The Hidden Treasures at Cairo Music Library

Ati Metwaly, Thursday 20 Jan 2011

Situated at the Cairo Opera House grounds in Zamalek, the Music Library is not well-known to the majority of the public. Ahram Online visited the library and discovered the challenges that this cultural institution faces

Library building

The Opera Grounds are filled with a number of culture-related buildings: the Cairo Opera House, the Palace of Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, El Bab Gallery and the Cultural Development Fund premises, but not many people know that this very same area has a music library, open to the public for a nominal entrance fee of LE1 (less than 20 cents!).

I visited the library and met its director, Abbas Mohamed Salama who revealed a number of facts and concerns that this important cultural institution holds within its white walls. Salama is a Library and Information Science graduate and the first and only director of the library since its foundation in 1988.

How it all began…

“The very first library was the one initiated and developed by Hussein Fawzi, within the four walls of a room, which today serves as an office of the head of the Cairo Opera House,” Salama told Ahram Online. “Initially, the library consisted of books only, while other elements such as scores and recordings, were added much later.”

By the 1990s, the library started expanding considerably and had to be moved to a bigger room, still inside the Opera House. The new room was not suitable for library purposes and Tarek Ali Hassan, then the head of the Opera House, decided to add a new building to the opera grounds which would hold a library. The project has been continued and finalised by Nasser Al Ansary, the subsequent director of the opera.

The new building opened in December 1994 and in spite of the fact that the huge letters on the building front state “Music Library,” the space within the walls serves a variety of purposes.

The main round hall, called the Gallery of the Music Library, is an exhibition space for many contemporary artists. Several rooms are utilised by the administration of the Cairo Opera Orchestra and the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, as well as the very populated public relations sectors. Rehearsal rooms are home to lessons held by the Talents Development Centre, music and dance rehearsals and training.

The reservoir

The library consists of the main research room, audio and video rooms, as well as rooms storing the music scores. “The library holds books about literature, fine arts and music, in a variety of languages; Arabic, English, French, Russian and Italian,” Salama explains. “Many books are donated by the families of Egyptian intellectuals who have died; some come from the Al Ahram book club or the Supreme Council of Culture.”

The library also keeps copies of costume designs, décor designs, programme notes, articles published about the opera, concerts and other events and performance photographs etc. It has a collection of Western and Eastern music scores, many of them dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, while others are manuscripts or carry additional notes by renowned musicians.

Incorporating audio recordings into the library was one of the crucial breakthroughs, expanding beyond the printed, material boundaries. Today, the library collection includes vinyls from the beginning of the 20th century, cassette tapes, reel and DAT (digital audio tapes), CDs etc. “We have thousands of audio and video recordings of all symphonic, operatic and other events taking place in the Opera House and other locations under the umbrella of opera. We also receive multimedia donations from a variety of cultural centres or buy new recordings.” Salama says.

Apart from a reservoir of Western classical music, the library pays special attention to the Arabic music heritage, with resources including 25,000 recordings, with the oldest dating from 1904, through to the recordings of Om Kolthom, Abdel Wahab, Abdel Halim Hafez and Farid al Atrash, among many other Arabic music icons. There are over 3,000 Arabic music scores and this is definitely the pride of the library.

Treasures frozen in time

As impressive as the presentation may sound, a quick look at the books and magazines reveals that it must have been many years since new titles made it onto the library shelves. It is obvious that at a certain point time has stood still and apart from a few new desks in the main room the equipment is seriously outdated, starting with the computers used for basic research of the library content all the way to the audio/video technology. Just like the old equipment and recordings, the logistic aspect of the library seems to be frozen in time. It’s excel sheet-based database, compiled in Arabic, is the starting point for any visitor, who is then served by one of the library clerks.

Salama blames these shortcomings on an insufficient budget. “The major problem we face is lack of funding. The library, operating under the Cairo Opera House, does not receive an adequate budget which would allow us to update the collection with new volumes and recordings, as well as purchase better equipment.” On the other hand, the lack of modernisation of resources and procedures erases any chance of it becoming a point of interest to potential financial supporters, either corporate companies or individuals. The library is often visited by professional musicians, yet the number of public visitors has decreased over recent years.

Despite some deficiencies, the library already has a lot to offer. Lack of regular visitors remains a problem and Salama sees that one of the crucial reasons behind this is directly linked to the education system. He explains that most of the young generation here in Egypt are not taught the values transmitted by libraries and do not recognise the importance of books or music. “Schools do not encourage students to go to libraries, or listen to valuable recordings. Those are the habits of the older generation, who were raised with different values,” he maintains.

Salama believes the music library – along with many other libraries in Cairo – can still offer a much bigger service to the community than they are doing now. This would also involve a change in policies and co-operation between many libraries, as well as support from educational institutions.

No immediate solution

With all the valuable recordings – albeit neglected by the public – seriously outdated, it is not easy to find immediate solutions. The music library seems to stand at a crossroad where many problems meet: financial struggles, outdated policies, lack of sufficient exposure, social and cultural decline.

Hopefully those values, which make Salama proud of over two decades he has dedicated to the library, can be shared by more people. Until then it is worth your time to pass by the library and check all the treasures that it holds.


The Music Library is open to public from Sunday to Thursday, from 9 am to 4 pm. Entry fee LE 1.

Cairo Opera House Grounds,

All material available at the library must remain on the premises. Copies of printed material and recordings can be carried out by the library on request and prices for this service vary. Please enquire at the library for more details.


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