Clearing the burned-out carcass of the Institut d'Égypte in Cairo (photo: AP)
Institut d'Égypte in Cairo Burns Down

Two Centuries Reduced to Ashes

Are rampaging youths, soldiers or angry Mubarak supporters to blame? No one knows for sure. Whoever it was, the result of the act of arson at Cairo's Institut d'Égypte is plain to see: the conflagration consumed the country's most valuable collection of historical books. Sonja Zekri reports from Cairo

Only now that it's too late, now that the building has been reduced to a smoking ruin and thousands of books have gone up in flames, only now is Egypt realising what has been lost. "Nobody knew that the building housed a collection like this", says Sain Abd el-Hady, director of the National Library in Cairo.

That building, once a light-coloured edifice on the corner next to the Egyptian parliament, just a stone's throw away from Tahrir Square, was the location of the Napoleonic Institut d'Égypte. The collection was Egypt's most valuable hoard of historical books: nearly 200,000 volumes, among them tens of thousands of maps, two centuries of magazines, the "Atlas of Upper and Lower Egypt" from the year 1752, a German atlas of Egypt and Ethiopia from 1842 and a first edition of the 24-volume "Description de l'Égypte" written by French scientists in Napoleon's retinue.

Opinions are divided on how it could come to this, how the disaster occurred: evidently, someone must have thrown an incendiary device into the building during the latest clash between rioting youths and the army. The activists claim the army did it; the authorities claim the young people did it.

Library director el-Hady, who only arrived on the scene when the fire was already raging, says he saw a group of street kids who were being urged on by "three men in red helmets". "I sense the hand of the old regime." Supporters of the toppled pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, wanted to sow discord and chaos, he says.

Whether it was that or something else does nothing to change the outcome: all that's left of the building, most recently used as a research complex, is a shell: the roof and ceilings have caved in; the walls are leaning precipitously; the bookshelves inside are a melted steel skeleton.

In front of el-Hady's library on the riverfront street, the remains of the water-logged works are spread out to dry across the front lawn atop newspaper or plastic – magazines, folios, drawings in Arabic, French, English, Russian. Some 50,000 items were salvaged, some in tolerable condition, others all but destroyed.

Mould would be the worst that could happen

Young demonstrators in front of a burning building (photo: AP)
The military and demonstrators are both accusing each other of being responsible for the conflagration; it has not yet been clarified who actually set fire to the building

​​Inside, Egyptian restorers are vacuum-packing stacks of books in plastic. Mould would be the worst thing that could befall them now, they say. If we can prevent the paper from moulding, we can later treat it with chemicals, cut off the singed edges, reinforce the pages; then we'll have a chance, they add.

Two soldiers bring a wooden crate with more book remnants. Behind a glass wall, papers are stacked up chest-high. Right at the back, in front of heavy sliding cabinets, a woman is sitting on the floor laying page after page of one of the surviving volumes of the "Description" onto tissue paper.

This is a field hospital for books. "It is a catastrophe", says el-Hady. But also a humanitarian achievement, he finds, like back in January, during the uprising against Hosni Mubarak, when a human chain cordoned off the Egyptian Museum after a break-in. Soldiers and demonstrators, Egyptians and foreigners, old and young carried charred paper out of the burning institute, he recounts: "A few were injured; their blood is now on these pages."

It is not a total write-off, at least as regards the "Description", an attempt at creating an almost photorealistic depiction of an entire country. There are other original editions in Egypt: three in the library in Alexandria, two in el-Hady's library, others at the University of Cairo.

Expression of a certain neglect

But can the knowledge of what survives provide any consolation for the loss of a "Blue Mauritius"? Sheikh Sultan al-Qassemi, emir of Sharjah, has promised to offset the losses with volumes from his own select private library.

It is a humiliatingly generous offer made by a cultural upstart to a country that can look back on a glorious 7,000-year history, but which is wrestling with the hardships of the present: "We are a third-world country", says el-Hady with ferocious self-criticism: "There are 1,460 slums in Egypt. Once we've fed all the hungry mouths, then we can talk about culture."

The Institut and the "Description de l'Égypte", just like Napoleon's three-year Egyptian adventure itself, were the expression of great curiosity and a great misunderstanding. France pursued geopolitical goals on the Nile – against its British rivals – but also cultural aims: the French scholars arrived here "with the dual goal of studying Egypt and also impressing the Egyptians with the superiority of French civilisation", writes historian Eugene Rogan. Egypt was Napoleon's "civilising mission".

Clearing up after the fire at the Institut d'Égypte in Cairo (photo: AP)
"50,000 items were salvaged, some in tolerable condition, others all but destroyed" writes Sonja Zekri; work has already begun on the clear-up and reconstruction of the building; yet the country does not have the millions required to restore the collection


The Egyptians however – though shaken by the new technical possibilities and by the shock of Western occupation – gave the impresison of being outwardly unimpressed. When the French sent up a Montgolfier balloon, which crashed back down to earth soon after, they shook their heads in disdain, Rogan reports.

After French scientists performed elaborate experiments with chemicals and electricity, a sheikh asked if they knew of a method that would allow him to be "simultaneously here and in Morocco". When the Frenchman said he did not, the Egyptian responded derisively: "Ah, so he's not much of a magician after all."

Rather than a postcolonial reckoning, however, the fire at the Institut d'Égypte is more an expression of a certain neglect of the institute, which was located first in Cairo and then in Alexandria before returning to Cairo. Earlier, in the days of the King, it was under the direct supervision of the monarchy. "The cultivation of 160 feddan of land around the building served the sole purpose of financing the institute", says el-Hady.

President Gamal Abdel Nasser had it expropriated however, and today it is run by an independent organisation. Students sometimes come to the institute, but el-Hady says that the exact contents of its holdings before the fire are unknown, never having been catalogued: "There is not even a real librarian."

No one has time for libraries

The country as a whole has been out of kilter for the last ten months. Intellectuals, cultural producers and literati are busy discussing the future in cafés, at parties, in the media. No one has time to sit in the library or to tend to archives when the political landscape all around them is changing at such a dizzying pace. El-Hady has been in office for five months. That is a long time by Egyptian standards.

El-Hady has sent lists of the holdings, as far as they are known, to rare books databases in case some of the works turn up on the black market. The restoration will take years and costs millions that the country doesn't have. A burnt smell has settled over his library. The wind is blowing ashes from the fragments on the front lawn onto the street leading to the Nile.

Sonja Zekri

© Süddeutsche Zeitung 2011

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

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