Protesters Torch Famed Institute of Egypt: Rare Books, Manuscripts and Maps All Destroyed

Posted on December 20, 2011

The continued protests in Egypt are wreaking havoc on the country's rich cultural heritage. The Guardian reports that the famed Institute of Egypt burned to the ground while the military sat and watched the destruction. The research center was set up by Napoleon Bonaparte during in the late 18th century. The building housed an unbelievable treasure trove of rare books, manuscripts, and maps, including the handwritten 24-volume Description de l'Egypte. The work contained twenty years of observations by more than 150 French scholars and scientists. It is now burned beyond repair. Scholars are despairing over the loss. The work was digitized and is available here.

Mohammed al-Sharbouni, the director of the museum, said, "The burning of such a rich building means a large part of Egyptian history has ended." Al-Shrbouni said that the fire raged for 12 hours. Fire fighters finally doused the fire with water, which caused further damage.

A group of volunteers led by Egypt's Chief Librarian Zein Abdel-Hady is sifting through the charred remains, desperately trying to salvage something. He said, "This is equal to the burning of Galileo's books." The most complete inventory of what was lost is in a book in the US Library of Congress. The regional field director, William Kopycki, said that what was destroyed was all essential source material for scholars and researchers in the fields of Egyptology, Egyptian history and Arabic studies.

The loss is staggering. The National Geographic has disturbing photos of the burned museum and what's left of the contents.