Why "Semitic"?

The name “Semitic Museum” is a source of some confusion.  For recent cultural and historical reasons having little to do with the Museum’s original or ongoing mission, the name “Semitic Museum” is often understood to be synonymous with “Jewish Museum.”  This is not the case and never has been. 

In 1889 Professor David Gordon Lyon created the Semitic Collection (as it was first known) as a teaching tool--a set of archaeological and ethnographic realia—intended to complement the teaching of Semitic languages at Harvard.  In Lyon’s conception, the term “Semitic” was in a strict sense a philological one, distinguishing a family of languages characterized by a system of triliteral roots.  By extension, it encompassed the ancient histories and cultures of peoples who spoke and wrote in Semitic languages: Israelites, Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, Phoenicians, Arameans, Akkadians, Babylonians, Arabs. (Ugaritic was not discovered or deciphered until the 1920s). That Lyon’s principal financial supporter, Jacob Schiff, was himself Jewish, was an important though not central factor in the Museum’s original identity and mission.

In 1903 when a building was built to house the Semitic Collection, again at Lyon’s instigation and with Schiff’s financial support, it naturally became known as the “Semitic Museum.” In fact the name was actually carved in stone over the front door. (It’s still there.)  The building also housed the “Semitic Library,” the collection of texts, translations, commentaries and scholarly works concerned with the languages taught in the Semitic Department and whose material culture was exhibited in the Museum galleries.

Nowadays, the Semitic Library has long ago been absorbed into the Harvard central library system, although one still finds in Widener Library older volumes bearing the stamp “Semitic Library.”  The Semitic Department has evolved into Harvard’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.  NELC still teaches Semitic languages of the ancient Near East (Classical Hebrew, Aramaic, Akkadian, Classical Arabic, Egyptian, and now Ugaritic), but also non-Semitic Near Eastern languages (Persian, Turkish, Sumerian, Iranian, Armenian), as well as other languages such as Ethiopic, Swahili, Yiddish. 

Written by Joseph A. Greene