By William Harms
Photo courtesy of the Oriental Institute

This is a fascinating glimpse of a pivotal moment in history—the birth of the modern Middle East as we know it today.”
—Gil Stein
Oriental Institute

James Henry Breasted left Chicago in 1919 for a daring journey of adventure and archaeological discovery. He came back with a research agenda that shaped the work of the Oriental Institute for decades and would forever change how the ancient Middle East is studied and understood.

His trek through Egypt and what are now Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel comes to life in dozens of his letters and 1,000 of his photographs that are featured in a new exhibition at the Oriental Institute Museum. In “Pioneers to the Past: American Archaeologists in the Middle East, 1919–1920,” the famed archaeologist’s own dispatches help recount his exciting, dangerous journey amid the unstable aftermath of World War I.

“This is a fascinating glimpse of a pivotal moment in history—the birth of the modern Middle East as we know it today, and at the same time, the genesis of modern archaeological research in the cradle of civilization,” says Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute. “It’s one of the best examples I know of the ways that scholarship and politics interconnect in important and unexpected ways.”

The trip included elements of swashbuckling, as when Breasted’s team was scouting for ruins on horseback and encountered dozens of armed Arab soldiers looking to surrender. But much of his adventure was of an intellectual kind. His work supported his thesis that the roots of Western civilization lay in the Middle East—an idea that’s universally accepted today, but stirred controversy in Breasted’s time.

The trip also helped bring Breasted’s dream to life—a research institute at the University of Chicago that remains at the center of study of the archaeology, art, languages, and history of the ancient Middle East.

”We live with the heritage of his work—and his vision, fueled by what he saw on his journey in 1919 and 1920,” says Stein. “On that journey he identified sites to excavate, such as Megiddo in what is now Israel, and Nineveh, in what is now Iraq, that were sites of important Oriental Institute work. That research has helped make us one of the world’s leading centers of Middle Eastern archaeology.”

The Middle East has changed greatly since Breasted’s visit, but his journey reveals some aspects of the region that are familiar to modern audiences. “The story of Breasted’s adventure is joined by another ‘voice’ in the exhibit that comments on the expedition and its aims from a modern perspective, illustrating how much has changed in archaeology and in the Middle East since Breasted’s time,” says Geoff Emberling, Research Associate and Chief Curator of the Oriental Institute.

Bringing Egypt to Chicago

One of the goals of Breasted’s trip was to purchase material for display at the University’s museum of the ancient Middle East. At the time of his journey, artifacts were sold with few restrictions. John D. Rockefeller Jr., an admirer of Breasted’s books, which popularized an understanding of the heritage of the region, gave him an initial gift of $50,000 (more than $500,000 in today’s dollars), an amount supplemented by the University of Chicago, to purchase items.

Breasted’s letters back to Chicago spoke of his “loneliness and almost morbid love of home.” Yet he also was excited to be exploring many historic sites that previously he had only studied in books. He was able to choose material that was not only beautiful, but historically important. Among his most prized finds was a Book of the Dead, commonly put in tombs to describe the afterlife, which rolled out to nearly 35 feet.

Breasted could barely contain his enthusiasm when he wrote about finding the scroll:

“I could hardly believe my eyes, for I saw something which I have never seen in all my years in Egypt—a beautiful roll of papyrus, as fresh and uninjured as if it had been a roll of wall paper just arrived from the shop!”

With its “wonderfully wrought vignettes,” it was “one of the most remarkable examples on display anywhere,” says Emily Teeter, coordinator of the Breasted exhibition.

Traveling in an open biplane, Breasted was one of the first archaeologists to see the pyramids and the Delta of the Nile from the air. He purchased more than 700 objects, including a group of limestone serving statues from a tomb that show scenes of daily life in ancient Egypt. The mummy Meresamun, the subject of a recently completed Oriental Institute special exhibit, also was acquired on Breasted’s journey.

A Dangerous Journey Through What is Now Iraq

An important part of Breasted’s trip took him through an area of the Middle East that was facing an unsettled time after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. The British were seeking dominance in an area that now includes Iraq, and Breasted took photos of an emerging nation in transition. The British military provided an escort for Breasted and his party, who travelled across the region by boat, plane, Model T Fords, and sometimes horse-drawn wagons.

Along the way, Breasted identified locations for future exploration, including the site of Khorsabad in what is now northern Iraq, where a team from the Oriental Institute excavated a winged, human-headed bull that is now one of the museum’s most popular sculptures.

He also visited leading figures, including King Faisal, who ruled in Damascus and would eventually become the first king of Iraq. Despite Breasted’s connections, the region was not secure enough for him to visit the site of Megiddo, though he saw it from afar and took photos.

Later Oriental Institute expeditions were able to excavate the site, which is the location of the Biblical battle of Armageddon. That work is the most important ever done on the site and went back through centuries of occupation. Artifacts from that excavation are on display at the museum.

Despite Breasted’s reverence for ancient culture, his attitudes toward the modern peoples of the Middle East were backward and rooted in the prejudices of his time, Emberling says. Partly for that reason, he was disconnected from the region’s political drama even as he passed through it.

“Breasted and his team were fundamentally more interested in the past than in the present reality of the region,” Emberling says. “There is a very real sense in which their trip was to a past landscape.”

Originally published on January 20, 2010.