Volunteers in white laboratory coats, surgical gloves and masks stood on the
back of a pickup truck on Monday along the banks of the Nile River in Cairo,
rummaging through stacks of rare 200-year-old manuscripts that were little
more than charcoal debris.
The volunteers, ranging from academic experts to appalled citizens, have
spent the past two days trying to salvage what's left of some 192 000 books,
journals and writings -- casualties of Egypt's latest bout of violence.
Institute d'Egypte, a research centre set up by Napoleon Bonaparte during
France's invasion in the late 18th century, caught fire during clashes
between protesters and Egypt's military over the weekend. It was home to a
treasure trove of writings, most notably the handwritten 24-volume
Description de l'Egypte, compiled during the 1798-1801 French occupation.
The Description de l'Egypte, which French scientists began writing in 1798,
is likely burned beyond repair. Its home, the two-story historic institute
near Tahrir Square, is now in danger of collapsing after the roof caved in.
"The burning of such a rich building means a large part of Egyptian history
has ended," the director of the institute, Mohammed al-Sharbouni, told state
television over the weekend.
He said most of the contents were destroyed in the fire that raged for over
12 hours on Saturday. Fire-fighters flooded the building with water, adding
to the damage.
The violence erupted in Cairo on Friday when military forces guarding the
Cabinet building, near the institute, cracked down on a three-week-old
sit-in to demand the country's ruling generals hand power to a civilian
authority. At least 14 people have been killed.
Zein Abdel-Hady, who runs the country's main library, is leading the effort
to try and save what's left of the charred manuscripts.
"This is equal to the burning of Galileo's books," Abdel-Hady said,
referring to the Italian scientist whose work proposing that the earth
revolved around the sun was believed to have been burned in protest in the
Below Abdel-Hady's office, dozens of people sifted through the mounds of
debris brought to the library. A man in a surgical coat carried a pile of
burned paper with his arms carefully spread, as if cradling a baby.
The rescuers used newspapers to cover some partially burned books. Bulky
machines vacuum-packed delicate paper.
Damaged beyond repair
At least 16 truckloads with around 50 000 manuscripts, some damaged beyond
repair, have been moved from the sidewalks outside the US Embassy and the
American University in Cairo, both near the burned institute, to the main
library, Abdel-Hady said.
He said there was no way of knowing what has been lost for good at this
stage but the material was worth tens of millions of dollars -- and in many
ways simply priceless.
"I haven't slept for two days and I cried a lot yesterday. I do not like to
see a book burned," he said. "The whole of Egypt is crying."
He said that there are four other handwritten copies of the Description de
l'Egypte. The French body of work has also been digitised and is available
There may have been a map of Egypt and Ethiopia, dated in 1753, that was
destroyed in the fire. However, another original copy of the map is in
Egypt's national library, he said. The gutted institute also housed 16th
century letters and manuscripts that were bound and shelved like books.
The most accessible inventory at the moment for what was housed in the
institute is in a 1920's book kept in the US Library of Congress, according
to William Kopycki, a regional field director with the Washington DC-based
library. He said the body of work that was destroyed was essential for
researchers of Egyptian history, Arabic studies and Egyptology.
"It's a loss of a very important institute that many scholars have visited,"
he said during a meeting with Abdel-Hady to evaluate the level of
What remains inside the historic building near the site of the clashes are
piles of burned furniture, twisted metal and crumbled walls. A double human
chain of protesters surrounded the building on Monday.
At a news conference on Monday, a general from the country's ruling military
council said an investigation was under way to find who set the building on
fire. State television aired images of men in plain clothes burning the
building and dancing around the fire on Saturday afternoon. Protesters also
took advantage of the fire, using the institute's grounds to hurl firebombs
and rocks at soldiers atop surrounding buildings.
A military colonel, helping out with rescue efforts at the library, said
about 10 soldiers had been tasked with assisting the volunteers. He asked
not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to reporters.
Volunteer Ahmed el-Bindari said the military shoulders the brunt of
responsibility for using its roof as a position to attack protesters before
the fire erupted.
"When the government wants to protect something, they do," el-Bindari said.
"Try to reach the interior ministry or defence ministry buildings. You won't
be able to." -- Sapa-AP
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Received on Tue Dec 20 2011 - 14:46:39 EST