The Oriental Institute

Understanding our past—our history, our identity, and what it means to be human—is essential to understanding our present and our future. The roots of Western civilization lie in what Oriental Institute founder James Henry Breasted called “The Fertile Crescent”: the arc of ancient civilization encompassing Egypt, ancient Israel, Anatolia, Assyria, Mesopotamia, and Persia. Virtually every aspect of civilization, from the organization of cities to mathematics and writing, was invented here.

As the oldest research institute at the University of Chicago, the Oriental Institute promotes understanding of the ancient Middle East by playing a central role in the intellectual life of the University of Chicago and in our understanding of the world. Its research enables it to serve as a convener and a catalyst for new thinking about the origins of civilization in the ancient Middle East.

The OI is one of the world’s leading centers for the study of the ancient civilizations of the Middle East. Its innovative research has made fundamental discoveries about the origins of civilization, and its museum houses a collection of ancient Middle Eastern art, texts, and artifacts—the majority of which were excavated on Oriental Institute archaeological expeditions—rivaling those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, and the Louvre. Welcoming more than 60,000 visitors to its galleries each year, the OI is the most visited cultural destination on the University of Chicago campus. OI faculty collaborate with colleagues in nine other University disciplines, ranging from geophysical sciences to divinity, and 760 University students are members.

Along with its campus-based activities, the OI is a respected leader and a trusted partner in archaeological excavation and cultural heritage preservation across the Middle East:

  • Through a partnership with the National Museum of Afghanistan and the US Department of State, the Oriental Institute is conducting the first-ever inventory of the holdings of the National Museum in Kabul and is developing an electronic database of the museum’s holdings.
  • In Egypt, OI researchers are partnering with Egyptian scholars to preserve and restore the monuments in Luxor, while pioneering a multimillion-dollar program with USAID to protect this World Heritage site by lowering the surrounding water table.
  • Using researchers’ expertise in Mesopotamian archaeology, the OI developed an online database of objects looted from the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad to help international law enforcement officials recover the artifacts. With the assistance of the National Endowment for the Humanities, it has also brought staff from the national museums of Afghanistan and Iraq to Chicago for six-month conservation training courses.
  • Each year, OI archaeologists conduct between five and eight excavations across the Middle East in Egypt, Turkey, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and Iraq. This work is reshaping our understanding of key questions ranging from the origins of cities to the transition from Christianity to Islam in the Middle East.
  • The OI has completed two significant dictionary projects: the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is the single most important tool for the study of ancient Mesopotamia, while the Chicago Demotic Dictionary allows scholars to interpret a variety of ancient Egyptian articles ranging from business and legal documents to scientific, religious, and magical texts.

Support for the Oriental Institute helps to maintain this vital resource for Chicago and the world. As a partner in the Oriental Institute’s mission of discovery, you will help the Oriental Institute heighten understanding of the ancient Middle East so that its people and cultures will continue to educate, fascinate, and inspire people around the world.

The University of Chicago Campaign: Inquiry and Impact will raise $20 million to support initiatives through the Oriental Institute.