The destruction of the Institut d’Egypte by fire was a significant loss to history and historians. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of this event but it was not, despite some comparisons, like the burning of the library of Alexandria by Julius Caesar or of Baghdad by Hulagu. It was a significant collection with many unique materials but it was not the sole location in which a large number of intellectual works of crucial importance were held. And like the destruction of the Alexandrian library by Caesar it appears to have been an accident rather than a concerted attempt to destroy Egypt’s history, its archives, or its connections to the outside world.
Without excusing whoever tossed the Molotov cocktail that ended the library’s 200 year existence, anyone familiar with Cairo’s recent history of fires might draw a somewhat different (but not more reassuring) lesson.
Accidental fires are not infrequent and especially in Cairo. I was almost the unfortunate witness to one when a doorman managed to light a butane gas cylinder on fire about 15 years ago while checking to see if it had a leak. He lit a match to the area at the top of the container and nearly turned it into a bomb. Electrical fires are also not uncommon.
One of the most impressive recent fires in the area around Tahrir Square occurred on August 19 2008 when the Shoura Council building burned to the ground. Along with it went records of 19th century parliamentary debates that were held in its archives. The fire itself was an accident and perhaps could have been contained but the fire department was unable to arrive at the building in a timely fashion. Had the 19th century building ever been equipped with a sprinkler system perhaps it could have survived until the errant fire fighters arrived.
In the early morning of September 27 2008 another fire occurred. This one was at the National Theater (in a different part of downtown) and it also burned to the ground. Again the fire department did not arrive in a timely fashion and the equally charming 19th century building in which many years ago I saw an Arabic translation of a Latin American play also had no sprinkler system.
In the intervening years it evidently never occurred to anyone in the government that it might be a good idea to install sprinkler systems in old buildings, especially old buildings filled with books, journals, and other combustible materials. So when that fateful Molotov cocktail was thrown no sprinkler system was in place to avoid transforming what might have been a modest problem into a major disaster.
The government is already at work planning to repair the building just as the army also repaired other buildings destroyed by arson over the past year: notably churches in Soul and Imbaba. In fact the rapidity with which the army repairs things is a bit unnerving. Even while demonstrators were being shot on the streets a couple of weeks ago the Supreme Council announced that they would be cared for at the expense of the state.
Two errant thoughts occur to me, one of which is quite practical and the other quite metaphorical. After three major fires have robbed Cairo of some important architectural and historical resources perhaps it would be a good idea if someone paid attention to putting sprinkler systems into other buildings. I don’t know if the National Archives or the National Library (both of which have some exceptionally rare and irreplaceable collections) have sprinkler systems but perhaps they should. Second, it is hard not to read this as a metaphor for the collapse of the old regime. It’s not clear that the kind of spark tossed into an unhappy society by demonstrators on Police Day a year ago had to be the basis for a conflagration that took down an entire regime. But just as the old regime didn’t do sprinklers, it also didn’t do anything resembling alternation of power or recognition of popular unhappiness. One can only hope the Second Republic now under construction by the Armed Forces, the Muslim Brothers, and others will do better but that remains to be seen.