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Updated: Egypt Institute Burns; Scholars Scramble to Rescue Manuscripts

19 December 2011 2:03 pm
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Egypt's oldest research institute caught fire during demonstrations in central Cairo on 18 December, destroying an unknown number of precious books and manuscripts. Shocked Egyptologists call the destruction a "tragedy," and are now trying to locate and salvage the research treasures.

The Institut d'Égypte was founded as a scientific research academy by Napoleon Bonaparte during his 1798 Egyptian campaign, an invasion which brought the country's ancient history to the attention of Western scholars. The collection includes at least 20,000 documents and books, many of which are irreplaceable. Among the books is a rare original copy of the Description de l'Egypt, the first extensive illustrated text on Egyptian antiquities, temples, and monuments.

When fighting broke out between protestors and police, the neoclassical building near Tahrir Square caught fire. Egyptian news reports say that protestors attempted to rescue manuscripts and books from the burning building, but were harassed and attacked by government soldiers.

Lisa Anderson, president of the American University in Cairo (AUC) which has a campus near the institute, says the Dar al-Kutub, the National Library and Archives, is leading a rescue effort by scholars, library specialists, and archivists. AUC is providing student and faculty volunteers and supplies from its own rare books library. "It is impossible at this point to estimate what is lost, since some books and other materials were rescued by private individuals, and we do not know where they are," she says. "Presumably they will begin appearing, either delivered to the Dar al-Kutub or in the used books markets, over the next weeks and months."

Anderson called the event "a terrible tragedy for the historiography of Egypt," adding that "the response of the scientific and scholarly community has been very heartening." Bernard Valero, the French minister of foreign affairs spokesperson, called the destruction a "cultural catastrophe" and urged the Egyptian government to begin an exhaustive and transparent investigation, in order to find and punish those responsible. He added that France would consider any request from Egypt to help rehabilitate the gutted institute.

Update, 3:25 p.m. E.S.T.: Late today in Cairo, Egyptian media said that more than 35,000 manuscripts and books had been rescued from the flames, although their condition remains unclear. Anderson expressed hope for the collection, which she characterized as "a wonderful, somewhat eccentric, irreplaceable archive of mostly 19th century history and geography—books, manuscripts, and maps."

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