Saturday, December 24, 2011

The burning of the Institut d'Egypte

This has been the biggest and saddest antiquities news story of the last two weeks. For those who haven't caught up with it, the Institute d'Egypte, a research centre set up by Napoleon, no less, was a victim of the riots and was set on fire. The Institut was home to over two hundred thousand volumes, of which the 24 volumes of an original of the Description de l'Egypte was one. Conservators are now looking at the damage to the books and documents to see what can be recovered. Here in France the French media are demanding an official enquiry to look into how it happened, but from all the reports it looks as though it was an unfortunate and tragic casualty of the fighting, not a deliberate attack on the contents of the building. The mud-slinging has started already, but I don't suppose that any one faction will be held to account. Photo from the Associated Press.

Here are some of the most informative of the news stories.

A good summary of the situation as it was a week ago was supplied by the Associated Press:

Google / Associated Press

Volunteers in white lab coats, surgical gloves and masks stood on the back of a pickup truck 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 center 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, which began during the 1798-1801 French occupation.

The compilation, which includes 20 years of observations by more than 150 French scholars and scientists, was one of the most comprehensive descriptions of Egypt's monuments, its ancient civilization and contemporary life at the time.

The Description of Egypt 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. The building was managed by a local non-governmental organization.

Al-Sharbouni said most of the contents were destroyed in the fire that raged for more than 12 hours on Saturday. Firefighters flooded the building with water, adding to the damage.

During the clashes a day earlier, parts of the parliament and a transportation authority office caught fire, but those blazes were put out quickly.

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.

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 17th century.

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.

At least 16 truckloads with around 50,000 manuscripts, some damaged beyond repair, have been moved from the sidewalks outside the U.S. Embassy and the American University in Cairo, both near the burned institute, to the main library, Abdel-Hady said.

He told The Associated Press that 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.

Ahram Online (Nevine El-Aref)

Minister of State for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim assigned today an archaeological committee led by Mohsen Sayed, head of the Islamic and Coptic Antiquities Department, to inspect the Geographic Society in downtown Cairo after the building housing it was burned amid escalating clashes between protesters and the Egyptian military.

So far, the committee has been unable to inspect the building due to the unstable security conditions on Al-Sheikh Rihan Street, where the Geographic Society building is located. When calm returns, Sayed told Ahram Online, the committee will continue with its job.

Reportedly, most of the Geographic Society's unique 200,000 books and manuscripts have been burned, as well as the original copy of “Le Description de L’Egypt” written by scientists who came with Napoleon Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt in the late 18th century.

Ibrahim said the ministry would help in the restoration of the Geographic Society as well the collection of rescued books, some of which are now transferred to the National Archives and American University in Cairo libraries.

At least some parts of the Egyptian community are pulling together to assist with the salvage operation


After burning the Egyptian Scientific Institute on Saturday 17th December 2011, great efforts started to work on saving the collections of the library which has 196.000 items. The National Library of Egypt is leading the efforts that initiated by different organizations and individuals. At this press release we will try to give a spot light on what's happening after burning the Egyptian Scientific Institute.

On the official side; The Ministry of Archeology formed a technical committee to check out the burned building of the Egyptian Scientific Institute. Another 2 committees formed for the same purpose, they were formed by Ministry of Culture, and Civilized Coordination Authority. The final result says that the building needs 2.5 Million Egyptian Pounds ($420.000) for restoration, and this process will take 1 year according to Mohammed Ali Ibrahim the Minister of Archaeology.

On the collections side; from the first moment after burning the collections; the National Library of Egypt started to save the collections as possible as they can. Many of Egyptian volunteers assisted in extracting the books from the fire. Dr. Zein Abdul Hadi, the head of Egyptian National Library participated himself at this process. Many trucks moved the rescued books to the National Library. According to Dr. Zein, "Around 30.000 items were rescued and stored in the National Library”. Cooperative efforts are running now to restore the saved items. American University in Cairo (AUC) and Bibliotheca Alexandrina are participating effectively. Today, 21st December, the National Library announced that same PCs were rescued and the electronic catalog of the library was found and safe.

On Monday 19th December; Sheikh Sultan Al Qassimi, Governor of the Emirate of Sharjah, announce that he will bear the whole cost of the building restoration, and will donate some of his rare acquisitions to the Institute.

William J. Kopycki, the Field Director, Library of Congress, Cairo Office posted important images that show the library stamps of the Egyptian Scientific Institute. It was great initiative that may assist in detecting any of these collections in the old books market.

One report estimates that 70% of the books have been severely damaged:

The Daily News Egypt
(Heba Hesham)

With photo.

Seventy percent of the books and manuscripts were damaged in the fire that engulfed the Scientific Complex on Saturday amid clashes in downtown Cairo, according to Saber Arab, head of Dar Al-Kotob and the committee formed to measure the damages.

"With the naked eye, I believe around 10 percent of the books are sound, 20 percent can be restored and 70 percent are totally damaged," Arab told Daily News Egypt.

Al Masry Al Youm

In the wake of the fire that destroyed much of the manuscript collection at the Institut d'Egypte on Saturday, scores of pro-democracy protesters have told of their efforts to salvage books and other rare documents from the smoking ruins.

