Eyewitness Reports from Cairo after the Fire at the Institut d’Egypte

As reported extensively in the media, last 17 december a fire broke out at the Institut Egyptien during the clashes between demonstrators and police. We have not yet commented on this sad event as we had no precise information concerning the extent of the damages. Alas, it seems these are extremely significant.

In our last newsletter (in French) we had asked people to write in providing accounts of what they knew [1]. Many responded, especially since several French persons, currently in Cairo, are helping in the rescue operations attempting to recover anything possible in order to store it in a safe place for future restoration, a costly affair no doubt.

We received notably the following text from Arnaud Ramiere de Fortanier, Inspecteur general honoraire des Archives de France and President of the Association du Souvenir de Ferdinand de Lesseps et du Canal de Suez, along with photographs which give us an idea of the situation there :

1. Plastic packaging of works from the Institut d’Egypt
at the Archives Nationales of Egypt (Cairo)
22nd december 2011
Photo : Arnaud Ramière de Fortanier

"After arriving in Cairo last night, Monday 19 December, my guide from the National Archives drove me by the Egyptian Museum, directly behind Tahrir Square, and under the windows of the Ramses Hilton where groups of photographers from all over the world are staying, often confined. There is nothing very different about the dusty haze of the evening on the banks of the Nile, seemingly undisturbed as usual.
A first sign of the moment we are living, however : the inaugural evening at the Opera for our colloquium on Archives and Revolution is cancelled for tonight.
Secondly and most important, I went with a Swiss colleague from Berne and an archivist from Qatar to visit our hosts at the National Archives of Egypt, Cornich al Nil : noisy agitation, coming and going of open trucks working nonstop transporting the remains of burnt or waterlogged works from the Institut d’Egypte ; these are spread out on the ground in the front garden by the street, at every level, up to the terrace. A mixed crowd is helping to place objects in plastic bags, used to take out the humidity by vacuum packing them, a quick method which seems efficient and more productive than our lyophilisation (ill. 1 and 2) ; an Australian mission is already working with the British and, in the middle, next to some very pacific looking military personnel despite their camouflage outfits, automatic weapons, guns and red beret, a delegation from the Institut Francais d’Archeologie Orientale in Cairo directed by Sylvie Denoix in jeans and laboring away like everyone else.

2. Rescue operations of the works from the Institut d’Egypte
at the Archives Nationales of Egypt (Cairo)
22nd december 2011
Photo : Arnaud Ramière de Fortanier

On the floor, lying every which way, what is left of the Description de l’Egypte after being eaten up by the flames and then ruined by water and fire extinguishers ; archeological documents in grand folio in German, some older works, some periodicals including "Les séances des Tribunaux mixtes", and especially a pile of journals from scholarly societies particularly in France (notably the Academies in Caen and Lyon) but also from all over the world, Morocco, Madagascar, etc.
I didn’t notice any manuscripts. Two bronze busts, one perhaps of Ferdinand de Lesseps. Generally, all of these works had been in critical condition for some time as we had already observed on one of our previous trips.
I particularly noticed that the department of books and archives is doing an admirable job in the face of this unexpected event by making it as easy as possible to welcome all of these workshops and making room for them. We should remember that the workshop for restoration and preservation of the National Archives of Egypt in Cairo is remarkably well housed and equipped with a competent and active team of personnel : I had also made a lengthy visit there last June as well as in 1992.

What can we do in these circumstances ? First of all, my visit corresponds to our continuing concern to show our friendly and warm presence among our Egyptian friends who are living a rocky and difficult transition period : in this sense, my chance presence today would even appear to be providential.
Then, we need to accelerate the digitilization of sources for today’s Egypt as we had stated in our renewal of intention by signed convention six months ago and included in our planned budget for 2012. Finally, I wonder if in fact it is not better for the Bibliotheque of Jean-Edouard Goby, who was a member of the Institut d’Egypte alongside Taha Hussein, Philippe Lauer and P. Anawati, to return to these collections in Egypt which will now apparently be housed at the Direction du Livre et des Archives. A financial donation would also be appreciated.

3. The Institut d’Egypte, after the fire
December 2011
Photo : D. R.

A reader sent us a photograph of the inside of the building, after the fire, giving us an idea of how violent it was (ill. 3).
Also, an officer in the fire brigade, a reader of La Tribune de l’Art (French website of The Art Tribune), told us that after looking at the pictures of the building and the damages they show, it would seem that the fire raged unchecked for several hours. He also forwarded information directly from the Blue Shield a non-governmental association specialized in protecting heritage areas threatened by war or natural disaster. It states the following :

> 16 trucks of books and manuscripts were saved and transferred to the National Archives.

> The Description de l’Egypte appears to have been saved. Only some bound volumes were damaged, but nothing which cannot be restored. The Blue Shield states that this is one of the eleven original editions but Mr. Jean Humbert, Conservateur general honoraire du patrimoine, added that in fact there are many more : "this first edition, called ’imperial edition’, of which I often displayed either replicas or isolated plates, was printed in 1,000 copies between 1809 and 1829, and was largely distributed as gifts by the Emperor then the kings who succeeded him. Some of these copies had received splendid "Egyptian" bindings. For the moment, we still cannot say how many copies remain exactly in the world today, especially since many of them have been taken apart and sold as individual plates. In any case, 11 is not the correct number, there remain several hundreds. This does not in any way lessen the irreparable loss affecting the copy from the Institut d’Egypte. Moreover, in a historical aside, a second printing, called "Pancoucke edition" was produced by this publisher between 1821 and 1830 : less luxurious, thus less expensive, it sold in great numbers in bookstores. All of the original copper plates from the Description reside at the chalcographie in the Louvre and prints can be requested. When the time comes, if the copy from Cairo is found to be irretrievable, the French government could simply, if not replace, at least donate one of equivalent quality."

> Mohammed al-Sharbouni, the Director of the Institut, stated however that "most of the contents were destroyed in the fire that raged for over 12 hours on Saturday. Firefighters flooded the building with water, adding to the damage."

Version française

Didier Rykner, lundi 2 janvier 2012


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