On Jan. 13, 1910, readers of major newspapers across the United States awoke to an unusual headline; corporate tycoon James Pierpont Morgan had reportedly bequeathed Yale with a donation of $100,000—an enormous sum for its day.
Even more unusual, however, was the purpose for which Morgan had marked the funds: the donation was to be used exclusively for a professorship of Assyriology and Babylonian literature. At the time, not a single literary scholar at Yale was known as a specialist in these exotic subjects.
Morgan was born close to the University, in the nearby Hartford vicinity. Renowned today for his robber-baron career in commerce, Morgan grew up in the late 1830s, his childhood marked by repeated bouts of illness.Though he did not matriculate at Yale, after attending various schools in Connecticut and Boston, Morgan studied at the University of Gottingen in Germany.
The university culture of nineteenth-century Germany was an ideal and inspiring environment in which the aspiring collector could cultivate a passion for the civilizations of the ancient Middle East. Indeed, it was this locale that produced such ardent classicists as Heinrich Schliemann, the archaeologist-adventurer who made his name tramping through Turkey in hot pursuit of the city of ancient Troy.
In the six months that Morgan studied in Germany, he realized and further pursued what would soon become his life-long love—the art and antiquities of the Middle East. And after a lifetime of highly-lucrative capitalist schemes, which enabled Morgan to continually add treasures to his collection, the baron was able to donate generously from his vast collections to many libraries and museums, most notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
At Yale, Morgan's contributions had a significant impact on the University's capacity to develop a significant program of study for Middle East scholars. In addition to Morgan's 1910 donation, which established the professorship of Assyriology at Yale, he also contributed to the founding of the Yale Babylonian Collection with a comparable gift the previous year. This trove of artifacts remains the largest collection of ancient Mesopotamian texts in the United States. The collection's documents are spectacular in range—they span from an early exploration of the square root of two to the rich imagery of Babylonian love.
Today, the focus of Yale's investigations and relationship with the Middle East has shifted. Oil wells now take precedence over cuneiform tablets as the region's greatest riches. Present conflicts absorb as much scholarly attention as the plentiful artifacts of the final three millennia B.C.
Nevertheless, Yale's present pathways of scholarship on issues of the modern Middle Eastern boast valiant beginnings, forged by aficionados of the region from years past and the exploits of robber-baron JP Morgan.