Burning the Egyptian Institute: A Cultural Crime Under the Nose of SCAF
By: Radwan Adam
Published Thursday, December 22, 2011
Contrary to SCAF claims, the Egyptian military may be largely to blame for one of Egypt’s worst heritage disasters, the burning of thousands of old book and manuscripts at the Egyptian Institute in Cairo.
Cairo – Egypt’s cultural heritage was deeply wounded Saturday. Tens of thousands of rare Egyptian and international books were burned as army personnel looked on.
The Military Council revealed its ugly side in apparently allowing the blaze to consume the Egyptian Institute, a venerable cultural institution founded by Napoleon following his 1798 campaign in Egypt.
The Institute’s director, Mohammad al-Sharnoubi, wept over the destruction of this precious heritage while soldiers allegedly standing idly by or poking fun at him.
Several activists immediately moved to save what rare books they could. They were only able to salvage a few dozen books, turning them over to a group of army officers. They and a delegation from the Library of Alexandria delivered the salvaged remnants to the Egyptian National Library and Archive, which remained open through the night to receive the rare books and manuscripts, by order of its director, Shakir Abdel Hamid.
Sharbouni remained standing in front the burning building, crying out “Disaster, disaster! The history of Egypt is burning, people!” He waited for the fire trucks, but they didn’t arrive until the fire had already destroyed the ancient library’s furniture and collection.
Fearing the man would have a heart attack, revolutionaries and students from the American University in Cairo made him sit down on the pavement opposite the Institute.
Some of the protesters directly accused the Military Council of starting the fire in order to frame the protesters. One of them accused the army of not even understanding either what the words “Egyptian Institute” meant, or anything about its historic value. “I swear they have to be the ones who burned it down,” he said.
“The Egyptian Institute’s library contained nearly 50,000 books, including many unique manuscripts. They could have been removed to safety by air transport, as was done when the Parliament caught fire in August, 2008,” said the Institute’s director, al-Sharbouni.
He also called for the trial of all those connected to the fire that destroyed this piece of Egypt’s history.
“It is the revolutionaries who saved the Egyptian Museum from looting in the first days of the revolution, and they participated in salvaging a number of intact books from the Institute. Whoever burned the Institute did so to benefit from the continued chaos in the country. I demand a fair and independent investigation into this truly civilizational disaster that has taken place today.”
The Ministry of Culture eventually formed a committee to oversee the restoration of the salvaged books and manuscripts made up of experts drawn from the High Council for Heritage, the High Council for Culture, and the Library of Alexandria.
However, Khaled Azb, archival researcher and the director of media relations at the Library of Alexandria, belittled the importance of this step, saying, “It’s very late – but of course it’s necessary.”
“The main difficulty is not the restoration. Some books will be restored, and others are available in digital copies, and can be reprinted. The problem is how many original rare books remain intact? There were precious rare books in the Institute that were the heritage of all human civilization, not just Egypt. We will try to revive what remains, but what happened is truly a historic disaster,” he said.
The Egyptian Institute numbers among the most ancient of Egypt’s cultural institutions. Its library contained nearly 200,000 books, in addition to 50,000 rare historical manuscripts.
The most famous manuscripts among them comprised an atlas of the arts of ancient India, an atlas titled Upper and Lower Egypt, drawn up in 1752, in addition to a German atlas of Egypt and Ethiopia dating back to 1842. The library also contained the original copy of the Description of Egypt, a 20-volume work written by French scholars and experts of various specializations, composed during the French military campaign in Egypt.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.