birger A. Pearson and Gary Lease, were granted permission in 1984 and 1989 to excavate the site, but their plans fell through both times. In 1992, Pearson expressed concerns about the lack of archaeological planning at the site in an unpublished letter to Biblical Archaeology Review: “We are confronted with a supreme irony: people exploiting the historic grandeur of Alexandria and its famous ancient library for the purposes of building something that is supposed to be its successor, while at the same time seeking to bury for eternity the cultural legacy that lies in the archaeological record beneath it!”

The protests from the archaeological community have not been entirely ignored—despite pressure to complete a project backed by such heavy hitters as the United Nations and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. In fact, from Mubarak’s laying of the library’s cornerstone in 1988 until recently the project remained virtually at a standstill, in part due to the insistence of archaeologists on having the site excavated.

Archaeologist Mieczyslaw Rodziewicz, who has directed excavations in Alexandria since 1984, was asked by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization to excavate the site of the new library in the summer of 1993. His team discovered statue heads, pottery utensils and fragments of two Hellenistic mosaics—artifacts which may or may not have been part of the ancient library. The final report of Rodziewicz’s excavation has not yet been published.

After visiting the site in 1993, Pearson wrote that “it now appears that the project to revive the ancient Alexandrian Mouseion/Library is moving forward in a manner that fully respects the archaeological importance of the site on which it is being constructed.”a UNESCO spokesman Richard Holmquist told BR that the ongoing construction of the library is being conducted prudently, saying that “all this [the archaeological investigation of the site] has been taken care of.”

Since 1993, however, Pearson has become skeptical, believing that the site’s excavation has not been extensive enough or properly sustained. “The results are not satisfactory,” he told BR. “But it doesn’t matter now because the construction has been resumed.”