Experts in salvage bid amid ashes of Egypt’s history

Megan Detrie for The National

Dec 30, 2011

CAIRO // Haitham Osman looks over mountains of charred books. He’s spent 16 hours a day training volunteers to handle fragile documents burnt during a fire at the Institut d’Egypt during the protests that have racked Cairo.

Three volunteers in masks and surgical gloves carefully manoeuvre a makeshift litter past him.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” said Mr Osman, pausing to check the damp, sooty manuscripts that the volunteers laid out on the litter.

“People ran in after the fire to save books but, without knowing how to safely remove fragile documents, they’ve done more harm that good.”

Now, Mr Osman and a team of volunteers are working to salvage the remains of what was Egypt’s oldest research centre. Academics say only urgent action and money can save its priceless collection.

“The situation of heritage in Egypt is difficult,” said Mohammed Sabri Al Dali, the head of the science centres at the National Archives, which has helped to salvage documents from the institute’s fire.

“There isn’t enough support already. I’m sure [many libraries] don’t have the money, ability, machines or technique to maintain works.”

The Institut d’Egypt, a research centre founded by Napoleon Bonaparte during the French occupation more than 200 years ago, was set alight during the fighting between the army and protesters this month that killed 17 people and injured hundreds.

The nearby parliament and transport authority offices also caught fire, but both fires were extinguished.

The institute is one of the oldest academies of arts and science outside Europe, with works in five languages. The two-storey building housed more than 192,000 documents, reference books and periodicals mostly from the 19th century, including a handwritten manuscript of Description de l’Egypt, a series of early 19th-century volumes on Egypt and its history. The information lost was vital for scholars, Mr Osman said.

Those leading the effort to salvage what remains said it would take months to assess the damage and estimate repair costs. Repairing the damage would take years.

“Compare the cost to repair the building with the cost of conservation and heritage, and [conservation] is much more expensive and difficult.” said Mr Al Dali.

About 40,000 documents have been recovered, many of which are burnt beyond repair and will never be restored, said Zein Abel Hady, who is overseeing the operation. No one knows how many books remain in the complex. The roof has collapsed and the building is in danger of collapsing, too. Volunteers have recovered the inventory list.

“The cost of operations to restore the books may simply be too high, so I have to know what titles we had and are now needed, and first try to source them from other libraries or get microfilms,” said Mr Abel Hady. “We will have to prioritise – it’s likely to be too expensive to restore everything.”

Mr Abel Hady hopes the inventory will also help him identify any books that were likely looted during the three days of stand-offs between the army and protesters in Tahrir Square. Copies of the library’s stamps were circulated among antiquarian book markets to combat illicit trafficking.

At the main archive, just blocks from Tahrir Square, volunteers – from academics to upset citizens – work frantically to sift through truckloads of sooty, damp remains.  Hundreds of papers were laid out in the building’s front garden to dry. Inside, dozens of volunteers rummage through bins heaped with papers, much of them burnt or destroyed.

Others separate thousands of pages of books, carefully transferring each page on to newsprint, to protect against moisture. Bulky vacuum machines are used to pack damp books in industrial food storage bags to stop moulding.

But for the badly damaged Description de l’Egypt, only a couple of badly burnt volumes can be saved. Description de l’Egypt is a compilation by 167 French scholars, architects, mathematicians, painters and printers. It’s 20 volumes include 3,000 meticulously drawn illustrations.

It was the first, and possibly still the most thorough attempt to study the geography, antiquities, natural history and society of Egypt. The collection was one of four originals in Egypt. The historic institute also held a priceless mix of documents dating to the 1500s, including the complete works of the French philosopher Voltaire, and 18th century maps of Ethiopia and Egypt.

It’s a devastating loss. But the fire is a reminder that creating digital copies of historical documents is vital, said Philip Croom, the head of the American University’s Cairo’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. Manuscripts should have priority over published works, which will be in other libraries or already digitalised.

“You have the notes the author made, the corrections,” he said.

“All those things tell you a lot about the author, which you can’t get from a published book.”

The institute’s copy of Description de l’Egypt was digitalised in 2007, along with about 100 other historic works.

“If not stored properly, books degrade over time,” Mr Croom said. “We all need to be more conscious of preserving intellectual heritage.”

The director of the institute, Mohammed Al Sharbouni told state television most of the contents were destroyed in the fire that raged for more than 12 hours and the flooding by firefighters.

Egypt’s army and Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qassimi, the Ruler of Sharjah, have offered to fund the restoration of the building. The French ministry of culture and its Egyptian counterpart have promised donations.

Mr Abel Hady said the library’s collection was worth tens of millions of dollars.

For the volunteers, the loss is personal.

“This is not only a loss for our country, but for humanity, and the legacy of Egypt,” said Lara Shawky, visibly upset. “It should have been safeguarded in more than just a wooden building.

“I’ve seen cartoons of Einstein from 1949 and you’re like, ‘Wow.’ People can’t get that back.”

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