Cairo: Volunteers in white laboratory coats, surgical gloves and masks stood on the back of a pickup truck along the banks of the Nile River in Cairo, rummaging through stacks of rare 200-year-old manuscripts that were little more than charcoal debris.
The volunteers, ranging from academic experts to appalled citizens, have spent the past two days trying to salvage what`s left of some 192,000 books, journals and writings, casualties of Egypt`s latest bout of violence.
Institute d`Egypte, a research center set up by Napoleon Bonaparte during France`s invasion in the late 18th century, caught fire during clashes between protesters and Egypt`s military over the weekend. It was home to a treasure trove of writings, most notably the handwritten 24-volume Description de l`Egypte, compiled during the 1798-1801 French occupation.
The Description of Egypt, which French scientists began writing in 1798, is likely burned beyond repair. Its home, the two-story historic institute near Tahrir Square, is now in danger of collapsing after the roof caved in.
"The burning of such a rich building means a large part of Egyptian history has ended," the director of the institute, Mohammed al-Sharbouni, told state television over the weekend.
He said most of the contents were destroyed in the fire that raged for over 12 hours on Saturday. Firefighters flooded the building with water, adding to the damage.
The violence erupted in Cairo on Friday, when military forces guarding the Cabinet building, near the institute, cracked down on a three-week-old sit-in to demand the country`s ruling generals hand power to a civilian authority.
At least 14 people have been killed. Zein Abdel-Hady, who runs the country`s main library, is leading the effort to try and save what`s left of the charred manuscripts.
"This is equal to the burning of Galileo`s books," Abdel-Hady said, referring to the Italian scientist whose work proposing that the earth revolved around the sun was believed to have been burned in protest in the 17th century.
Below Abdel-Hady`s office, dozens of people sifted through the mounds of debris brought to the library. A man in a surgical coat carried a pile of burned paper with his arms carefully spread, as if cradling a baby.
The rescuers used newspapers to cover some partially burned books. Bulky machines vacuum-packed delicate paper.
At least 16 truckloads with around 50,000 manuscripts, some damaged beyond repair, have been moved from the sidewalks outside the US Embassy and the American University in Cairo, both near the burned institute, to the main library, Abdel-Hady said.