From the Nile to the Euphrates: Creating the Harvard Semitic Museum

The Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East is in the process of renewal and revitalization. As we move forward, it first seems right to return to our roots and examine where we came from. This exhibition celebrates the vision of Professor David Gordon Lyon (1852–1935), the museum’s founder and first director. Lyon assembled a rich collection of antiquities from what we now call the Middle East, including the Holy Land. (The term “Semitic” refers to the related languages and cultures of the Ancient Near East: Israelites, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Arameans, Babylonians, Arabs, and many others.) 

 In 1889 Lyon established the museum’s first galleries, and the present building was completed in 1903. A charismatic and tireless teacher, curator, and fundraiser, he traveled the world, developing a wide circle of colleagues and supporters to help him carry out his plans. To Lyon, this museum was not merely a building to display artifacts, but rather a busy institution devoted to teaching, research, and publication of ancient Near Eastern history, languages, and cultures. For more than a century, Lyon’s legacy has inspired students, scholars, and the public to explore Semitic contributions to world civilization. Today the Museum has grown through its acquisitions and sponsored archaeological excavations to house more than 40,000 Near Eastern artifacts.

Supplemental Content

The following content is meant to supplement the gallery experience of From the Nile to the Euphrates: Creating the Harvard Semitic Museum

This selection of images from Lyon’s extensive collection of photographs and glass slides (many more are shown in the exhibit). Lyon used slides to illustrate his lectures, projecting them with a “magic lantern.” He purchased commercial slide sets until 1902, when he learned photography and began documenting Museum objects and his Middle Eastern journeys.

Interviews with Museum Director Peter Der Manuelian

Video still of Museum Director Peter Manuelian, linking to video.

Learn More

Harvard Excavations at Samaria & The Giza Archives

Lyon was the driving force behind some of Harvard’s first archaeological explorations, at Samaria in Palestine. His star student, George A. Reisner, directed these digs. These links provides access to the original field documents from these archaeological projects.

David Gordon Lyon's Diaries

For most of his life, David Gordon Lyon carried a small pocket notebook, which he used to document his daily experiences: meetings, travel, current events, and the weather. He later expanded his notes in more formal diaries and daybooks dedicated to specific subjects. Scans of his personal archive spanning sixty-five years, is now published online. More documents from the Museum’s archives— letters, photographs, and bills of sale—appear throughout this exhibition. They provide personal and professional insights into Lyon’s passionate dedication to his Museum and its mission.

Giza 3D (PC Only)

A collaboration between the Giza Project at Harvard and Dassault Systemes has digitally reconstructed the archaeological discoveries of the Giza Plateau.