January 9, 2012

Rare books burn in Egypt, only accusations remain


Egyptian restorer piecing together the remnants of a book destroyed in the fire.

The burning of the ancient Royal Library at Alexandria ranks among history’s greatest tragedies and depending on the era and bias of the historian “recording” its loss, blame has been very diverse. In the various accounts (some separated by hundreds of years) Muslims, Christians and even Julius Caesar himself have all received blame for the destruction of the library.

Now, in a minor yet tragic way, this story is playing out once again. The following coverage was reported via the Huffington Post:

[The] 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.

The destruction of the institute has lead, predictably, to a politicization of the tragedy. On one hand you have the Egyptian military blaming the protestors for setting fire to the the edifice and then subsequently blocking firetrucks from putting out the blaze. This, predictably, has been the story accepted by most Western media. On the other hand, there are eye-witness accounts (be aware that the pictures via that link are disturbing) similar to this one by Robyn Payne, an American who lives in Cairo:

The media is claiming that the protesters started the fire in the Science building and that the fire trucks were not allowed on the scene until it was too late to put out the fire. However the police have been using a water cannon on the protesters for 4 days that was sitting right next to the building and yet they didn’t even try to put the fire out, and many of the protesters in fact were going into the building trying to bring out books and computers before they burned and they are using those pictures as proof that they started the fire. Why would they start a fire and then go into the burning building to salvage items so they didn’t burn? In reality, if the protesters really wanted to create chaos they would have set fire to the Tahrir building that still is basically unprotected and is home to at least 6 different Ministries.

Amidst the blame and political spin a simple fact remains: A storehouse of Egyptian culture has burnt to the ground. This of course does not compare to the loss of life and crimes against humanity that are reportedly widespread amongst the protests in Egypt.


Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.