Months among the Pyramids
When John D. Rockefeller Jr. received
an invitation to visit the Oriental Institute’s “dig” in Luxor,
Egypt, his youngest
son begged to tag along. From
the book Memoirs by David Rockefeller. Copyright © 2002 by David
Rockefeller published by arrangement with Random House Trade Publishing,
a division of Random House, Inc.
Father was enthralled
by the discoveries of archaeologists who had uncovered so much
about the emergence of the great civilizations of antiquity. As a young
man he had taken a special interest in the work of the University
of Chicago’s Oriental Institute,
headed by the distinguished Egyptologist Dr. James Henry Breasted. For
a number of years Father supported Breasted’s work in Luxor
and at the Temple of Medinet
Habu across the Nile
just below the Valley of the Kings.
In late 1928, Dr. Breasted invited Mother
and Father to visit his “dig” in Egypt
and to review the work of the institute. Neither of my parents had ever
been to that part of the world, and after some discussion they readily
agreed to go. I was in the ninth grade at the time and quickly made
it obvious to my parents that I wanted to go with them. I had read about
the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb only a few years earlier, and
a trip to Egypt
seemed to me the most exciting of adventures. Father was concerned about
my missing so much school because of the length of the trip, which would
last for more than three months, but I finally persuaded him to let
me go on the grounds that I would learn so much from the experience.
He agreed on condition that a tutor went along to keep me up to date
on schoolwork. This was the best deal I could get, so I eagerly agreed.
We sailed from New York
on the S.S. Augustus
in early January 1929. At the last moment
Mary Todhunter Clark, known as Tod, who was a close friend of [my brother]
Nelson’s from summers in Seal
, came along as well.
we spent a week at the elegant old-world Semiramis Hotel, where a colorfully
dressed dragoman served as our interpreter and guide. We visited the
Sphinx, and I rode a camel out to Giza,
where I climbed the Great Pyramid. We saw whirling dervishes dance in
the Arab Quarter one evening and visited mosques and the ancient Arab
university of el
Azhar. Best of all for me were the bazaars,
where I spent as many hours as I could, fascinated by the women dressed
in black robes whose faces were always veiled, and by the exotic wares
sold by hundreds of small shopkeepers from their tiny stalls facing
onto narrow streets of the souk. The pungent smells of the spice market,
the sounds of hammering on copper pots and bowls that were being fashioned,
and the colorful displays of rugs and textiles caught my fancy, and
I quickly learned to bargain for everything, offering but a fraction
of the listed price for anything I was interested in. There were swarms
of flies everywhere, clinging to freshly dressed meat hanging from hooks
in the butchers’ stalls, and hordes of beggars, many of them children
with trachoma who had fluid running from their milky white eyes.
we headed up the Nile on a large dahabiyah
(a passenger boat) to see Dr. Breasted’s excavations at Luxor.
I still remember the picturesque feluccas sailing on the Nile,
the farmers patiently raising buckets of water from the river with shadoofs
(a counterbalanced sweep) to irrigate their fields, which for centuries
has fed millions of people in defiance of the desert. There were many
other important ancient sites on the way, and each evening after we
tied up along the riverbank, Dr. Breasted gave a slide lecture on the
monuments we would see the following day.
and Karnak we continued on to the Second Cataract
at Wadi Halfa, the first town in the Sudan.
On the way we passed the beautiful Temple
of Philae, now submerged
under Lake Nasser
following the construction of the High Dam at Aswan
in the 1960s. We also saw the magnificent Temple
of Ramses II at Abu
Simbel with its four colossal statues of a pharaoh carved
into the face of the cliff. Half a century later I visited Abu
Simbel again after the entire temple, including the great
statues, had been cut free and lifted hydraulically to the top of the
cliffs, to protect it from the rising waters of the Nile
behind the Aswan Dam. Reinstalled in this new setting in front of an
artificial cliff, it looked as imposing as when I had first seen it
I continued to pursue my interest in
beetle collecting and even managed to find a sacred scarab, a beetle
that lays its eggs in a ball of dung and then buries it in the sand.
The ancient Egyptians worshiped the sacred scarab, believing it to be
an intermediary between the living and the underworld of the dead. Tod
playfully teased me about my hobby, so I bought an inexpensive wedding
ring and gave it to her in the presence of my parents and others, claiming
that I represented Nelson in asking for her hand in marriage. Everyone
except Tod thought this was quite amusing, since we all knew she had
high hopes for just such an event. Indeed, soon after we returned from
the trip, Nelson did propose, and they were married the following year.
We also visited the Cairo Museum of
Antiquities and found it in appalling condition with mud-encrusted sarcophagi
and beautiful ornaments resting on bare shelves, poor lighting, and
inadequate identification. In 1925, at Dr. Breasted’s urging, Father
had offered $10 million to rebuild the museum in order to provide a
better setting for the world’s greatest collection of antiquities. Inexplicably,
the Egyptian government refused, and Father always suspected it was
the result of pressure from the British government, which was not anxious
to see an intrusion of American influence even in cultural affairs.
We drove on to Palestine
through the Nile delta and along the coast. We
toured the holy places in Jerusalem
and traveled down to Jericho,
where I took a swim in the salty Dead Sea, a
thousand feet below sea level. We then proceeded north to Beirut
through the Jordan Valley
and along the Sea of Galilee. The associations
of this area with the Bible and the ministry of Jesus Christ made this
a deeply meaningful part of the trip for Father and, I confess, for
me as well.
Although Father’s proposal to build
a new museum in Cairo foundered
on the rocks of international politics, he was much more successful
with a similar idea in Jerusalem.
Wandering the Via Dolorosa, visiting Bethlehem,
the Garden of Gethsemane,
the Dome of the Rock, and the Wailing Wall on the site of the Second
Temple convinced Father that
something needed to be done to preserve the antiquities of the Holy
Land after centuries of neglect by the Ottoman Turks. Again,
with Dr. Breasted’s encouragement, Father offered to build a museum
of archaeology to house these antiquities and provide the facilities
for scholars to study them. This time the British government, which
controlled the Palestinian
agreed with the proposal wholeheartedly. The Palestine
often referred to today as the Rockefeller
Museum, still exists in east
Jerusalem and houses, among
many other marvelous things, the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Looking back I realize the debt I owe
to my parents for my education. While the Lincoln
School did a creditable job
in providing me with a formal education, my parents did more. They brought
to our home some of the most interesting people of the time. On our
many trips and excursions they opened our eyes to nature, to people,
and to history in a way that expanded our interests and stimulated our
curiosity. They made us feel the excitement of the opportunities open
to us and recognize the role the family was playing in so many areas.
These experiences gave us an education that transcended formal learning.