Visit Us | Contact Us | Membership | Make a Gift | Calendar | Order Online | What's New

Print this Page

Home > Research > Publications > News & Notes


Excerpts from the Letters of James Henry Breasted

In May 1919 James Henry Breasted received a letter from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., agreeing to finance an expedition to the Middle East with Breasted as leader. Breasted at once set about organizing a reconnaissance expedition to determine which archaeological sites in the Near East could be profitably investigated or excavated, and to purchase ancient documents of all sorts for museums in the United States. His correspondence to his family and patrons gives an interesting and lively picture both of the man and of the early years of the Oriental Institute.

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 143, Fall 1994, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)

The Continental Hotel, Cairo, Sunday, Nov. 2, 1919

My dearest ones in all the world:

Here am I with the bright Egyptian sunshine all around me, and palms nodding in the Nile breezes, and the strange crooning of the falcons soaring outside in sharp silhouettes against the luminous sky; and a thousand memories and associations throng my mind as I see and hear and feel dear old Egypt all around me. I have such a lot to write you and seemingly so little time in which to do it, for a host of things have crowded in upon me at the very first …

Shepheard's Hotel, Cairo, Egypt, Thursday Evening Nov. 6, 1919

My dear ones:

I am trying to do the work of three men at least and perhaps more. There are first the antiquities to be purchased for the museum at Chi[cago]. I spend hours a day looking over the materials here in the hands of dealers. It is endless; each stock like a museum which has to be gone over. This afternoon I began going over the cellar-magazines of the great Cairo Museum, where there are vast masses of things doing nobody any good, and which I am trying to secure for Haskell. I mussed through the dust and filth of a small fraction of it only. I must also spend as much of the day as I can on the museum collections copying unpublished inscriptions. Then I must keep up a heavy correspondence, in which I am constantly falling behind; while at the same time I must maintain a lot of social and official strings which have to be kept pulled all the time …. There, I promised the Bruntons[1] to be out on the terrace a half an hour ago, and I must finish this later.

Breasted wrote the following letter to his wife, Frances, after having attended a dinner given by Sir Edmund Allenby, High Commissioner for Egypt and the Sudan, and his wife, Lady Allenby.

Villa Mandofia, Garden City, Cairo, Egypt, Sunday Evening Nov. 30, 1919

My dear Frances:

As I took my leave, Lady Allenby said that they hoped to make the Abu Roash excursion next Friday. They planned to drive by automobile to the Mena House, take lunch there, and have the horses waiting so that we could ride out from the Mena House, for Lord Allenby was anxious to ride up the great causeway which still leads up from the plain to the pyramid, and which he had himself discovered. We were to dress for riding.

Of course the Residency dinner kept me up late, but the next morning I took the train for Bedrashein to visit [Clarence] Fisher[2] and his Philadelphia excavations. As a matter of fact it is now impossible to get off at Bedrashein, for the natives of the town formed a mob during last spring's disturbances and burned the station. Since then trains have ceased stopping there, the people of the town have lost all the visitors they used to have and thus sacrificed all this business, while to make matters worse for them they and the people of the surrounding villages who took part in the mischief had been heavily fined to rebuild the station and pay other damages. So I had to get out at Hawamdieh nearly an hour's ride this side of Bedrashein, where Fisher very kindly had one of his men waiting for me with his riding horse. It took us about an hour to reach Fisher's camp. He and his assistant, a young Harvard man named Sanborn (who had come to fetch me), gave me a very kind welcome and made my stay very pleasant. I remained two nights, Wednesday and Thursday. As the latter was Thanksgiving Day, Fisher had a turkey ("dik-rumi", do you remember?), and put up a sumptuous gorge. It was pleasant to be with Americans on that day, and I shall long remember my Thanksgiving celebration among the palms of Memphis.

We spent most of Wed. out in the diggings and talking shop. Fisher has been excavating a palace of Merneptah, discovered under the mounds which Charles [Breasted's son] will remember here, by sebakh diggers. It is an unusual and most interesting building, though now at a level so low that several feet of water rise over the floor of the place at this season of the year. This makes excavation very difficult, and has ruined much of the beauty of the building. It first suffered from a great fire, one of the catastrophes of the declining XIXth Dynasty, toward 1200 B.C., when the Hebrews were leaving Egypt and settling in Palestine. Fisher found the great doors of the throne room burned to ashes and their heavy metal pivot-hinges far out in the hall where they had dropped from the massive wood as the blazing doors fell out into [the] hall. The rooms were magnificently finished with gold overlay, alternating with encrustation of brightly colored glaze inlay, which must have made them very sumptuous. Behind a long deep colonnaded court, like that in our pyramid model, came a splendid colonnaded hall, and this gave access to the throne room, also a columned hall. Behind these public rooms were interesting private rooms of the king, including a bath and a W.C. The building was not a dwelling of the king, but it formed his public offices, and the public audience hall had behind it therefore the necessary private retiring rooms which a sumptuous business office of a commercial magnate or man of wealth has at the present day. It is highly probable that Merneptah was the Pharaoh of the Hebrew Exodus, and it is rather interesting to remember that Hebrew tradition would have placed the famous scenes between Pharaoh and Moses and Aaron in this building. It is not the less interesting either to be able to look into the face of the man who transacted his royal business in this place, for his mummy lies in the museum here …

