Cairo – 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 of Egypt, 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. Firefighters flooded the building with water, adding to the damage.
Burnt pages from books from the Scientific Institute lie in a pile near cabinet offices near Tahrir Square in Cairo.
The violence erupted in Cairo Friday, when military forces guarding the Cabinet building, near the institute, cracked down on a 3-week-old sit-in to demand the country’s ruling generals hand power to a civilian authority. At least 14 people have been killed…
… there is 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.”