Dear Readers: I must admit, this has been a very unsettling Christmas for me. Why? On Christmas Eve, I came across this news story:
Egypt’s richest library goes up in smoke
Egypt has lost an important part of its cultural heritage after important manuscripts and up to 200,000 books were destroyed by fire in the building of the Egyptian Scientific Institute in Cairo.
A piece of Egypt’s “national treasure” and “rare history” is gone, the country’s prime minister said in his statement. State television reported that the fire damaged the whole building and all its collections. The total damage is yet to be determined.
The fire started on Saturday after protesters threw Molotov cocktails into the neighboring Shura Council building. The fire spread to the museum and although the flames were eventually extinguished, firefighters took a long time to arrive at the site and get the fire under control.
The fire destroyed or damaged rare maps and historical documents, including a first edition copy of the Description de l’Egypte, started under Napoleon Bonaparte by French scientists, which had been carefully stored and preserved for over 200 years.
The institute was established as L’Institute d’Egypte in August 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte, and is considered to be the oldest one in Egypt. Its library held over 200,000 volumes including irreplaceable historic manuscripts.
I am devastated. Napoleon brought in a large contingent of scientists to map Egypt, study its history, and open it to the West. The Rosetta Stone, and the subsequent decoding of the ancient Egyptian language, has unveiled a rich legacy of culture and wisdom that is the legacy of the entire human race.
Napoleon’s researchers published Description de L’Egypte, which became a style guide for the early 1800’s. All the obelisks, pyramids, and sphinx that were created after its publication are derived from the excitement and wonder the French scientists were able to convey in these books.
Though it seems most of the Description de L’Egypte has been salvaged, I am still grieving. I have sensed this about modern Egypt: The moment that a majority of Egyptians forget that they are Egyptians, and subsume their history, national pride, and their unique cultural perspective to pure, radical, undiluted, medieval, fundamentalist Islam, they are lost. It seems my greatest fear has been realized.
At least the Romans had the good taste not to celebrate.
For years, Dr. Zahi Hawass has been the spokesman for ancient Egypt, omnipresent in all the ancient Egypt specials I watch on cable. My thoughts immediately went to him. He wrote this: December 17, 2011: A Sad Day in My Life :
This is a sad day for all of us who love Egypt. No one can believe that the Egyptian Scientific Institute has been destroyed.
On December 17, 2011, I joined the many people who watched the disaster on television. I was horrified to see the library burning in front of my eyes. This day will never be forgotten by intellectuals, and indeed all who love learning, not only in Egypt, but all over the world.
I was terribly upset to see young people in front of the building rejoicing at what they had done. When I looked at their faces, I could see that the majority were people who had nothing to do with the Revolution. I saw one boy of about 12 who was asked why he was there. ….
The day after the Institute burned down, my dear friend Salah Montaser, a famous columnist who has a daily feature in the Al-Ahram newspaper, called me and told me that almost 90,000 books had been lost, containing over 300 years of our shared history. As we spoke, we both had tears in our eyes.
I find it very distressing that so many crooks, looters, and thieves have taken advantage of the Revolution to come out of their holes not only to rob and steal, but also to hurt all of us. I can see that many good people are silent, and many crooks have loud voices. … We should all stand firm in front of the crooks who have come out of their holes not only to destroy the revolution, but also to destroy Egypt.
A historian who is forced to watch the destruction of his country’s proud history is a tortured soul, indeed. A chilling take on this situation was offered in: Welcome to Cairostan
Those who burned the building and its artifacts meant to burn the era of logic, enlightenment, research and individualism.
This was a grave provocation against the whole of Western civilization, a desire to disconnect from science, research and modernity, while cynically using a Western means – that is, democracy – in order to take power.
One need not go all the way to blowing up the pyramids, as some of Egypt’s Salafis wish to do after they seized some 35% of the new parliament seats (alongside 40% of the Islamic brotherhood,) and there is no reason to go as far as Afghanistan, where the Taliban blew up the huge Buddha statues. The elimination of Egypt’s non-Muslim past is already here.
Anything that dates back to the Pharaohs, that is ancient, or that is Western is destined to be destroyed, and the mission has already been launched in the most symbolic manner: The outset of Egypt’s modern era, which the Salafis seek to erase, and in fact rewrite. This is a battle for writing the history of Egypt and of the Arab and Muslim world.
As many of you will recall, this year saw the passing of the quintessential Cleopatra — Elizabeth Taylor. The following scene from that movie was brought to mind when I first heard the news (and my title today is derived from it):
Cleopatra’s words to Caesar: But neither you nor any other barbarian has the right to destroy one human thought!
I can only pray Cleopatra’s spirit still resides in some brave Egyptians. God help us all if it has been burnt away.