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Egypt's Scientific Institute comes back to life

After 4 months restoration

Published on 3 February 2013

Author(s): Al Shorfa/Waleed Abu al-Khair

Type:  News Originally published 1 Nov 2012

The Egyptian Scientific Institute opened its doors once more after a massive fire destroyed many of its invaluable scientific acquisitions nearly one year ago.

The building came back to life in the heart of Cairo after a restoration process that lasted around four months and cost approximately six million Egyptian pounds ($1 million), Egypt's official Middle East News Agency reported.

Egypt's armed forces funded the project, which was then implemented by the Arab Contractors company and the army's engineering unit, who conducted architectural studies and restored the building, according to Ahmed Murad, an engineer who participated in the restoration process.

"[We] preserved the essence of the building and its basic form without any additions that would distort its historical spirit," he said. "However, [we had to] completely rebuild some sections because of the strength of the fires that raged throughout the building."

Workers used anti-flammable insulation materials, especially painting material, while the building's monitoring, alarm and fire-prevention systems were modernised, Murad said.

The Institute was established in 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte, with the aim of promoting scientific advancement in Egypt, disseminating science and knowledge throughout the country and researching and documenting its historical events and industrial facilities.

On December 17th, 2011, the building caught on fire during protests near Tahrir Square. Fires also broke out the next morning after the ceiling of the building caved in.

Books and manuscripts salvaged by volunteers

Dr. Mahmoud Anwar, an archaeology professor at Cairo University who supervises manuscripts and reference books at the Institute, said the Institute's return "was like a dream, especially since parts of the building collapsed and the blaze consumed many important acquisitions".

While the building was being restored, books and manuscripts -- salvaged from the fire by young volunteers -- were also sorted and restored, he said.

Despite these successes, as much as 70% of the Institute's collection was lost, including the "Description of Egypt" encyclopaedia, which was replaced with digital copies and a copy gifted by Emirati emir Sheikh Sultan al-Qasimi, he said.

"It is unfortunate that so many manuscripts have been lost, especially those that date back to 1628 and which are irreplaceable," Anwar said.

He spoke about the Institute's current assets, which include "old books belonging to the Institute and [some] from collections donated by many scientific and literary figures, as well as civil society activists".

Egyptians walk past the country's recently restored scientific institute in Cairo. [Waleed Abu al-Khair-Al-Shorfa].jpg
Egyptians walk past the country's recently restored scientific institute in Cairo. [Waleed Abu al-Khair/Al-Shorfa]

There are still a lot of books, manuscripts and references currently in storage, where they are being sorted and archived by specialists in preparation for transfer to the library, he added.

Dr. Hibatallah Saeed, from the Egyptian National Library and Archives and the committee overseeing the restoration of the Institute's manuscripts, said many volunteers have joined the process of collecting, sorting and restoring manuscripts.

"These groups of people include university students as well as experts, historians and archaeologists, not to mention a significant contribution from the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology," she said.

She added that these volunteers used the latest and most precise methods to restore the documents.

Current features

Today's Institute comprises two levels. The first includes a reading area equipped with the latest technology and computers, and the second contains lecture and seminar halls, meeting rooms, a lounge for high-profile guests, an event hall and the main hall, where the library is situated.

According to Saeed, the Institute previously housed more than 40,000 books. With current donations, the collection now stands at around 25,000 books.

"Many of the rare manuscripts and books were not [destroyed by the fire] but were stolen during the chaos that prevailed after the fire broke out," she said. "In past months, several people were arrested as they tried to sell these books or smuggle them abroad."

A new Institute compound is also scheduled to open its doors in December of this year, Saeed said.

People crowd near the Egyptian Scientific Institute after a fire burned the building in December 2011. [Waleed Abu al-Khair-Al-Shorfa].jpg
People crowd near the Egyptian Scientific Institute after a fire burned the building in December 2011. [Waleed Abu al-Khair/Al-Shorfa]

This compound will complement the Institute's main complex rather than replace it, she said, and will be used for local and international seminars and lectures.

It will also include a comprehensive digital library that contains all the material in the Institute's main complex, making it a modern centre for global scientific research, she added.

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