History in ashes

Published on Al-Ahram weekly, by Nevine El-Aref, 22 – 28 December 2011.

Last Sunday night Cairenes, whether protesting in Tahrir Square or following the TV news at home, were stunned to see the building that housed the Egyptian Science Institute in flames … //

… The ESI also housed about 40,000 rare books and manuscripts that predated the French expedition, including 1,635 books and maps. It held drawings of bridges, aqueducts and dams; the Déscription published in 1809 in 24 volumes; and 18th-century periodicals published by organisations that no longer exist. 

Among the invaluable items are an atlas of ancient Indian arts; a German atlas of Egypt and Ethiopia published in 1842; and Egypt: Mother of the World written in 1753.

Also in the collection was an ancient map of Egypt that, El-Sharnoubi said, “from here, Egypt succeeded in regaining Taba from Israel.” He added that old maps and documents that assured Egypt’s ownership of Taba were stored there.

The Minister of State for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim told the Weekly that he had assigned an archeological committee to inspect the current condition of the ESI and submit a detailed report directly to him. Ibrahim said that, according to this report, although the institute suffered considerable damage its overall structure remained sound. He explained that the building was partially damaged by fire which had led to the collapse of its first and second floor ceilings as well as the destruction of its wooden windows and arcades. Some walls had been destroyed, but load-bearing walls were still well preserved. Restoration work will start as soon as the tense political situation in the area was brought under control.

Ibrahim told the Weekly that French minister of culture, Frederic Mitterrand, had offered to help restore the institute. Help has also been offered by the ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi. In a live telephone call with the Al-Ashera Masaan TV programme, Sheikh Al-Qasimi offered to help rebuild the Egyptian Scientific Institute and pledged to donate manuscripts and books from his personal collection.

Sheikh Al-Qasimi said this was Sharjah’s way of repaying Egypt for its help in educating the people of Sharjah. “What happens to Egypt affects us, and this is part of giving back, especially from the people of Sharjah, who were taught by the Egyptians until they completed their way to universities; and whatever we do, it will not be enough,” he said. Sheikh Al-Qasimi studied in Egypt during the late 1960s and obtained his Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Engineering at Cairo University in 1971, at a time when Egypt was a hotbed of cultural and political activity. He went on to obtain two doctorates from the British universities of Durham and Exeter and is a published historian.

Ibrahim has written to the minister of international cooperation, Fayza Abul-Naga, asking her to put these two offers in action. He says the EIS restoration will take a year and will cost about LE2.5 million.

“Restoring the EIS will be the ministry’s deed of rescue of one of Egypt’s cultural and monumental landmarks, which displays not only Egypt’s distinguished history but also that of the whole world,” Ibrahim concluded. (full text).

Links:

New head and deputy for Egyptian Scientific Institute, on ahram online, December 27, 2011;

Experts in salvage bid amid ashes of Egypt’s history, on The National, by Megan Detrie, December 30, 2011;

Sultan donates books to Egyptian institute, on Gulf News, December 22, 2011;

Opinion: Loss of heritage and humanity, by Manal Abdul Aziz, on The Egyptian Gazette, December 28, 2011.

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