Egypt’s oldest library renovated after terrorist devastation

The renovation of the library is the latest episode in cultural cooperation between Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Sunday 17/02/2019
Culture beats terror. Books on display at the renovated National Library in Egypt.         (Ahmed Megahid)
Culture beats terror. Books on display at the renovated National Library in Egypt. (Ahmed Megahid)

CAIRO - The National Library in Cairo, the Middle East’s oldest library, has been restored to its former glory with financial support from the United Arab Emirates backed by Egyptian resolve to defy terrorism.

The library, officially known as the House of Books and National Manuscripts, was devastated in January 2014 by a car bomb explosion that targeted the adjacent Cairo Security Directorate. The bombing damaged the library’s facade, windows, furniture and shelves.

“We were fortunate that most of the ancient manuscripts and books of the library were not ruined,” said Aida Abdel Ghani, the library’s director-general. “The manuscripts that were damaged were rushed to the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Antiquities for repair.”

The loss of hundreds of thousands of unique old books, manuscripts, maps and documents would have dealt irreversible damage to humanity, Abdel Ghani said.

Restoring the building to its former condition required the investment of millions of dollars. Sharjah Ruler Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qasimi provided $2 million for a comprehensive overhaul of the library.

The rehabilitation included the total renewal of all the sections of the library, installation of advanced security equipment and the replacement of the shelves, tiles and glass windows. New manuscript showcases, lighting systems and curtains were specially imported from Germany.

“This upgrade was necessary to protect the manuscripts and pieces of the library,” Abdel Ghani said. “We have some of the world’s most important manuscripts, making the library a tourist attraction as well.”

There are nearly 1 million volumes in the library. It has an art museum that contains 63 of the world’s most ancient manuscripts, in addition to 16 ancient copies of the Quran, one of which dates to the second Hegira century.

Before the construction of the National Library in 1870, Egypt’s cultural heritage and most important books were in the libraries of major mosques and at the homes of emirs and the country’s elite.

Concerned about the loss of this heritage, Ottoman ruler Khedive Ismail (1863-79) ordered the construction of a library where all the country’s important books and ancient manuscripts could be collected and protected.

Ismail was afraid that books and manuscripts would be smuggled out of Egypt to Turkey, Europe or the United States.

Ismail, who considered the construction of the library his national cultural project, paid 13,000 Turkish liras in 1876 to buy the personal book collection of his brother, Mustafa Fazil Pasha, who had just died in Istanbul. The collection contained 3,458 rare volumes, including 2,473 in Arabic, 650 in Turkish and 335 in Farsi.

At its opening, the National Library had 20,000 volumes, reference books and maps. They were mostly collected from mosques and homes of the rich and Egypt’s emirs and pashas.

As of 1886, a copy of every book published in Egypt had to be deposited at the library, turning it into a must-visit place for Egypt’s and the Arab world’s researchers, book-lovers and students.

The renovation of the library is the latest episode in cultural cooperation between Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. This cooperation focuses on rescuing Egypt’s cultural heritage, parts of which were threatened by the unrest and terrorism.

Qasimi said at the February 3 reopening of the library that culture continues to be at the heart of Egypt’s battle against terrorist groups.

“The library we are reopening today has always been a centre of learning and enlightenment,” he said.

In 2012, Sheikh Sultan helped Egypt restore the Egyptian Scientific Institute, an 18th century centre constructed by Napoleon Bonaparte to conduct research during his campaign in Egypt. The building burned in December 2011 and hundreds of ancient books and manuscripts  were destroyed.

Director of the Alexandria Library Mustafa al-Fiqi said the National Library needed immediate intervention to rescue it from the devastation caused by the 2014 bombing.

“It is a pillar of culture, not only throughout Egypt, but also throughout the whole Arab world,” Fiqi said. “It is one of the world’s most important heritage centres with an unequalled cultural treasure.”