Elizabeth Milbank Anderson of Greenwich, Connecticut, was the daughter and heiress of a wealthy New York investment broker, Jeremiah Milbank. Breasted met her at a luncheon in 1914. His plan to accompany her that winter on her dahabiyeh for a lengthy Nile trip, while at the same time convincing her of the necessity of using her resources to help preserve the records of ancient Egypt, was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War and was later totally precluded by her ill health (she died in 1921). However, she did give him funds for the purchase of ancient documents, which were to be divided evenly between museums in New York and Chicago. The following is Breasted's letter to her detailing the negotiations involved in acquiring "Papyrus Milbank" (OIM 10486).

Villa Mandofia, Cairo, Egypt, Dec. 10, 1919

My dear Mrs. Anderson:

All this turbulence and discontent, with other influences of the war, has had its affect on the situation as regards the antiquities.… The possession of an unprecedented amount of money, have led them [the dealers] to buy antiquities very extensively, as they have never done before. All Egypt now knows that the survivals from its great past are considered very valuable … and it is evident that Egypt will in the future demand the high prices which have unfortunately been paid by men of great means like Mr. Morgan, or the Earl of Carnarvon, whose magnificent collection I saw at Highclere Castle when I was in England on my way out here.

A purely temporary exception is to be found in the stocks already in the hands of some of the more intelligent dealers. But when these stocks are gone, the fast diminishing remainder will fetch preposterous prices, for we are nearing the end of the vast treasures once preserved in this ancient land, and for those that remain a high toll will be exacted. I have therefore been diligently delving into the collections among the antiquity dealers here in Cairo. The most unexpected things turn up, and the quest is fascinating.

For example, while keeping the doors of the shop tightly closed, one of the oriental rug merchants a day or two ago thrust his servant under the counter of his shop to pull out two stone statues of sitting figures, which he exhibited to me in secret. The statues represented an Egyptian noble whose name and titles were inscribed on the edge of the seat or base. Twenty-five years ago, in my student days, I had read ten contracts inscribed in the tomb of a great noble at Assiut and intended to secure for him, after death, gifts of plentiful food, drink and mortuary tapers on all the chief feast days of the Egyptian calendar; these things were to be delivered not only at his tomb, but also to three statues, portraits of himself, one in the temple in the town, one in a temple outside the town and one at the foot of the long stone stairway leading up to the cemetery of Assiut. These contracts were written in the days of Abraham, some 4000 years ago, and the statues provided for in the contracts had been lost and forgotten these thousands of years. But here before me, pulled out from under a rug-dealer's dusty counter, were two of the very statues, with the great Egyptian feudal baron's name still plainly legible on the side. The native asked an exorbitant price for them, and they are still slumbering under his counter.

I have spent many days among the dealers endeavoring to find some fairly defined group of things to which I could devote your gift …. Meantime all the other funds I had with me for purchasing were spent. One day I was in the shop of a particularly hard-headed Greek with an Italian name, Tano,[3] of whom I had bought a good many things. He asked me if I was interested in Babylonian things, and brought out a box containing 258 clay tablet letters and contracts written in Babylonian cuneiform … brought into Egypt by a Syrian merchant from Aleppo. Well, I took them [for about fifty pounds] and that about exhausted my funds, and your gift was still unexpended.

Then this canny oriental told me he had a papyrus which was very fine! There had been references to this papyrus before by his clerk, but I had discounted the glowing accounts of it …. This papyrus, said Tano, was over at the rug dealers where the statues were stowed away under the counter! So I went over with Tano, for the place was just across the street, and after some parleying he secured possession of a mysterious box, which we brought back to his own shop. I thought of the ragged and tattered masses of papyrus which I had handled at Nahman's,[4] the kind of thing indeed which we always think of when we hear of papyri just out of the ground. They survive in almost all cases as worm eaten fragments, rarely showing any resemblance to a roll. If a roll does survive, the natives who find it usually break the roll straight across as one would break a stick, in order to divide the plunder. So after Tano had carefully locked his shop door, I was only moderately interested as he began to open his box. When the lid came off I saw a lot of mummy cloth bandages lying under it, and said to myself, "Of course the usual mess of tatters!" And then I could hardly believe my eyes, for I saw something which I have never yet seen in all my years in Egypt. Tano lifted the mummy wrappings, and lying under them was a beautiful brown roll of papyrus, as fresh and uninjured as if it had been a roll of wall paper just arrived from the shop! And it was about as thick as an ordinary roll of wall paper!

