Christmas Salon 2023: Berlin-Cairo-Express

Two Cosmopolitan Centers of the Early 20th Century in Exchange

In the first half of the 20th century, Cairo stood as one of the most significant urban centres at the crossroads of Europe and the African continent, bridging the gap between the East and the West, and intertwining ancient history with modernity. For Berlin and the Prussian State, this cosmopolitan city held an important role, fostering numerous institutional, economic, and personal connections. These connections are vividly exemplified by the establishment of the Imperial German Institute for Egyptian Antiquities (later the German Archaeological Institute Cairo), initiatives by the Royal Prussian Phonogram Commission (later Berlin Phonogram Archive), and the efforts of the University of Music to collaborate with local music education institutions. By the 1930s, Cairo became a focal point for those displaced from Europe and a gathering place for those fleeing dictatorships and war.

The Christmas Salon 2023 of the Research Centre Prussia, in collaboration with the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA) and the Research Centre for Primary Sources of the Ancient World, opened an interdisciplinary discussion between Egyptology and Musicology, featuring insightful talks and demonstrations of historical wax cylinder recordings. Through this engaging exploration, the event unravelled the diverse exchanges that took place between Berlin and Cairo during a transformative period in the 20th century.

The event was opened by BBAW President Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Christoph Markschies who warmly welcomed all guests and set the stage for an intellectually enriching gathering.

AGYA member Dr. Amro Ali (Sociology & Philosophy) gave the audience an overview of AGYA’s engagement in Germany and the Arab world, reflecting on the academy's decade-long commitment to fostering diverse perspectives and Arab-German collaboration. Amro Ali also spoke on the historical dynamics that shape the cultural landscapes of Cairo and Berlin.

Given the historical dynamics that govern Cairo and Berlin, there has been a gravitational pull in both cities that drew artists, poets, and philosophers, and so it’s not surprising that they share much in common and built intellectual links between the two cities over the course of the 20th century.

Amro Ali, AGYA member

Prof. Dr. Dörte Schmidt showcased the academy's dedication to interdisciplinary engagement at the intersection of science and the arts. AGYA member Prof. Dr. Matthias Padszierny (Musicology) shared illuminating perspectives on the life and work of the accomplished German musician, Brigitte Schiffer whose work was featured in recent AGYA projects. Matthias Padszierny’s talk was complemented by a live demonstration featuring historical wax recordings presented by Albrecht Wiedmann (Ethnological Museum Berlin at the Humboldt Forum). This unique addition provided a multisensory experience, offering attendees a rare glimpse into the historical context of Schiffer's contributions.

During intense field work in Siwa and several workshops with local musicians we, an international and interdisciplinary team of scholars, learned a lot about how music and culture in Siwa changed in the course of the 20th century and came to question our own ‘postcolonial’ perspectives and presuppositions.

Matthias Padszierny, AGYA member

The evening was rounded up by a thought-provoking panel discussion featuring Matthias Padszierny, Dörte Schmidt and Egyptologist Dr. Susanne Voss (German Archaelogical Institute Cairo/Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities) who provided a comprehensive exploration of the topics discussed throughout the event.

Date & Venue

29 November 2023

Einstein-Saal at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (BBAW), Berlin/Germany

The presentations were framed by musical intermissions presented by a string quartet led by violinist Thomas Kretschmer from the University of Potsdam, (Violin), who was accompanied by Danilo Ferreira (Violin), Christoph Starke (Viola), Jule Hinrichsen (Violoncello). The quartet played two movements from the piece ‘Quatuor A Cordes’ (1934) by German musician Brigitte Schiffer that with its blend of European and Arabic musical traditions was a testament to the cosmopolitan spirit also fostered by this evening event.


The Christmas Salon ‘Berlin-Cairo-Express’ was carried out by the Research Centre Prussia in cooperation with the Research Centre for Primary Sources of the Ancient World and the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA).


The monograph ‘Listening to the Sounds of Siwa. Restudy and (Re)Circulation of Brigitte Schiffer’s Ethnographic Research in the Eastern Sahara (1932-35)’, to be published in 2024, will give a rich overview of the results of the projects.