Egyptian Scholars Struggle to Protect Country's History Amid New Violence

Mohammed Abed, AFP, Getty Images

As efforts to salvage the fire-ravaged collection of the Egyptian Scientific Institute continue, many other archaeological sites and storehouses have been looted. "Most of the sites are far from cities in isolated areas in the middle of the desert, so they are vulnerable to theft," says one observer.
January 15, 2012

When soldiers and protesters clashed in downtown Cairo in late December, the army's crackdown left at least 16 dead and hundreds injured. Another victim of the violence was the oldest scientific institute in Egypt, which was largely destroyed in a fire, along with much of its precious library.

The destruction of the historical archive of the Egyptian Scientific Institute caused an outcry. But while this is the most significant case of Egypt's historical heritage being damaged by the turbulence of the last year, it is hardly the only one. Since the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak last February, antiquities and historical sites have faced a variety of new dangers.

"Threats to the heritage are diversifying," says Tamar Teneishvili, who oversees cultural programs in Egypt for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. "Who would have thought that the institute would burn that way? The situation is so unpredictable and volatile."

The institute was created in 1798 as the Institut d'Egypte by Napoleon Bonaparte during his Egyptian campaign. One of the most precious books in its collection was the original Description d'Egypte, a first-of-its-kind, multivolume illustrated description of the country's geography, landmarks, customs, and history that 150 scholars who accompanied the French expedition spent 20 years assembling. (Eight of the 20 volumes have reportedly been recovered.) The institute's library grew over the next two centuries, alongside research in every field on Egypt.

Today the institute, on the iconic Tahrir Square, lies in ruins, its roof collapsed and its walls blackened. Teams of volunteers have sought to salvage historic documents, moving tens of thousands of fragments to the basement of Egypt's nearby National Archives. There the surviving items are spread out in neat, seemingly endless piles along the corridors, filling the air with the smell of singed, damp paper. Teams of archives employees in white smocks and surgical gloves collect the charred pages into parcels and vacuum-seal them, to draw out any remaining moisture. They work on the most valuable books page by page, delicately inserting sheets of rice paper.

This is just the first step in a long, costly process of restoration and reassembly. It could take up to 10 years and $7-million to restore what's left of the collection, estimates Abdel Wahed El Nabawy, chairman of the National Archives.

"This disaster has come to us, and we don't have the capacity to deal with it," he says. The salvage team is in need of all sorts of equipment: specialized drying and vacuum-sealing machines, chemicals, computers, even such basic items as gloves to handle the books and cabinets to store them.

At least a quarter of the scientific institute's collection of nearly 200,000 books has been transported to the national library. Only a small number arrived unscathed. It's too soon to know how many have been lost forever, says the institute's chairman, Mohamed El Sharnouby.

Black-Market Books

The building caught fire on December 17, during clashes between soldiers and police and street protesters. The two sides exchanged rocks; the security forces opened fire, and protesters threw Molotov cocktails. Many believe it was the latter that sparked the fire. The institute did not have adequate fire-prevention systems, and firefighters took hours to arrive.

Even as the street fighting raged, some protesters rescued books, carrying them out of the building by the armful. Others apparently took advantage of the confusion to steal volumes—a few have already surfaced on the black market.

Downtown Cairo has been the scene of violent clashes that have damaged or endangered several historic buildings. Last year, when the revolution broke out, thieves broke into the Egyptian Museum, home of the country's most valuable Pharaonic collection. The museum has been under heavy police and army guard ever since.

The American University in Cairo's downtown building—a palace built in the 1860s—has been under increased protection since last January. Objects of value and an antiquities collection have been moved to storage facilities on the main campus, outside Cairo; windows are now protected with wooden or metal panels; and the fence in front of the downtown building is being reinforced.

"I don't think a university should look like a bunker," says the university's president, Lisa Anderson. "On the other hand, that building is a landmark building, so we should take care it's protected from Molotov cocktails coming in from the windows."

Outside central Cairo, many of the country's numerous archaeological sites and storehouses have been looted. By last spring, an estimated 1,228 objects had gone missing.

"Most of the sites are far from cities, in isolated areas in the middle of the desert, so they are vulnerable to theft," says Yasmine Dorghami, editor of Rawi, a magazine dedicated to Egyptian heritage.

Many foreign archaeological missions were suspended last year because of the lack of security. The Supreme Council for Antiquities, responsible for all of Egypt's historical sites, has seen its revenues—dependent on ticket sales and excavation fees—plummet, forcing it to lay off staff members and rely on fewer resources to face the crisis.

'The Right Track'

Archaeological missions are gradually returning to the country now, although in some cases they are focusing on restoration and documentation rather than excavation, out of an inability to protect open sites and warehouses. "Sites have been damaged by professional antiquities thieves but also by people extending their housing and agricultural estates," as well as by "amateur treasure-hunters who have been running amok," says Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo.

The antiquities authorities, eager for foreign Egyptologists to resume their work, say there are no longer any security threats. "The tourism police is back, and we are on the right track," says Mohamed Ismail, director of the Supreme Council for Antiquities' foreign-missions office.

But while the situation has improved, says Ms. Teneishvili, of Unesco, "we cannot be 100-percent satisfied." To help address the remaining threats, the agency has developed training programs for Egyptian officials in museum-risk preparedness and in ways to prevent looting and illicit trafficking.

At the Egyptian Scientific Institute, engineers are working on repairing the building's foundations and stabilizing its walls so that volunteers can safely retrieve more books from beneath the rubble. The emir of the Persian Gulf emirate of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, has offered to pay for the restoration of the building and to donate rare volumes from his own collection. The emir, in a phone call to an Egyptian television program, said it was his way of "giving back" to Egypt, which he said had helped educate the population of his emirate before it had any of its own universities.

The institute will resume its work in March in a nearby building. And it is determined to return to its original location. "We are not afraid." says Mr. Sharnouby. "The building will be protected with new measures: 24-hour guards, automatic fire alarms. It's a historical location, and we are committed to it. We're determined to bring it back to the way it was."


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