IMAGE:  December 2002 GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
Volume 95, Issue 2
Three Months among the Pyramids  
  Written by
David Rockefeller, PhD'40
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GRAPHIC:  Three Months among the PyramidsWhen 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.

IMAGE:  From an Oriental Institute tour at Megiddo in 1929: David Rockefeller is third from the left; his father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., and his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, stand beside him. James Henry Breasted, founder of the Oriental Institute, is third from the right.
From an Oriental Institute tour at Megiddo in 1929: David Rockefeller is third from the left; his father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., and his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, are fourth and fifth from the right. James Henry Breasted, founder of the Oriental Institute, is third from the right.

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 Harbor, came along as well.

In Cairo 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.

From Cairo 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.

After Luxor 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 in 1929.

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.

IMAGE:  David Rockefeller returned to Chicago's International House on November 7 for a discussion of Memoirs with U of C President Randel. Several hundred people attended the program and the book-signing reception that followed.
Photograph by Dan Dry
David Rockefeller returned to Chicago’s International House on November 7 for a discussion of Memoirs with U of C President Randel. Several hundred people attended the program and the book-signing reception that followed.

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 Mandatory State, agreed with the proposal wholeheartedly. The Palestine Archaeological Museum, 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.



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