An Eccentric Archaeologist Who Drew a Line in the Sand

The excavation of the Samarra Palace of the Caliph.

The excavation of the Samarra Palace of the Caliph. Courtesy of Sackler Gallery.

A German Jewish Iranologist, who lost his University of Berlin post in 1935 after officially declaring that his grandparents were Jewish, is one of several focuses of an exhibit about Asian travel at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. “The Traveler’s Eye: Scenes of Asia” is on view through May 31.

Ernst Herzfeld is not a household name but is renowned for his 1911-13 excavations in Samarra, an Islamic pilgrimage destination in Iraq designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007, and his 1931-34 work in Persepolis, where he unearthed the ruins of Darius the Great’s palace, which Alexander the Great destroyed.

Although a British Museum biography of Herzfeld notes that the archaeologist was baptized and “appears to have been a Protestant,” Herzfeld’s declaration about his grandparents is on file at Berlin’s state archives. And Herzfeld brought his extensive papers with him when he fled the Nazis, which is how the trove — 36 sketchbooks, 131 notebooks, 1,500 drawings, 400 “squeezes” (three-dimensional impressions of inscriptions), and 3,000 negatives — arrived at the Smithsonian, by way of Princeton University.

Read more of my article “An Eccentric Archaeologist Who Drew a Line in the Sand” in the Jewish Daily Forward.

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