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In the Beginning

William Rainey Harper and the Near East

The University of Chicago has been a center of ancient Near Eastern studies ever since its founding in 1891. An early commitment to that field was made by the university's first president, William Rainey Harper, who was wooed away from a promising career at Yale by John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Harper brought to the presidency both administrative acumen and his own specialization in ancient Hebrew and the Old Testament. From July 1, 1891, until his untimely death at the age of 49 in 1906, Harper served not only as the president of the new university but also as chairman of the Department of Semitic Languages. Harper enthusiastically recruited a faculty, established a museum, and initiated a program of field research so that by the end of his presidency, Near Eastern studies had become an integral part of The University of Chicago.

The Chicago Connection

The devastating Chicago Fire of 1871 left the city's downtown area and its cultural institutions in ruins. Rising from the ashes, Chicago entered the Gilded Age as one of America's principal centers of commerce, industry, and culture. Enormous wealth, generated by rapid developments in agriculture, transportation, meat-packing, and steel production, created an elite who channeled some of their time and resources into philanthropic pursuits for the benefit of the citizens of Chicago.

Between 1871 and 1900, civic-minded Chicagoans worked to lay suitable foundations for the city's cultural heritage. They rebuilt, refurbished and founded an array of institutions including the Chicago Historical Society, the Chicago Academy of Sciences, Lincoln Park Zoo, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum of Natural History, the Chicago Symphony and the Chicago Opera.

The dazzling, neo-classical "White City" at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition proudly proclaimed Chicago's cultural aspirations to thousands of visitors from all over the world. On the Midway in Jackson Park, fair-goers could shop for "antikas" in the stalls of "Cairo Street," visit a replica of the façade of an ancient Egyptian temple and explore a "Nubian Village." Elsewhere at the fair, prim-and-proper Midwesterners were scandalized by the gyrations of a belly-dancer known as "Little Egypt."

Wealthy Chicagoans had the opportunity to see the real Near East as they embarked upon the "Grand Tour." They marvelled at the pyramids, explored ruined cities of Mesopotamia and sought their Christian roots and confirmation of the Bible in the Holy Land. They also brought back ancient artifacts purchased during their travels. In 1890, the Art Institute of Chicago acquired its first Egyptian object. Four years later, Edward Ayer of Field Museum of Natural History visited Egypt to make major purchases of antiquities. That same year, the Haskell Oriental Museum was founded at the new University of Chicago, adding a third museum in Chicago which had a collection of ancient Near Eastern artifacts!

The Haskell Oriental Museum

Near Eastern studies at the new University of Chicago acquired a permanent home when, with the enthusiastic encouragement of President Harper, Mrs. Caroline E. Haskell donated funds toward the construction of an Oriental Museum to be dedicated to the memory of her husband.

The Haskell Oriental Museum was completed in 1896. The Department of Semitic Languages was moved from its cramped quarters in Cobb Hall into the new building along with the Departments of Comparative Religion and Semitic Languages. William Rainey Harper served as the first director of the Museum and James Henry Breasted was the assistant director.

The early collections of Near Eastern artifacts arrayed in the ground floor galleries of the Haskell Museum were described as "a few plaster-cast reproductions and a small group of exhibition cases containing the little collection of antiquities." The core of the Egyptian collection had been purchased by Breasted in Egypt in 1894-95. Over the succeeding years it grew rapidly, augmented by donations of excavated artifacts given in return for the University's contributions to the Egypt Exploration Fund and Egyptian Research Account in London. Further excavated materials were obtained with the financial support of the Chicago Society of Egyptian Research, which was organized in 1897. The goals of this local association were to assist fieldwork in order to bring a "just share of the antiquities thus discovered" to Chicago and to inform members about ancient culture and history.

James Henry Breasted

William Rainey Harper was responsible for establishing ancient Near Eastern studies at The University of Chicago, but his responsibilities as President necessitated that he assemble a highly qualified faculty to ensure the growth of the Department of Semitic Languages. The trust and confidence he showed in James Henry Breasted was to ensure the University's prominence in Near Eastern studies.

