Art Travelling in Alexandria, Egypt: exploring the Library

The Alexandria Library has a vast collection and, like the British library (which I use often) and other grand libraries of the world, has many other things in its collection besides books to read and study.

medieval map of the world

The Map collection contains all kinds of modern and historic maps, but I liked this one- a medieval map of the world by Egyptian scholars. I love the way it is just not Eurocentric.



Cavafy, (Constantine Peter Cavafy) better known in Alexandria as Kavafis, was an Egyptian Greek poet one of the great poets of the early 20th century. His poems recall the ancient history of Alexandria, combined with deeply moving homoerotic sensuality and melancholy.

One of my my favourites is The City

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore, find another city better than this one. Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead. How long can I let my mind moulder in this place? Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look, I see the black ruins of my life, here, where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore. This city will always pursue you. You will walk the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods, will turn gray in these same houses. You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere: there is no ship for you, there is no road. As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner, you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

Leonard Cohen wrote his song Alexandra Leaving based on a Cavafy poem.

Rare Books

Ibn al-Haytham

Ibn al-Haytham: Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham also known as Alhazen أبو علي، الحسن بن الحسن بن الهيثم; c. 965 – c. 1040) was an Iraqi mathematician, astronomer, and physicist living in Cairo. Called “the father of modern optics” he made significant contributions to the principles of optics and visual perception in particular. His most influential work is titled Kitāb al-Manāẓir (Arabic: كتاب المناظر, “Book of Optics”), written during 1011–1021. This remarkable book explained how the eye works, and theorized the camera obscura and, by extension the camera. Kitāb al-Manāẓir is the first point in the history of cinema and is also key to the development of art. I was fascinated when I first discovered it, during my PhD research. It was so exciting to see the book here!

Occult Lore

Shams al Ma’arif

The Library has an amazing collection of Occult lore, including the Shams al-Ma’arif – or the ‘Book of the Sun [Shams] of Gnosis and the Subtleties of Elevated Things’). This is a 13th-century grimoire of Arabic magic and esoteric spirituality. It was written by Ahmad al-Buni, an Algerian born scholar based in Egypt; died around 1225 CE. I was fortunate to have a tour of the Library’s manuscript collection and the librarian, and my friend who works in the library, both referred to this book as a book of Black magic. My friend says he read some of it and it freaked him out so it’s got to be fascinating, right? Unfortunately, it hasn’t been translated fully into English (come ON!) so I can not say, but I would love to read it. There are several other priceless books on occult lore in the collection. I would love to know more about Arab and ancient Egyptian magic. I know that many Europeans went to Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to seek this knowledge but I’m not sure any of them found any of the real stuff. There is, of course, folk tradition such as the Zar, or ecstatic ritual healing dance to expel or control spirits. [Some excellent Zar music here]


a beautiful mosaic of a dog found in an Roman Egyptian house

The Library has a small but exquisite collection of Antiquities from the Pharaonic, Hellenic and Roman eras. Alexandria was not such a big city in Pharaonic times though it is a myth that it was just a fishing village before Alexander arrived. But he did establish it as a capital and the dynasty he founded, the Ptolemies, rebuilt it as a huge city with many wonderful amenities – not least the vast Library. The Hellenic marbles are unbelievably beautiful and it is interesting to compare them with the classical sculptures seen at the British Museum for example. Hellenic sculpture in Egypt is particularly fine; the figures seem warm and fleshy, almost alive; their beauty is not idealized or cold. See more on


Me with two paintings by Nazir Tanbouli

The Library has a sizeable permanent collection of Modern and contemporary art by artists from the city. The collection encompasses many well-known painters such as the brothers Seif (1906-1979) and Adham Wanly (1908-1959) as well as sculptors including Adam Henein.

These are two paintings by the Alexandrian painter Nazir Tanbouli. He made them in London, remembering several iconic characters he knew growing up in the city: Aida the flower seller and a cafe run by an Alexandrian family, Eida and her Brothers.

The Library has much more to offer; this is just a taste. I am planning to go back soon, to do some of my own research, so no doubt I will be writing about it again.