Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"The whole of Egypt is crying."

Another cultural catastrophe in Egypt. Protesters are blaming the military for the fire that broke out in the Institut d'Egypt over the weekend during clashes in Tahrir Square. It was not just any building - it housed tens of thousands of historic books and documents, most of which are now beyond repair (click here for photos of the interior of the Institute before it burned and a video that shows the building in flames). "The burning of such a rich building means a large part of Egyptian history has ended," said the Institute's director Mohammed al-Sharbouni. Likely unsalvageable is an original copy of the handwritten 24-volume oversized Le Description de l'Egypte, compiled by scientists who took part in the expedition to Egypt led by Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) in the late 18th c. The French emperor established the Institute in 1798 as a research center with sections dedicated to mathematics, physics and natural history, political economy, and literature and the arts. Luckily, there are 4 other handwritten copies of The Description of Egypt and it has been reproduced and digitized, but much of the material is irreplaceable. Dozens of academic and lay volunteers, along with 10 assigned soldiers, have been assessing the damage - caused by the fire that raged for 12 hours and the water it was doused with - and are trying to salvage what they can (another view of the damage here). Stacks of rare 200-year-old manuscripts are described as little more than charcoal debris. At least 16 truckloads with around 50,000 of the estimated 192,000 books, journals, and writings have been moved to Cairo's main library. The effort to try and save what's left of the charred manuscripts is being led by the library's director Zein Abdel-Hady, who said, "I haven't slept for two days, and I cried a lot yesterday. I do not like to see a book burned. The whole of Egypt is crying." The body of work that was destroyed was essential for researchers of Egyptian history, Arabic studies, and Egyptology, so scholars worldwide cry with him. In monetary terms, the collection was worth tens of millions of dollars. In cultural terms, priceless.

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