In the year 1798, the great French General, ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’ had invaded Egypt. During this invasion, Egypt’s ancient culture and the progress, which that country had made during those times, was exposed for the first time to the western world. Napoleon was so much impressed with Egypt that he decided to set up an institute to carry out advanced research in a wide variety of fields such as biology, mathematics, fine arts and archeology. In August 1798, he established a research body called L’Institute d’Egypte. During last two centuries, this institute had developed a well stocked library with more than 200,000 rare books, manuscripts and maps. In the Library collection, there was a 24 volume, original, hand written copy of a book “Description de l’Égypte” (Description of Egypt), written by French explorers between 1798 to 1801. This book contained detailed description of archeological finds, temples and monuments found in Egypt. This Library was housed in a 18th century neoclassical building in central Cairo near the famous ‘Tahir Square’. This building is located on the Qasr al-Aine street next to Shura or Cabinet building. At the moment Egypt is ruled by an military administration and civil liberty demonstrators are demonstrating in the Tahir square for transfer of power to civilian Government. A skirmish broke out on 17th December 2011 between these demonstrators and the guards guarding the Shura or Cabinet building. When demonstrators found that the soldiers are resorting to stone pelting at them, they started throwing petrol bombs or Molotov Cocktails at the Shura building. One of the petrol bomb missed the target and fell in the compound of the Library building. The fire spread quickly on the ground floor of the library and then to upper stories, which housed books.
The fire brigade, which arrived at the building, took more than 12 hours to extinguish the fire because of the burning old books. By then the old wooden roof had burnt out and collapsed. This has rendered the whole building unsafe and dangerous. The civil liberty demonstrators from Tahir square, rushed to the library, when they became aware about the fire, and salvaged whatever books they could, by bringing the books out and storing these on the footpath outside. Even these people were fired upon by the soldiers. Some people were wounded and some lost their lives here.
Around 50000 books, which were salvaged by these demonstrators and stored on the foot path, have been moved now to nearby American Institute. Many of the books from this lot are in burnt out condition. The chief librarian Mr. Zein Abdek- Hady thinks that people might have also taken few books to their homes. He feels that these may be eventually returned or may appear in old books selling shops. At least 14 persons have lost their lives in this institute. Teams of researchers wearing white coats, surgical gloves and masks are rummaging though the heaps of burnt out books to salvage whatever is possible.
Egypt has lost very heavily because of this fire no doubt. Yet, in loss of these important books and documents, the whole world has lost part of its heritage. This incident reminds me of the destruction caused by some vandals in Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute of Pune, India. Such incidents highlight the importance of digitizing Old books, documents, scriptures and maps available in the world libraries as soon as possible to save them from such unfortunate acts of vandalism. It is high time that libraries around the world take necessary steps at earliest.