The Breasted Letters, 1919-1920
Peter A. Piccione

© 2005. All rights reserved


The goal of this project to edit and prepare for publication a collection of important correspondences of Dr. James Henry Breasted (1865-1935), late Director of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago . These letters document the archaeological and political findings of the Oriental Institute Archaeological Reconnaissance of the Middle East (also known as "The American Scientific Mission"), which Dr. Breasted directed in 1919-1920.


Immediately after World War One, Prof. Breasted led a team of five scholars of the ancient Near East on a ten-month epic journey through the war-torn and fractious Middle East to survey archaeological sites for future research, as well as to suss the political situations in Egypt and Western Asia. In this regard, he wanted to establish relations with colonial administrators and Arab rulers to seek their permission for field work and to ascertain the attitudes of their governments and prevailing political conditions. He also wished to purchase legitimate antiquities for several museums in the United States, including the newly reorganized Oriental Institute Museum. This journey lasted from August 1919 through June 1920.

The letters are currently located in three academic collections in the Midwest and West of the U.S. They were written by Dr. Breasted to his family, benefactors, and colleagues at various stages of his journey. Among the recipients were Prof. Harry Pratt Judson, President of the University of Chicago, and Dr. George Ellery Hale, the famous astronomer and Breasted's friend. In the letters he recorded--in great detail--the activities and findings of the expedition, the dramatic political events occurring around him, and the many famous public figures with whom he met and consulted (King Feisal of Syria, Field Marshall Sir Edmund Allenby, Sir George Lloyd of India, General Sir Percy Hambro, Gertrude Bell, the British and French High Commissioners, Prime Minister Lloyd George, Foreign Secretaries Balfour and Curzon, President Woodrow Wilson, and many others). The letters also contain extracts and copies of correspondences sent to him and political remarks made to him by these famous individuals.


Breasted's correspondences reveal his informed opinions about these historic individuals, the contents of their discussions, and all that he witnessed, including: the entrenchment of European colonialism and the Anglo-French partition of Western Asia, the rise of Arab nationalism, Middle Eastern wars, the Balfour Declaration, and the Palestine question. His letters recount, among other things: developments in Egyptology and Assyriology, the state of antiquities and archaeological sites, social and political conditions--place by place throughout the Arab countries, details of uprisings, and the machinations of Europeans and Arabs. They also include: opinions expressed by Gen. Allenby (e.g., his exasperation with policy-makers in London), Feisal's predictions of war with a French mandate in Syria, Arab warnings of a possible Bolshevik alliance, and messages and appeals from the Arab sheikhs to European and American leaders. Ironically, at this time, the Arabs felt great warmth and friendship toward the United States, which was championing political self-determination and independence for the Arabs against British and French land-grabbing. Breasted makes clear that this Arab affection for Americans was the only factor that kept the expedition alive on the several occasions that it fell into hostile situations. Had they been British or French, he was told more than once, they'd have been killed. Clearly, the adventurous aspects of Breasted's picaresque--and often colorful--accounts could rival an Indiana Jones film.

Previously, a sampling of Breasted's letters from the American Scientific Mission were published by Charles Breasted, the author's son, when he included them in his biography of his father entitled, Pioneer to the Past (Scribner's, 1943). However, Charles published only a selection from the letters that he happened to posess, and he edited them heavily, often deleting sections, rewording them, and sometimes combining letters in an attempt--apparently in his mind--to smooth out the narrative and to protect his father's reputation and to ensure the privacy of his family. On the other hand, the current project to edit and publish these letters contains many more documents than those that were in Charles' possession, and it does not alter their content. Rather, the letters will be published completely in an unexpurgated edition. In this manner, they will also reveal the personal side of James H. Breasted, his feelings about family, country, and religion, and his humble origins, as well as reveal the full spectrum of his professional opinions on a variety of interesting and relevant issues.

Breasted's letters of 1919-1920--heretofore unpublished in their entirety--are important for understanding Western moves to penetrate the Middle East after World War One. They reveal how the British squandered Arab good will and turned friendship to hostility; how the French owned little Arab good will and did not care, all leading to the anti-western nationalist revolutions of the 1950's. The letters also throw light on the subsequent history of the region from 1920 to 2005, especially in the aftermath of Israeli independence and incessant warfare, including: the Arab-Israeli wars, the intifadas, the 1991 Gulf War, Palestinian-Israeli land issues, the war in Iraq and its repercussions as late as 2005.

The letters are also significant for revealing the state of ancient Near Eastern Studies and Egyptology after World War One, the nature of the international antiquities trade, and the interpersonal relations among scholars and archaeologists and their social and professional milieux. Thus, modern Middle Eastern history and politics and ancient Near Eastern Studies and historiography all come together in this project to edit and publish the field correspondences of James Henry Breasted.

Go to an Database-index of the Breasted Letters, 1919-1920.

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rev. 08/05