I confess I had some difficulty in maintaining a "poker face". When Tano seized it and lifted it out, my heart came into my throat lest he should break away the outer portions, for in this dry climate papyrus is very brittle. But it would not do to betray the slightest concern. Tano laid it on the table, put his finger on the unrolled inch or two, and giving the roll a fillip, he sent it gliding across the table, exposing a perfectly intact bare surface before the beginning of the writing. It was the first uninjured beginning of a papyrus I had ever seen unrolled, and the first roll I ever saw in such perfect condition that it could be thus unrolled as its owner might have done. And then came the writing! An exquisitely written hieroglyphic copy of the Book of the Dead, with wonderfully wrought vignettes, the finest copy of the Book of the Dead which has left Egypt for many years!

I waited two days, doing much thinking, chiefly what a beautiful publication this new papyrus, the "Papyrus Anderson" was going to make, and how pleased Mrs. Anderson would be to see it! But there were formidable obstacles in the way. Would I be able to maneuver this cursed money-bags to a point where he would take 500 pounds for the papyrus? Lord Carnarvon's agent was due to arrive in a few days, and probably old Tano knew it. And after him there was Budge of the British Museum, and both of these men would want it and would outbid me if they could. So I was bound to move at once. I would tire you if I were to attempt to tell you of the jockeying which followed, how often I went into Tano's shop and talked of everything in the place except papyri! The provoking old reprobate was of course quite willing to talk for hours of anything else but papyri. However, Lord Carnarvon's agent passed up the river several days ago, and I have the beautiful papyrus packed in cotton in a tin tube in my trunk, Tano has 500 pounds, and both of us are happy!

Of course a papyrus as fine as this must be published in facsimile for the use of scholars and libraries all over the world. It will make a beautiful volume of fifty or sixty fine facsimile photo-engraved plates, preceded by an introductory explanatory text analyzing the document and giving something of its history. It was found at Assiut in a tomb excavated by a rich native named Said Ben Khashaba, who says that the coffin in which it lay belonged to a physician, and that this coffin is now in the national museum here. I have not yet had time to run down this clue, but all this and a sketch of the content of the document will have to be worked up and included in the printed introduction. The whole will be preceded by a title page headed:


or if you prefer it we can call it "Papyrus Milbank". It will then become current as one of the standard texts of the Book of the Dead.

All this, as I said above, had been going through my head before I had completed the purchase of the papyrus, and I did not realize until I had the document safely rescued from competing buyers, that I was involved in a further difficulty. According to the terms of your gift the purchases made with it are to be divided between Chicago and New York; and of course a superb manuscript like this cannot be cut in two.[5] There is no way to divide Papyrus Anderson between New York and Chicago. I would like to ask you therefore whether you approve of the following suggestion:

That the present investment of your gift in Papyrus Anderson continue until next season with the purpose of giving me time to secure other funds with which to pay for the papyrus. Then having the funds representing your gift again in my hands in cash form I can take the time to find another purchase such that it can be properly divided between New York and Chicago, in accordance with your wishes. But of course the manuscript remains the Papyrus Anderson-and quite appropriately too for it was your gift which enabled me to save this beautiful book, which had been lying in an Egyptian tomb since before Homer's time, from being carried away to some European museum or private collection; and whatever decision you make it was your gift which brought this superb copy of the Book of the Dead to America.


1. Guy Brunton was an English Egyptologist and archaeologist who excavated at Lahun with Sir Flinders Petrie, as well as at other sites later in his career. He was appointed Assistant Keeper of the Cairo Museum in 1931. Winifred Brunton, his wife, was an artist who painted water colors of Egyptian art and illustrated many of the objects in her husband's excavation reports.

2. Clarence Fisher was later hired in 1925 by James Henry Breasted to be the first field director of the Megiddo Expedition.

3. Nicolas Tano was an antiquities dealer of Greek origin. His shop was opposite the old Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo. He died in 1924.

4. Maurice Nahman, former chief cashier at the bank of Crédit Foncière, was one of the principal Egyptian antiquities dealers in Cairo. He died in March 1948.

5. In fact, the Papyrus Milbank ended up being cut into fifteen pieces and mounted under glass by conservator Hugo Ibscher of the Berlin Museum. Two sections of the Papyrus Milbank are on display in the "Writing" alcove in the Egyptian Gallery: the beginning section and the illustrated vignette known as the "Weighing of the Heart" scene.


Pioneer to the Past. Charles Breasted. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1943.

Who Was Who in Egyptology. Warren R. Dawson and Eric P. Uphill. London: The Egypt Exploration Society, 1972.

Many thanks to John Larson for his help with James Henry Breasted's correspondence and other background material for this article. --Ed.

Revised: February 7, 2007

Home > Research > Publications > News & Notes