Breasted was born in Rockford, Illinois in 1865. He received a degree in pharmacy in 1886, but soon afterward succumbed to a long-standing interest in Hebrew studies and enrolled at the Congregational Institute (now the Chicago Theological Seminary). After graduating in 1890, Breasted went to Yale to study Semitic languages under William Rainey Harper. Harper encouraged him to take up the new speciality of Egyptology. As an incentive, Harper promised "If you will go to Germany and get the best possible scientific equipment, no matter if it takes you five years, I will give you the professorship of Egyptian in the new University of Chicago!"

The following year, Breasted traveled to Berlin to study Egyptian, Arabic and Hebrew. His degree was awarded with honors in 1894. His dissertation (in Latin!) was a study of the "monotheistic" hymns of the Amarna period. He was the first American to receive a Ph.D. in Egyptology, and that same year, as promised by Harper, he became the first professor of Egyptology in the United States.

Breasted was a scholar of great intellect coupled with tremendous charisma. He was able to expound upon the value and relevance of ancient Near Eastern studies in such a way as to transform influential listeners into loyal supporters. He had the capability to "dig not [only] in Egypt, but in Wall Street."

The Honeymoon

In 1894 Breasted not only received his Ph.D. and the promised teaching position in Chicago, but he also married a young American woman, Frances Hart, whom he had met and courted in Germany. Their honeymoon was spent that same year along the Nile. What sounds like an idyllic and romantic trip may have been something more akin to a busman's holiday, for although it was Breasted's honeymoon and his first opportunity to visit Egypt, President Harper requested that he acquire antiquities for The University of Chicago and copy ancient inscriptions.

As Mrs. Breasted reported in a letter: "Tuesday [January 15, 1895] we spent over here at the 'North Tombs' (Tell el Amarna) - I reading and husband as usual, copying." At Deir el Bahari in Thebes, Breasted cleared a tomb "with the help of his sailors." Breasted also spent time talking with dealers and local fellahin as he made purchases of Egyptian antiquities for the Haskell Oriental Museum. A memorable purchase of four mummies was prefaced by "dickering three quarters of a day" over the price. Once the arrangements had been settled, Breasted hired camels to carry the mummies to the river where they were loaded "right into our bedrooms and [we] did not lose any sleep."

The opportunity for Breasted to examine the monuments of Egypt firsthand helped determine the future direction of his work. He was shocked by the inaccuracies of many previously published versions of hieroglyphic inscriptions, and he resolved to devote his energies to making accurate copies of the ancient texts. As he wrote: "I am now laying plans to copy not merely the historical, but all the inscriptions of Egypt and publish them."

The Oriental Exploration Fund & the First Expedition, 1903-4

The momentum achieved by Harper and Breasted encouraged John D. Rockefeller Sr. to give $50,000 toward their research. This sum, with other private donations, enabled The University of Chicago to mount its first full-scale expedition to the Near East. Harper was confronted by conflicting aims: Should the Department excavate a Mesopotamian site as suggested by his Assyriologist brother Robert Francis Harper, or should the funds support the epigraphic survey championed by Breasted?

The matter was settled in favor of Mesopotamia. In 1903, William Rainey Harper organized under his own direction the "Oriental Exploration Fund (Babylonian Division) of The University of Chicago" and set about searching for a place to excavate in Iraq. While on a tour of the Middle East, Harper met an American minister, Edgar J. Banks, and appointed him field director to work on behalf of the University at any site for which he was able to obtain a concession.

On October 3, Banks was granted permission to excavate at Bismaya (or Bismya) in central Mesopotamia. Work began on Christmas Day 1903 and continued through May 1904. It was resumed in September for eight days until a misunderstanding with the Ottoman officials caused them to close the expedition. Early in February, 1905, the excavations were resumed under the directorship of an architect, Victor S. Persons, who remained at the site until the end of July.

Banks' work showed that Bismaya (ancient Adab) had been inhabited for at least 2000 years, from the Uruk period (ca. 3400 B.C.) through Kassite times (ca. 1150 B.C.). The expedition uncovered a massive ziggurat, several temples, a palace, at least one archive of tablets, private houses, and a cemetery.

The more than a thousand artifacts brought back to Chicago from Bismaya at last provided the Haskell Oriental Museum with a Mesopotamian collection, which included important pieces of sculpture, stone relief carving, and a large number of clay tablets.

