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Chicago on the Nile

Laurence Jarvik

Posted on November 27, 2018 11:53

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The Oriental Institute's "Chicago House" in Luxor is a Monument to American Civilization in Egypt

(Dr. W. Raymond Johnson shows our tour Chicago House's collection of ancient Egyptian prints and drawings)

Among the most memorable sights on a recent tour of Egypt was one that is neither ancient pyramid, tomb, nor temple. 

The University of Chicago's Oriental Institute's "Chicago House" has been an archaeological research HQ since John D. Rockefeller supported construction of a magnificent research library, residences, and gardens on the banks of the Nile dedicated to the study and preservation of Egyptian civilization in 1924.

Behind its walls and gates lies a monument to the highest aspirations for American Civilization.

Just as Pharaohs collected artifacts for eternity, Chicago House has assembled materials that transcend space and time.

With more than 20,000 books, 21,000 photographic prints, 21,000 negatives, and many drawings dating from the 1800s to today, Chicago House holds one of the largest collections in Egypt, now available to global scholars on the the Internet.

Its Epigraphic Survey has documented and preserved Egyptian heritage worn away by weather, pollution, and development, providing unique source material for ancient Near Eastern scholarship.

When Survey Director Dr. W. Raymond Johnson displayed his collection, my thoughts ran to the letters of Gustave Flaubert, who came to India on a French Epigraphic Survey in 1849 to make "squeezes" (copies) of tomb and temple carvings as a follow-up to Napoleon's "La Description de l’Egypte."

However, Flaubert may have been more interested in the Egyptian demi-monde than Egyptology, from his published accounts, which makes Dr. Johnson's work even more striking.

Most impressive, in my opinion, is Chicago House's support for USAID's water-lowering project in partnership with the Ministry of State for Antiquities, which protected Karnak and Luxor temples, Medinet Habu, the Colossi of Memnon, Amenthotep III, Ramesseum, Seti I, and the Temple of Edfu from destruction, in addition to work at the Pyramids Plateau.

Thus Chicago House works to preserve the originals as well as their copies. It is literally a treasure house on the banks of the Nile, and according to Dr. Johnson operates on a modest budget of some $900,000 annually.

Unfortunately, it doesn't appear to have an endowment any longer. During our visit, Dr. Johnson made a fund-raising pitch, and told us he is dependent upon grants and donations, which are not easy to come by.

One hopes perhaps video game developers who use historical settings for their ultra-violent productions might be interested in supporting such a fabulous collection.

Amazingly, despite a research focus, Chicago House is open to tourists by appointment, and Dr. Johnson is sometimes available to lead tours of the facility and its collection. 

So, if you ever happen to find yourself in Luxor, Egypt, don't miss an opportunity to visit a genuine American monument amidst the Egyptian ruins.

For the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute's "Chicago House" recalls a lost world of American scholarship and elite patronage that ties the our country to the Land of the Pharaohs.

It's definitely worth a detour. 

Laurence Jarvik

Posted on November 27, 2018 11:53

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