November 14, 2012

The Institute of Egypt in Cairo gets some of its books back


The Institute during restoration work, January 2012. Photo / Mohamed Ouda

One casualty of the Arab Spring, the Institute of Egypt in Cairo, which caught fire last December during the protests in Tahrir Square, and which, Egyptian news sources report, the military let burn while protesters attempted to salvage books, is now receiving a donation of books that may mark a step towards the renewal and reconstruction of the Institute. The Emir of Sharjah Emirate, part of the United Arab Emirates, Dr. Shaikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi — who is also a historian and, rather amazingly, a devoted Boy Scout — will be donating 4,000 rare books from his personal collection to the Cairo library. He made the announcement at the Sharjah International Book Fair last week.

Among the donated books will be one that’s of particular relevance to the Institute: the Description de l’Egypte, a multi-volume, all-encompassing work on ancient and modern Egypt that was written collaboratively by 160 plus scientists who accompanied Napoleon on his Egyptian expedition. The Institute itself was founded by Napoleon in 1798, and it’s where the scientists who put together the Description de l’Egypte worked. Having gathered together France’s great scientists in Cairo, Napoleon apparently had some ideas he wanted them to look into:

[He] offered suggestions of projects for the Institute, such as designing better ovens to bake bread for the army, or finding a way to make beer without hops, or developing a treatment system to provide pure water from of the Nile. But the Institute members soon went their own way, writing and presenting papers on such subjects as desert mirages, the natron lakes, and the anatomy of the sacred ibis. These papers were initially printed in various journals, but soon the Mémoires sur l’Égypte was established as the official forum for publishing Institute papers. Eventually, many of their articles would find their way into the Description de l’Égypte.

And naturally, fittingly, the Institute owned an original of Description de l’Egypte — until last year, when it was lost or destroyed during the fire. So the Emir’s donation will have symbolic importance, as well as helping to reconstruct the content of the Institute’s previous holdings.

And in fact, Jonathan Downs made an interesting comment on the situation in History Today, in an article written before the Emir’s announcement:

Neither is this the end for the Description, as several copies do exist in Britain and France; indeed it could become a further bridge to the old colonial European powers in the debate for artefact repatriation, exchange and joint ownership.

In the sphere of ongoing negotiations over who should own what, the Description de l’Egypte presents a curious case: the result of a colonialist enterprise, produced by Frenchman partly in Egypt and partly in France, and yet in itself an important source of information about the history of Egypt, and at this point, very much a part of the history of Egypt as well. Where does a single physical copy belong? The answer’s not at all clear. Or rather, for the time being, the Emir has answered it for us.



Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.