Mostafa El Abbadi


A prominent historian of Greco-Roman Egypt and an Egyptian public intellectual

The universe of Mostafa el-Abbadi was the ancient Great Library of Alexandria, which had occupied his mind and heart since his student days. His dream of a new library, ” a modern version of the magnificent centre of learning of ancient times" could be traced to 1972, when, as a scholar at the University of Alexandria, he concluded a lecture with an impassioned challenge. Backed by the university, Professor Abbadi began developing plans for a new research institution and ultimately persuaded the governor of Alexandria, the Egyptian government and Unesco, the United Nations educational and cultural organisation, to lend their support. In 1988, President Hosni Mubarak laid the foundation stone for what would become the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a $220 million seaside cylindrical complex. Designed by a Norwegian firm it comprises a 220,000-square-foot reading room, four museums, several galleries, a conference centre a planetarium and gift shops. It opened in 2002, hailed as a revitalisation of intellectual culture in Egypt's former ancient capital, which is now its second-largest city.

Alexandria's library was the first to be set up as a repository of all human knowledge: the universe under one roof. Professor Abbadi became a leading authority on the original library, a grand repository of the ancient world's accumulated knowledge as well as a research institution. Established around the third century B.C. by Ptolemy I, it was destroyed sometime in the first century B.C. Professor Abbadi's book 'Life and Fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria,' published in 1990 by Unesco and translated into five languages, continues to be widely cited by scholars. In that book, one of several he wrote or edited, he blamed Julius Caesar for the ancient library's destruction, countering one politicised narrative that holds Arabs responsible. In interviews and papers, Professor Abbadi asserted that although it was not the world's first library, it was the first universal library, housing an estimated half-million texts from many countries and in many languages, including Aristotle's works and original manuscripts by dramatists like Sophocles. In 1996, Professor Abbadi was elected president of the Archaeological Society of Alexandria, founded in 1893. He lectured throughout the world and received many academic and government honours. Born in Cairo in the family of intellectuals he earned a bachelor's degree with honours there in 1951. A year later, he enrolled at the University of Cambridge on an Egyptian government scholarship. He studied at Jesus College and earned a doctorate in ancient history there in 1960. He returned to Alexandria in the same year.

Compiler: M. Nauman Khan

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