The First Epigraphic Survey, 1905-7

When it became impossible to continue excavating at Bismaya, the balance of the Oriental Exploration Fund was used to sponsor an epigraphic survey of Egypt and Nubia. In 1905, James Henry Breasted set off to record the architecture and inscriptions in southern Egypt, from Abu Simbel south to Wadi Halfa. He was accompanied on this trip by his wife Frances and eight year old son Charles, and a professional staff composed of Victor Persons, former director of the excavations at Bismaya, and a photographer. During this first season (November 1905 to April 1906), the group devoted forty days to documenting the great temple of Abu Simbel.

The second season (October 1906 to March 1907) included the noted artist Norman de Garis Davies. From Meröe, "The University of Chicago caravan" marched south to Khartoum and, eventually, to the Third Cataract, recording the temples of Nubia. The trip was not easy; at one point they were nearly shipwrecked, the temperature soared to 135 degrees, and the photographer, battling abrasive sand, was forced to develop his glass plate negatives in the Nile waters.

The two seasons of the first epigraphic survey had a lasting result. They produced over a thousand documentary photos of Nubian temples, and during the course of the expedition Breasted developed epigraphic techniques that with minor modifications, were to be employed for all subsequent surveys.

Ancient Records

In 1895, the Department of Semitic Languages resolved to produce a series of twenty-three volumes entitled Ancient Records to serve as the tools and instruments for teaching the ancient cultures. The original publication plan, which was never fully realized, called for six volumes of Assyrian and Babylonian records to be edited by Robert Francis Harper, professor of Assyriology (and brother of President Harper), five volumes of Palestinian and Syrian records under the authority of President Harper himself and twelve volumes of Egyptian texts translated by James Henry Breasted.

The Oriental Institute

"What I could do if I could only find some one ready to invest a few thousand in my scientific work!" - J.H. Breasted

Just as President Harper and John D. Rockefeller, Sr. made grand plans that culminated in the establishment of The University of Chicago, the younger generation, Breasted and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., joined forces. Breasted had long been known to the Rockefeller family. A letter from Mrs. Rockefeller indicates that Breasted's enormously successful textbook Ancient Times, was standard bedtime reading for the children of the New York household.

Officially, the two men came into contact in 1919 when Breasted applied to the General Education Fund, a Rockefeller-supported agency, for monies to undertake a survey of the Near East and for the endowment of a research institute.

Breasted's proposal brought the first of more than one million dollars in grants awarded personally by Rockefeller and resulted in the establishment of an institute at The University of Chicago dedicated solely to the study of the ancient Near East. The younger Rockefeller led the way in donations, and, in 1919, Martin Ryerson, the President of the Board of Trustees of The University of Chicago, approved the formation of "The Oriental Institute" to be housed in the Haskell Oriental Museum.

Envisioned as a "laboratory for the study of the rise and development of civilization," The Oriental Institute was devoted to Breasted's quest to trace ancient man's "progress" toward civilization and to document the steps in the development of ancient cultures of the Near East.

The First Expedition of 1919-20, undertaken with the initial Rockefeller grant, was to have a profound impact upon the direction and character of the new Oriental Institute. In the course of the survey, Breasted and his colleagues selected sites for excavations over the next decade and a half, and purchased hundreds of significant antiquities to add to the collection of the museum. A decade later, Breasted wrote to his benefactor, "Your support and encouragement have enabled me to accomplish things for science which I never dreamed were possible."

Into the Field

Using the information collected during the 1919-1920 survey, the newly established Oriental Institute embarked upon an ambitious program of excavations and regional studies throughout the Near East. Beginning with the first large-scale excavation at Megiddo in 1925, teams from The Oriental Institute fanned out to work at sites in Turkey, Syria, Persia, Egypt and Iraq, until Chicago scholars were represented in all countries of the Near East. Researchers from The University of Chicago were pioneers in the use of interdisciplinary field teams and in conducting regional surveys and settlement studies of significant areas of the Near East. They also were responsible for establishing many of the basic chronologies for ancient Near Eastern cultures using materials obtained through carefully controlled and documented stratigraphic excavations. Today, The Oriental Institute is still a leader in ancient Near Eastern scholarship and supports active field projects in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Israel.

Revised: February 7, 2007

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