The American Research Center in Eygpt

ARCE Fellow Irfana Hashmi Reflects on Salvaging Egypt's Treasured Archives from the Fire

ARCE Fellow Irfana Hashmi Reflects on Salvaging Egypt's Treasured Archives from the Fire

ARCE Fellow Irfana Hashmi Reflects on Salvaging Egypt's Treasured Archives from the Fire
26  <span>Institut d’Égypte </span>; 18 Dec 2011  Photo By Seif El Rashid

Institut d’Égypte in Cairo

On an ‘anything but normal’ work day, I went to the Egyptian National Archives where I found the remains of thousands of manuscripts, books and maps from the Institut d’Égypte laid across its front lawns, in pick-up trucks double-parked on the Corniche el-Nil Road, and on the floor of the lobby of the archives.

When I entered the building, I knew that I would not conduct research that day, not after seeing the activities downstairs. It was another exceptional day in Cairo, like many others preceding it, during my fellowship tenure in Egypt. 
In a joint effort, staff and volunteers from the Egyptian National Library and Archives and the American University in Cairo's Rare Books and Special Collections Library were sorting through the remains of the historic Institut d’Égypte collection.

The Institut d’Égypte  was first established in 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte and was the oldest scientific institute in Egypt. It housed more than 200,000 volumes, consisting of books, maps and manuscripts, and was the richest library in Egypt.

On December 17, 2011, the Institute was set ablaze during attacks between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and Egyptian protesters. To anyone who values knowledge in the slightest, the sight was grievous and heartrending. Staff and volunteers were removing the remains of the collection which had been loaded into trucks coming from the Institute and were placing them on top of cardboard papers, boxes, newspapers, plastic sheets, basically anything that would hold them, and transporting them to the stairs, to the lobby, and to the different ends of the front lawn of the archives building. In the lobby, stabilization efforts were carried out in full-force, as books were wrapped in newspapers and large rolls of papers and then promptly vacuum-sealed.

I descended the stairs to quietly observe their efforts from the sidelines. Donning white lab coats, vinyl gloves and face masks, staff and volunteers proceeded to remove every piece of paper that could be saved. Sometimes books were so blackened that when someone was ready to discard them, another person would interject, “Save it [. . . .] it is still readable.” Some books were still scorching hot from the fire; these were sprayed lightly with water and wrapped in blankets. There were people supervising, but the operation was difficult to manage and was, as one can well imagine, clumsy and imperfect. While one person held the remains of one book gently and lovingly, another volunteer’s touch was rougher.

Sometimes one volunteer would pick up the remains of a book and take it to one side of the lawn, and the next volunteer would take the rest of the same book and place it in a different location. As men and women scrambled back and forth, moving books down the assembly line, to my dismay, I found one man, stepping clumsily on the charred remains of book pages. When I brought the matter to the attention of one of the supervisors, he waved away the matter, saying that that particular man could not see so well.

A short while later, another truck pulled up.

Remnant of the Description de l'Égypte

Alongside other books and manuscripts, I spotted the oversize volumes of the original Description de l'Égypte lying on the top of the pile. The Description de l'Égypte, is a 20-volume work, which was first commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798, and was the collaborative effort of over 150 scholars and scientists and over 2000 artists and technicians to record a comprehensive scientific description of ancient and modern Egypt. For scholars, this work is considered among the most important historical works of the early nineteenth century, and for many Egyptians, it is a national treasure. The Institut had housed one of the original publications of this monumental work. According to then Minister of Culture Shakr Abdel Hamid, Egypt still has three original copies of Napoleon’s Description de l'Égypte. Looking upon what remained of the collection was incredibly sad. What a loss for the entire world.
Because of a shortage of hands on deck, I offered my humble help in unloading some of the trucks. As my fingers stroked the charred remains of centuries-old books and manuscripts and separated books and remnants of pages from ashes, I was overcome. I have spent most of my life seeking knowledge and it pained me to behold the state of these volumes.

I reflected on the recent death of the eminent religious scholar and beloved teacher from Azhar University, Shaykh Emad Effat. Since his death on December 16, 2011, he has come to symbolize the unofficial religious leadership of the Egyptian Revolution. Shedding his Azhari clerical robe and red fez-like hat wrapped in a white turban, he stood in solidarity, shoulder to shoulder, with the Egyptian people, and day after day, he unwaveringly supported them. Anyone who knew or studied with Shaykh Emad would, without hesitation, say that he embodied a knowledge that is now lost to the world.

Large Irfana Hashmi

Irfana Hashmi, ARCE Predoctoral Fellow 2011-2012

It saddens me greatly to see how recent events in Cairo have brought such losses upon Egypt and its people as well as the rest of the world. In the coming days, I hope that Egyptians are able to achieve the freedom and democracy for which they sacrificed their lives, and which captivated the world for 18 straight days, revealing the power of ordinary people, and a change we can all believe in. I also hope that on the road ahead, Egypt discovers knowledge that surpasses that which was taken. 


Shortly after the fire, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) contacted ARCE in Cairo to find out what assistance they could provide to help with such an overwhelming situation.  The ARCE staff, led by Jane Smythe and Ghada el-Batouty, began working closely with USAID’s Sylvia Atalla and the US Library of Congress Field Director in Cairo, William Kopycki. With help from the American people through funds supplied by USAID, ARCE was able to move swiftly to purchase equipment for the immediate need of the stabilization process, as well as medium to long term storage of the books until they are ready for assessment and conservation. A complete article on ARCE's participation will be in the upcoming ARCE Bulletin (Number 200).

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