Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago

The University of Chicago was founded in 1890.  The oil magnate, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., played a large financial role in its creation.  Two years later, the university began a Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.  Today, this department ranks among the top Ancient Near Eastern programs in the United States, primarily focusing on the ancient civilizations of Anatolia, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Persia.

In 1919, James Henry Breasted, an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago, founded the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.  Receiving funding from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (the son of the oil magnate), the goal of the Oriental Institute was and still is to be a place where scholars may conduct further research on the Ancient Near East.

In 1931, the University of Chicago completed construction on a building specifically designed to house the Oriental Institute.  This building contains a museum and an archive/library.  The library does not circulate its materials, meaning that you cannot take any of its books home.  Unfortunately, I have not seen the Oriental Institute’s library, because it is only open to faculty, staff, students, and members.

Assyrian Reliefs taken from Sargon II’s Palace at Dur Sharrukin

The museum portion of the Oriental Institute houses artifacts from archaeological digs that the University of Chicago conducted from the 1920s through 1940s.  These include ancient Assyrian, Egyptian, Israelite, Nubian, Persian, and Syro-Anatolian artifacts.  Tours of the museum are available, either by docents or by downloading a free app.  Visitors to the museum may also watch short films at the museum related to the Ancient Near East.  Additionally, prior to COVID-19, the Oriental Institute frequently hosted events and lectures.

I once visited the Oriental Institute with a librarian group.  During our time there, we went on a tour of the conservation lab, which is on the upper floor of the building.  It was amazing to see where staff maintain and preserve the museum’s priceless artifacts.

After the Oriental Institute underwent renovations in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it renamed its ancient Assyrian wings after two modern Assyrian donors to the museum.  The Dr. Norman Solhkhah Family Assyrian Empire Gallery is named after an Assyrian philanthropist originally from Iran, Dr. Norman Solhkhah.  This section of the museum contains reliefs from Dur Sharrukin, the palace of the Assyrian King Sargon II.  It also contains the Sennacherib Prism, where the Assyrian King Sennacherib describes his campaigns against Israel and Judah.  The Judean perspective of the campaign can be found in the Bible in 2 Kings 18-19.

The Sennacherib Prism at the Oriental Institute

The Yelda Khorsabad Court Gallery is named after Dr. Sharukin Rami Yelda, an Assyrian orthopedic surgeon originally from Iran.  This section of the museum contains a 16-foot winged-bull, or lamassu, that the University of Chicago discovered in 1929.  Originally discovered in over a dozen pieces, the Oriental Institute pieced the lamassu back together after it arrived in Chicago from Dur Sharrukin in Khorsabad, Iraq.

This is an Assyrian lamassu, or winged-bull, from Dur Sharrukin in Iraq. ISIS damaged the archaeological site where it came from in 2015.
If you look carefully at the lamassu, you can find Cuneiform text.

Although the Oriental Institute’s website is not the easiest to search, it provides free access to a valuable number of the University of Chicago’s publications.  These include the Assyrian Dictionary, an Akkadian dictionary that took 91 years to make; the Demotic Dictionary, an ancient Egyptian language dictionary; books about important excavations, and more.  A guide to the publications available online can be found here: https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/catalog-publications

In case you are interested, the University of Chicago also has one of the best libraries I have ever seen.  Here is my post about it: https://arkeh.travel.blog/2020/01/11/university-of-chicago-regenstein-mansueto-libraries/

Sources and Further Reading
About. Oriental Institute. https://oi.uchicago.edu/about (accessed November 28, 2020).

“Catalog of Publications.” Oriental Institute. https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/catalog-publications (accessed November 28, 2020).

“Dr. Norman Solhkhah.” Atour. April 20, 2020. https://www.atour.com/people/20100420b.html (accessed November 28, 2020).

“The Dr. Norman Solhkhah Family Assyrian Empire Gallery.”  Oriental Institute. https://oi.uchicago.edu/museum-exhibits/assyrian-empire-gallery (accessed November 28, 2020).

“Dr. Sharukin Yelda.” U. S. News and World Report Heallth News. https://health.usnews.com/doctors/sharukin-yelda-44317 (accessed November 28, 2020).

“Emeritus Physician’s Estate Giving Honors Family Legacy.” Swedish Hospital Foundation. March 1, 2015. https://swedishhospitalfoundation.org/emeritus-physicians-estate-giving-honors-family-legacy/ (accessed November 28, 2020).