The institute, which was built by Napoleon Bonaparte on Qasr al-Ainy Street, was set ablaze during fighting between security forces and pro-democracy protesters on Saturday morning. Many rare documents dating back to Napoleon's campaign in 1789, including an original copy of the Description de l'Egypt, were damaged by fire or else by water used to put out the flames.

Protesters began salvage operations later on Saturday, as fighting continued around them, removing books and manuscripts from the building and arranging them on the pavement outside. They made contact with officials at the Ministry of Culture, who arranged to collect the works and remove to the safety of the Dar al-Kutub building on the Corniche.

The first to enter the building and save documents did so while the fire was still raging. Several young men were shot at and pelted with rocks as they tried to enter the building.

Ahram Online (Nevine El-Aref)

With two photos showing the building on fire and what it looks like now.

Following an inspection of the Egyptian Science Institute in downtown Cairo, an archaeological committee led by Mohsen Sayed, head of Islamic and Coptic antiquities, announced that, although the building had been subject to considerable damage, its overall structure remained intact.

Egypt’s minister of state for antiquities said that, according to official reports, the two-storey institute had been partially damaged by fire that had led to the collapse of its first- and second-floor ceilings, as well as the destruction of its wooden windows and arcades.

Sayed told Ahram Online that all of the building’s internal walls had been destroyed but stressed that its supporting walls were still well preserved. Restoration work will begin as soon as the tense political situation in the area is brought under control, he added.

Looking at the bigger picture, art critic Jonathan Jones considers the implications for the future of Egypt's other heritage. He wrote a piece during the January "revolution" that was deluged with responses.

The Guardian (Jonathan Jones)

Nelson wrecked Napoleon's military plans in Egypt, but the scholars did produce their Description. I have it before me, in a modern edition published by Taschen. What a book. Meticulous engravings depict the wonders of Egyptian archaeology: the temples of Philae, for instance, are shown in their original setting on an island in the Nile, seen from every angle in measured architectural views. Today the temples are on another nearby island after Unesco moved them to save them from flooding caused by the Aswan Dam – so the Description's precise record of their original appearance is invaluable.

It goes on like that. The French team journeyed to all the great archaeological sites of Egypt and made the first precise studies of them. This book is a monument to human curiosity and reason. Out of it came a new understanding of the legacy of one of the world's most charismatic civilizations. Yet the French also studied the modern Egypt of their time, the natural history of the Nile, the Islamic architecture of Cairo, even agricultural techniques and industries.

One of four original copies of this great work in Egypt has been lost forever. It is a warning. Whatever the political stakes, all sides must respect Egypt's art and history. The Description of Egypt was a record of what Egyptians have created over millennia. Those astounding antiquities themselves, many of the greatest of which are in the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square, are just as vulnerable. Please protect them


Cassandra Vivian said...

The Geographical Society and the Istitut d'Egypte are two different places. The Institut sits at the very corner of Kasr el Aini street (which goes directly into Tahir Square) and Sheikh Rihan Street, (where the main building of the American University sits and the Geological Museum once stood (removed to create the underground (subway).) The Geographical Society is in a large, two story, stone building within a government complex.
In both places 18th and early 19th century scholars of all countries including the United States delivered interesting papers about ancient and modern Egypt. All of those documents, including handwritten notes, are also lost.
I do not know for sure, but I believe amid all the finacial aide and expertise that has been given to Egypt by foreign countries over the years little or nothing has been done to preserve, create climate control, fire proof the old building, or assist in protecting such a treasure from decay. IT would be interesting to know the condition of the contents prior to the fire.
It is not too late to look at the treasures of the Geographical Society and begin digitizing and protecting them. Here is just a snippet of what is available there (taken from my soon to be published book on Americans in Egypt in the 19th century).

"While in Cairo he spoke before the Geographical Society. The Geographical Society is very important to the discussion of Americans in Egypt. Tucked into the archives of the Société Khédiviale de Geographie, now the Geographical Society of Egypt, are the maps and reports of the Khedive Ismail’s American soldiers. Lockett’s map of Africa of 1877 (listing Lake Ibrihim) as well as his plans of Goura and Haala, Mitchell’s geological profile of the Eastern Desert, Purdy’s maps of Darfour and reconnaissance of the Eastern Desert, and Major Prout’s maps of Darfur and Kordofan as well as the town plan of El Obeid, not to mention Chaillé-Long’s discovery of Lake Ibrahim and the source of the Nile. There are Prout’s and Colston’s individual 1875 reports on the provinces of Kordofan, Mitchell’s topographical report of Zeilah and the Abyssinian plateau, and Mason’s mapping of Siwa and Fayoum. It goes on and on. They not only extended the boundaries of the Khedives empire, they enhanced the knowledge of the African continent. These men spoke at the society. They discussed their findings and shared their thoughts. They wrote articles for its Bulletin de la société khédiviale de geographie which began publication in 1876. All their reports, maps, and three dimensional replicas remain in the great halls of this beautiful building just off of Midan Tahrir on Kasr el Aini Street awaiting the scholar’s keen eye. But through the years western scholars have mostly ignored the society’s holdings."
The Americans also presented papers to the Institut too.
I don't know of any handwritten copy of the Description.

Andie said...

Many thanks for the clarifications. I read through all of the news stories that I came across but obviously got my wires crossed.