19.12.2011 - ODG

Irina Bokova urges protection of Cairo’s cultural sites after fire at the Institute of Egypt

© UNESCO/Costanza De Simone

UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova expressed deep concern over the return of violence in Cairo, which resulted in the death of 10 people and caused a fire at the Institute of Egypt, destroying about 70 percent of its valuable collection of manuscripts.

“This is an irreversible loss to Egypt and to the world,” said Irina Bokova, praising the courage of firemen and volunteers who tried to extinguish the flames. “These manuscripts represent the history and identity of a people. I call for light to be shed on the causes of the fire, and for serious measures to be taken quickly to save what can be saved.” Highlighting the friendship and longstanding relations between UNESCO and Egypt, Irina Bokova offered UNESCO’s assistance, including through its already mobilized office in Cairo, in helping to compile an accurate inventory of the damage and to put the salvaged manuscripts in a safe holding place.

Documentary heritage kept in archives, libraries and museums constitute an important part of the memory of the world’s peoples. “The loss of such irreplaceable sources of learning shows once again the fragility of this collective memory and reminds us that we must do everything to ensure that it is kept intact,” stated the Director-General.

The Director-General called upon authorities and professionals to be vigilant about looting and the illicit trafficking of manuscripts, noting that cultural sites are particularly vulnerable in times of unrest. “The manuscripts are an integral part of cultural heritage, which is the cornerstone of every society. This heritage is an irreplaceable source of identity and a driver of future development and cohesion. Destroying or neglecting this asset today diminishes the chances of building a strong democratic society tomorrow”.

Cairo has dozens of buildings and museums housing priceless cultural treasures. “It is essential to ensure maximum protection of the city’s cultural sites and to protect them from violence, including the National Museum of Cairo, located on Tahrir Square,” the Director-General added.

The Institute of Egypt was established in 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte in order to advance scientific research. It is the oldest scientific institution in the country, and its library holds around 200,000 books, some extremely rare, about history, geography, technology and science. The building that was burnt down included a priceless first edition of the Description of Egypt, which contains the knowledge accumulated by academics about Bonaparte’s expedition; only part of this book was saved. The partnership between UNESCO and the Institute of Egypt was a key element in the preparatory phase of the establishment of the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization.

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