A Library Saved And More About Egypt Kee Malesky, NPR's longest-serving librarian, tells us about a strange goopy substance, the Suez Canal and an act of heroism in Egypt that had librarians worldwide cheering.

A Library Saved And More About Egypt

Whenever we here at NPR want to learn something or have a pressing question, we go to the legendary Kee Malesky, our longest-serving librarian, who prowls through the precincts of all knowledge.

Kee is the author of the book All Facts Considered, and she sometimes visits Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon to enlighten us with trivial treasures.

Today, we learn about a strange goopy substance, the Suez Canal and an act of heroism in Egypt that had librarians worldwide cheering.

Coal Tar, The Suez Canal And Alexandria's Great Library

  • Coal Tar: Tasty, And You Can Smear It All Over You

    An advertising poster for Wright's Coal Tar Soap. Jon Evans/Flickr.com hide caption

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    Jon Evans/Flickr.com

    An advertising poster for Wright's Coal Tar Soap.

    Jon Evans/Flickr.com

    Coal tar is the viscous black liquid that results when you burn coal at very high temperatures. You'd be surprised at the range of commercially important products derived from coal tar — like saccharin, the world's first artificial, calorie-free sweetener. It was developed by scientists working on coal tar derivatives in the late 1870s.

    Today, we use products made from coal tar to treat all kinds of skin diseases — eczema, dandruff, even head lice. You can rub coal tar into your skin, but you can also slather it on your roof; coal tar products are used for waterproofing as well as for dyes, explosives, paints and insulation.

  • The Suez Canal Wasn't The First Suez Canal

    Iran recently sent warships to Syria through the Suez Canal — just a friendly visit, they said. AP hide caption

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    The Suez Canal in Egypt is actually a system of man-made channels that connect through several natural lakes, joining the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea. Since the levels of the two seas are approximately the same, water flows freely and the canal does not require locks.

    The digging of the modern canal began in 1859. When it was completed 10 years later, almost 97 million cubic yards of sand and soil had been removed by 1.5 million workers — of whom about 120,000 lost their lives in the process.

    There actually were earlier Suez Canals, too. The first was probably dug about 3,000 years ago, expanding a more ancient irrigation channel. There were also Canals of the Pharaohs, a Canal of the Persians and a Canal of the Ptolemies.

    "Extended under the Romans (who called it Trajan's Canal), neglected by the Byzantines, and reopened by the early Arabs," according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, "the canal was deliberately filled in for military reasons in the year 775."

  • One Story Where Alexandria's Great Library Survives

    Demonstrators protect the Library of Alexandria by joining hands as marchers pass by. "What happened was pure magic," says the head of the library. Bibliotheca Alexandrina hide caption

    How Egypt's Demonstrators Saved Alexandria's Library
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    Bibliotheca Alexandrina

    Also in Egypt, a story near and dear to a librarian's heart. Thanks to demonstrators in Alexandria, the legendary library there was protected from vandalism during the recent unrest.

    According to the library's director, Ismail Serageldin, "People from within the demonstrations broke out and simply linked hands and they said, 'This is our library, don't touch it.' " No rocks were thrown; not a pane of glass was broken.

    This is the New Library of Alexandria, which opened in 2002. The ancient library was probably the greatest collection of books — in scroll form at the time — ever assembled, but it wasn't as lucky as the new library.

    It vanished by the Middle Ages, but who destroyed it and how are unanswered questions. There are several legends, however, and you can pick your villain. Two pagans, a Christian or a Muslim may have destroyed the library.

    It might have been Julius Caesar, who in 48 B.C. aligned with Cleopatra against her brother and set fire to ships in the harbor. The flames spread to nearby buildings, destroying at least a book warehouse if not the main library building.

    Three hundred years later, the Emperor Aurelian invaded Egypt, and much of Alexandria was burned, perhaps including the library. Or maybe it was the patriarch of Alexandria, Theophilus, alleged to have sent a mob to raze the library and the surrounding pagan temples in the late fourth century.

    The story with the least historical evidence has Caliph Omar ordering the burning of the books because they either contradicted the Quran and were heretical, or because they agreed with it and were therefore superfluous.

    Then again, maybe it was just the centuries of humidity that claimed the scrolls of Alexandria.