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Volume 20, Number 3May/June 1969

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A Temple For The Metropolitan

Written by William Tracy
Photographs courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Additional photographs by Henry G. Fischer

From the dark holds of the S.S. Concordia Star last August the ship's cranes plucked a cargo that had taken nearly ten years to get to New-York: 661 wooden crates containing the carefully packed stones of Egypt's exquisite Temple of Dendur.

At that stage, of course, the huge stones—some weighing six and a half tons—didn't look like much of a temple. Or even later, when they were stored in an inflated plastic "bubble" outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In fact, according to Dr. Henry G. Fischer, the museum's curator of Egyptian art, reconstruction will not be completed until 1972. Then, however, the public will finally see the prize for which the now-famous "Dendur Derby" was run.

The "derby", as the press tagged the long, earnest competition among museums and cities to get possession of the temple, did not really begin until 1965, when Egypt formally offered the temple to the United States as a gesture of thanks for the $I6 million American contribution to the rescue of the Abu Simbel monuments. But the Metropolitan had been off and running long before that-ever since 1959, when Dr. Fischer saw and recommended Dendur during a trip to Egypt to scout for monuments the museum might wish to save from the waters of the Aswan High Dam. Later, through Dr, Fischer, the Metropolitan had also pressed successfully for Dendur at a meeting of experts to discuss which monument the United States should accept from Egypt.

On the matter of a site, however, the Metropolitan was less successful.

As a curator, Dr. Fischer saw the temple as a museum exhibit since it was small enough to be placed inside a museum. (Because it was only 80 feet long and a maximum of 26½ feet high, one correspondent tagged it a "mini- temple.") President Kennedy's assistant, Richard Goodwin, on the other hand, was inclined to picture the temple as it might look on the banks of the Potomac. Thus even before the temple was offered, the lines were drawn for a debate on what eventually narrowed down to this question: Should the temple be placed outside in Washington or inside in New York?

Despite its early interest the Metropolitan made no official move until 1965 when the White House decreed that institutions or cities interested in the temple would have to pay all expenses. Then museum officials met and announced that the Metropolitan would build an addition to the north wing, open an entrance from the existing exhibition of Egyptian antiquities, and pay for the dismantling of the temple, (already effected by Egyptian architects) plus all costs of transporting the stones from the Nile to the Hudson.

Another year elapsed, however, and nothing happened. Then President Johnson picked a five-man committee of experts to decide who could best rebuild it, display it, preserve it and, of course, afford, what for the Metropolitan eventually came to about $2 million. It was a high sum but as Dr. Fischer said: "You can't set a value on temples these days; they don't come on the market,"

At the Metropolitan, meanwhile, New York Park Commissioner Thomas Moving had been named director of the museum. He was not scheduled to assume his duties for some time, but to help get Dendur he pitched in early. One of his contributions was a scheme to transform the museum's projected gallery into a huge outdoor glass display case—an idea that softened resistance to the idea of relocating the temple indoors and gave the Metropolitan a definite edge over such contenders as the Smithsonian Institution of Washington, the city of Memphis, Tenn., and others.

Actually all the Metropolitan's arguments were impressive: the size and quality of the museum's existing Egyptian collection, the presence of the Egyptological library and the Institute of Fine Arts and the enormous number of visitors certain to see the temple (more than five million annually). But it was the matter of conservation that finally outweighed Washington's natural claim to any gift to the nation. The Smithsonian Institution, by then the major contender, was unable to prove that the temple's fragile sandstone could safely be exposed to the climate of Washington—or to vandalism.. On April 27, 1967, President Johnson decided in favor of the Metropolitan, and in the fall Dr. Fischer went to Egypt to arrange to transport Dendur to the United States,

Although by then the third Arab-Israeli war had broken out and diplomatic relations had collapsed, Dr. .Fischer had no difficulties with the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. It cooperated fully in employing the international group of companies which had moved the Abu Simbel monuments. And although it was an exacting job—each block had had to be absolutely immovable and provided with shock absorbers—they were ready for shipment within a year. At last on July 21, 1968 the S.S. Concordia Star carried the precious stones westward, as a New York Times correspondent wrote enthusiastically, "though the pillars of Hercules ... to a land unimagined by the men who hewed them."

William Tracy is the Assistant Editor of Aramco World Magazine.

At Dendoor (sic), when the sun is setting and a delicious gloom is stealing up the valley, we visit a tiny Temple on the western bank. It stands out above the river surrounded by a wall of enclosure, and consists of a single pylon, a portico, two little chambers and a sanctuary. The whole thing, is like an exquisite toy, so covered with sculpture, so smooth, so admirably built. Seeing them half by sunset, half by dusk, it matters not that these delicately-wrought bas-reliefs are of the Decadence school.

— A. Edwards

This article appeared on pages 32-33 of the May/June 1969 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1969 images.