“Iranian Immigrants Give Back to Chicago Hospital.” The Iranian. April 9, 2007. https://iranian.com/PhotoDay/2007/April/yelda.html?site=archive&__cf_chl_jschl_tk__=c346fa52521a7721623c90f94c3db4c7e08b64f4-1606615762-0-AZMzQVKvmPoTqkyKISbIPcBriGg6xehbCB6kO5Xs4oEsUSMyyR3pEKmloZSQCdsQzgZmHyalbYjTTB7v9gjLNbyJSux1rYoIukmfVyEZQO-CYVAaH5LJsBEQWx2REFovxRnRFlWIbYEEnOkb0KAy2pQ8Qh4yRXX_bAJ2DZOPmIXTOA3gZC2CsgQ4F1_Ed2VXic9gdnQNvn_a28PYNZWlpfTq2k5wVg97PgtQmF7g0XbAOmKAu9oe8CNXjX6p_oc_87o2F_YldzO7Afr5011vAinDjsmyfmvlv_OeZiONydVOgJzrHelyq6-z5cU2Sbczwf3RiEVLc6MG4oJHopgoZRV-T9mCyvwefGbDF0E353Y6 (accessed November 28, 2020).

“Oriental Institute Museum.” Google Arts & Culture. https://artsandculture.google.com/partner/the-oriental-institute (accessed November 28, 2020).

Rome, Kristin. “Iconic Ancient Sites Ravaged in ISIS’s Last Stand in Iraq.” National Geographic. November 10, 2016. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/11/iraq-mosul-isis-nimrud-khorsabad-archaeology/ (accessed November 28, 2020).

Shoumanov, Vasili. Assyrian Yellow Pages 2020. Chicago: 2020.

“The Yelda Khorsabad Court Gallery.” Oriental Institute. https://oi.uchicago.edu/museum-exhibits/khorsabad-court-gallery (accessed November 28, 2020).

Ancient Near Eastern Motifs

Del el-Bahari in Luxor, Egypt has an extensive mortuary temple complex.  In Queen Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, some of the artwork was not exposed to the elements, so it is amazingly well-preserved and vivid in color.

In one section of the temple, you can see a winged sun disk, which is a common Ancient Egyptian motif. The sun disk often represented the Egyptian god Ra, later combined with Amun to become Amun-Ra.  Wings were often associated with the falcon god Horus, who also had a connection with the sun.

When I was at Deir el-Bahari, it was pointed out that this Egyptian iconography may be why the Bible used Ancient Near Eastern motifs that were familiar to people.  For instance, Malachi 4:1-2 (ESV) says:

”For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble.  The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.”

Although I have not found verification, I was told that in addition to connections with the sun, Horus also had a connection with healing and protection.  Other Biblical references about healing or protection under wings can be found in Ruth 2:12, Psalm 57:1, and Psalm 91:4.

Here is a faded depiction of a winged-disk at the entrance of the Edfu Temple of Horus, who was later associated with the Greek sun god Apollo. This Temple was built by the Hellenistic Ptolemies, who would have had a greater connection with the Greek deities than with the Egyptian ones.

As I was thinking about Ancient Egyptian wing motifs, I was reminded of other Ancient Near Eastern deities related to the sun that also have wings.  For instance, the god Utu or Shamash was a sun deity among several Ancient Near Eastern peoples such as the Sumerians.  Interestingly, the word for “sun” in Hebrew is shemesh, in Arabic is shems, and in Aramaic is shimsha, meaning that these Semitic languages probably took their word for “sun” from this sun deity or vice versa.

The Ancient Assyrians later used very similar winged-disk iconography for their sun deity Ashur, which is where the word “Assyria” derives from.  Later, the pre-Islamic Persians used this iconography for their Zoroastrian symbol Faravahar.  I now wonder if there is a connection between the use of these birds of prey to represent chief deities / the power of a king manifested as a god, to the future use of eagles by more modern nations.  For instance, Ancient Rome used the eagle as its military symbol, which later led many modern nations such as Germany and the United States to also adopt the eagle as a national symbol. Interestingly, the current Egyptian flag also has an eagle depicted on it.

One final note about Egyptian sun deities.  One Egyptian god, Khepri, represented the sun but was depicted as a dung beetle or scarab. This is because when a beetle rolls a round piece of dung, it looks like a god moving the sun across the sky.  The 2019 Lion King film has a great scene depicting a dung beetle doing this. 

This is a dung beetle at Bet She’an, Israel.

This is the dung beetle god, Khepri, deppicted on a statue at the Karnak Temple.



Sources and Further Reading

“Egyptian Symbols: Winged Sun.” Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. http://egyptian-gods.org/egyptian-symbols-winged-sun/ (accessed September 1, 2019).

Mark, Joshua J. “Ancient Egyptian Symbols.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. February 10, 2017. https://www.ancient.eu/article/1011/ancient-egyptian-symbols/ (accessed September 1, 2019).