Egypt Scientific Institute up in Flames

The Scientific Institute in Cairo has been burned. It was the second oldest such institute outside Europe, after the one in Philadelphia. Some 200,000 rare books and manuscripts are abruptly gone. The military government of Egypt allegedly stationed snipers atop the building, who fired on demonstrators, putting the Scientific Institute in the crossfire of Egypt’s current political struggle.

I discussed this institute, founded by Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte, in my book, Napoleon’s Egypt.

The loss of all these historical materials points to the dire need for the digitization of such collections without delay. Google is doing large scale digitization of printed books, but most of them exist in multiple copies in various repositories. It is hand written manuscripts that need to be digitized, since often there are only one or two copies surviving and they are easily lost.

We lost much of the intellectual history of Najaf, Iraq, during the savage attack on that Shiite holy city by Saddam Hussein’s forces in spring of 1991. We lost much of the 20th century history of Iraq when the cabinet papers were burned during the Bush invasion, when SecDef Donald Rumsfeld declined to stop the looting, a crime I called cliocide.

When I was working in the Egyptian Archives and the Egyptian National Library in the 1980s, I pleaded with the American University in Cairo librarian to find a way to get more rare materials microfilmed, but he couldn’t see how that was AUC’s responsibility. It isn’t, but it is not as if the Mubarak family was interested in manuscript preservation, so who else would do it?

The Egyptian government has moved the country’s archives to a building on the Nile near the television station. This move was most unwise, since the building is not air conditioned and that area is very humid. They had been held up at the Citadel, which was drier and better. Moreover, that building is also worryingly near some of the violence that has occurred. In any case, the documents desperately need to be digitized. Some are already deteriorating, being eaten by pests or even rats.

Organizations interested in the world’s historical heritage need to drop everything and promote large scale digitization of these collections. It wouldn’t be that expensive and nowadays can be done quickly.

We are all diminished, we human beings, when a good book winks forever out of existence, or when a large swathe of human experience is irrevocably lost.

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9 Responses

  1. I absolutely agree with this. I have notice similar problem in India where rare artifacts, manuscripts, and even old traditional music recordings from early 1900’s (some of which are the sole evidence of some rare musical forms and instruments) are allowed to decay and get destroyed because the archives are neglected, ignored, and are in horrible condition (as you mentioned – no temperature or humidity control). While it is not the responsibility of other nations to preserve ancient artifacts, I think history belongs to everyone…

  2. This is terrible, can project Gutenberg help? Contact Project or, (Distributed Proofreaders), for a source of dedicated volunteers whose mission is to preserve historical texts.

  3. “Franz Rosenthal (August 31, 1914 – April 8, 2003) was the Louis M. Rabinowitz professor of Semitic languages at Yale from 1956 to 1967 and Sterling Professor Emeritus of Arabic, scholar of Arabic literature and Islam at Yale from 1967 to 1985.”

    When he died, I was teaching English to foreign students at Texas A&M University – of all places! I printed out his NYT obituary and took it into the office of a colleague. (She was Turkish, had grown up in Germany where her father was a surgeon, and was probably the best educated person in that department.) This was at the depth of the US war of aggression against Iraq – “the supreme war crime”. I found her in tears over news of the looting of antiquities, and especially the burning of libraries in Bagdad – she said, “A big part of the history of the Ottoman Empire is being destroyed!” I gave her the obituary, told her a little about Rosenthal’s life and work, managed to say, “I don’t know how he died, but if he knew about what’s happening, maybe that’s what killed him.” We just sat there for a long time in silence.

  4. This is painful news. Prof. Cole, maybe faculty and grad students from various corners should come together to form an NPO to do this before more archives go up in flames?

  5. For anyone involved in this sort of thing, here is DIY Book Scanner project specifically focused on designs for cheap, efficient scanners using free software that are specifically designed for handling delicate old books without damaging them:

    link to

    I learned about it here:

    link to

  6. Very sad news, indeed. I sure hope that the respective authorities in Egypt & Israel are talking. The Israelis have done quite a lot in this area and could bring their expertise to bear. It also would help start rebuilding bridges between the peoples.

  7. you could destroy every word
    that has ever been written

    and still those yet to be born
    would surely write many more

    what have we really lost ?
    nothing – except the future

    • Those who do not know the past are condemned to repeat it.

      And by losing the works of the past, it becomes impossible to know the past.

      Not quite the burning of the Library at Alexandria, but it ranks up there in the annals of destruction of history and knowledge.

      This is the worst news I have heard since the Iraq war.

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