Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Library Reborn

By Hala Halim

The eventful history of the Library of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Alexandria has all but followed the prototype of the ancient library of Alexandria -- the vanished library, the library recreated or reborn. Fortunately, though, after decades of neglect, this millennium-old library is being salvaged in the nick of time. His Holiness Petros Papapetrou Toupanayioto, since becoming Greek Orthodox Patriarch for Alexandria and Africa two years ago, has undertaken to revitalise the Patriarchate Library. He is aided in this task by Mr Harry Tzalas, an Alexandrian Greek now living in Athens, who heads the Hellenic Institute of Ancient and Mediaeval Alexandrian Studies.

Since the inception of the Orthodox Church in Egypt in the middle of the first century AD, explains His Eminence Irinaios, Metropolitan of Pelusion and General Patriarchal Vicar, a small library attached to the Patriarchate always existed, but it was not until 1052 that the Patriarchal Library as a full-fledged institution came into its own.

The library, according to a commemorative volume published in 1953, was established in the mid-eleventh century by the then Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in Egypt, Afteshios. Over the centuries, the library moved quite a few times. For many years housed in Cairo, one of the library's Alexandrian premises was St Saba Cathedral, until special premises were built to house it in Ibrahimiya district on the occasion of the millenary celebrations held in Alexandria in November 1952. In the early '70s, it was moved to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate buildings, explains His Eminence Irinaios.

It is not so much the 40,000 books it contains that make the Patriarchal library unique, but the manuscripts and codices it comprises. "There are over 600 codices," explains Tzalas; "the earliest date from the ninth and tenth centuries; some are on parchment, others on Egyptian cotton paper." Eighty per cent of these texts deal with theological and ecclesiastical matters and, given the long span of time the collection covers, may contribute to the study of the evolution of the Greek language. This apart from the aesthetic, art-historical value of the illuminations that accompany the texts.

A bibliophile's dream come true, the library also contains many "paleographic books that are copies of earlier Greek ones of ancient times ... some are on music, others on medicine, others on Greek philosophers..." elaborates Tzalas.

Some of these manuscripts are rendered even more valuable by the fact that the originals from which they were copied have disappeared. "One book that is unique is a copy of one written in Constantinople. It tells you what to do if a patriarch dies, what to do if you want to remove a patriarch who is not healthy -- it gives all the rules. And that's a very ancient copy, the original of which no longer exists," he elaborates. Neither His Eminence Irinaios nor Tzalas believes that the Patriarchal library contains any volumes from the ancient library of Alexandria, the time gap between the destruction of the one and the establishment of the other being too vast to allow for it.

The library also comprises a small museum, which is to be revamped and expanded. This, explains His Eminence Irinaios, contains a rare collection of icons, some of which date back to the early centuries of Christianity. These are displayed alongside the museum's collection of coins, which come to about 2,300. These, Tzalas says, are mostly from the Alexandria mint, and a great number of them are Roman, while some are Hellenic and a few came from different parts of ancient Greece. While Tzalas explains that "none of the coins is unique," he adds that "the collection itself is valuable because in Greece we don't have such a collection from the mint of Alexandria."

More than anyone else, the two names associated with the library this century are those of the two librarians, Dr Theodore Mosconas and Dimitri Mosconas, respectively father and son. Mosconas père was erudite but reserved, recalls Tzalas, who was a regular visitor to the library until he emigrated in 1956. Mosconas ran the library with an iron fist; he compiled a catalogue, was the secretary of the millenary celebrations in 1952, wrote about Byzantine Alexandria, and helped edit at least some of the volumes published by the Institute for Oriental Studies of the Patriarchal Library of Alexandria. In the 1940s, too, Mosconas was approached by and eagerly helped a young Lawrence Durrell collect material on the Greek war of independence.

According to Ian MacNiven's Lawrence Durrell: A Biography, published last April, the British writer, while based in Alexandria during the war, "proposed to his friend Dimitri Lambros and to [T S] Eliot that he write for the Greek Ministry of Information a short book on the Greek revolt from Turkey... Eliot approved his resolve to treat Greek history 'from some other angle than the Byron one'... Larry began research in the Patriarchal Library in Alexandria with the help of a friendly librarian, Moschorios [sic]..."

When Durrell returned to Alexandria in 1977, he met up with his librarian friend once again, as MacNiven recounts. Feeling old and frail, "Larry compared himself unfavourably to an old friend, Moschorios, the Patriarchal Secretary in Alexandria, 'whom I found as sprightly as ever at 84.'"
After Theodore Mosconas's death, his son took over the library. Mosconas fils, according to Tzalas, was trained in librarianship in universities abroad. Given that the catalogue compiled by Mosconas père followed "a very personal system", however, and was no longer up-to-date, only his son could locate the books.

Dimitri Mosconas is described by all as the one person who knows the library inside out. For the past three decades, it would seem, he has guarded it with an excessive jealousy that, while it ensured that none of the volumes were lost, mitigated against the books receiving proper treatment. "A library either expands or dies. The [Patriarchal] library was dying. If scholars cannot enter a library, if they don't have a microfilm service, if they cannot make photocopies..." comments Tzalas. "Also, a library is a very vulnerable thing: it can be attacked by micro-organisms, the light, the heat, humidity."

To revamp the library, Tzalas explains that every page of the codices was photographed first; all the texts are now available on microfilm. "Conservators from Athens" have identified and are treating the various pests and microorganisms that have plagued the books. An Athenian numismatist has also catalogued the coins.

New catalogues, says Tzalas, will be compiled. Meanwhile, "the Patriarch's intention is to triple the size of the library by having mezzanines constructed." The museum will be reopened with more display objects narrating the history of the Patriarchate. "I think the new century will open with a very important library," says Tzalas. Should this be the case, it will attract whatever scholarly tourists the projected Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which seeks to recreate the ancient library of Alexandria, can draw to these shores.

With the Greek community in Egypt having dwindled to a few thousand members, will the Patriarchate library always remain in Egypt? His Eminence Irinaios has no doubt: the library will always remain -- in Alexandria.

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.