Written in Stone

Last Saturday morning, 20 adults, many patrons of the Glessner House, converged in the lobby of Hyde Park’s Oriental Institute.  Emily Teeter, a curator for the museum who specializes in Egyptology, stood front and center to guide the group through an architectural history of the museum.

The tour began at the beginning: at the museum’s entrance. Above the main door, an engraved image of the East meeting the West is enshrouded in ivy. Front and center, a man of modern industry exchanges a plaque stating, “we have seen your value” with a man in a headdress and skirt–evocative of an almost stereotypical classical Egyptian figure. On the left of the Egyptian sits a lion, rulers of the East and monuments such as the sphinx. Etched in a rough symmetry to the right is a bison, important individuals of the West, and monuments such as Nebraska’s state capitol. Beneath, the heavy doors are decorated with fanciful shapes and motifs from Assyrian palaces protruding from the red-brown wood.

Moving inside the galleries, the ceilings are covered in colorful geometric patterns, almost as if in full bloom. The intricate designs had been taken from the vaulted tombs of the ancient world. Lights shaped in the form of pottery hung down from these ornate rafters. Down a hallway, a ceiling was painted shades of blue with yellow stars, almost like starfish. This type of chamber was often found in Egyptian tombs.

At the end of the first gallery sits the massive human-headed winged bull from Sargon of Assyria’s palace. This five-legged creature stares out on the room, head craned over its shoulder, in full gypsum glory. As impressive as the guardian of entryways is, the story behind it might be even more so–it had to be moved into the space before the museum was completed, with the walls being constructed around it.  The struggle to bring it from the Middle East to Chicago, in its colossal 10-ton pieces, began even earlier. Due to small railway tunnels along the eastern rails, the ancient guardian had to be brought round from the west coast.

The tour gained access to areas off-limits to the public as well, which proved some of the best gems of the trip.  A level below the main museum floor, in the center of the building, the architect had hid a peaceful courtyard. The blue sky above shined down on the four crab apple trees that encircled the greenery. For a moment we were given a quiet reprieve from the ancient, entering into a world more timeless. One person, staring in awe, could only utter, “I wish it went on and on.”