A Scholar's Odyssey. By CYRUS H. GORDON. Society of Biblical Literature, Biblical Scholarship in North America, vol. 20. Atlanta: SOCIETY OF BIBLICAL LITERATURE, 2000. Pp. ix + 149. $24 (paper).
This small monograph is not only the odyssey of one man; it is in a sense the story of the twentieth-century search for the roots of our civilization. At least a major segment of the humanities has long been aware that the fundamental component of our approach to the world we live in, i.e., the circle of 360 degrees, began in ancient Mesopotamia. Cyrus H. Gordon was a leading figure in that search. But the twentieth century was also marred by horrible wars, the centerpiece of which was World War II (thankfully, World War III was narrowly avoided). And Cyrus Gordon also played his own role in that world struggle.
The career of Cyrus Gordon as an orientalist and as an archaeologist takes us through the main phases of twentieth-century Near Eastern scholarship, from the post-World War I days through pre-World War II explorations and discoveries. Then came the interlude of World War II when Gordon served in the U.S. Army and exercised his linguistic ability in the decipherment of enemy codes. The military also gave him an opportunity to serve in Iran and thus to complement his previous experience in Iraq and Palestine. His post-World War II years saw the real beginning of his career as an academician, with research and teaching posts at Johns Hopkins University, Smith College, Dropsie College, and then Brandeis University. After his retirement from the latter, he enjoyed another highly active period of teaching and research at New York University.
Although his birth date, 29 June 1908, is not mentioned in the book, Gordon does tell us that he received his Ph.D. in 1930, just before his twenty-second birthday. That was not only the first winter of the Great Depression but also the winter in which this reviewer was born. Gordon was fortunate during this depressed period to receive fellowships for study in the Near East, which gave him the opportunity to participate in Palestinian archaeology, mainly with W. F. Albright at Tell Beit Mirsim and Beth-zur. Later he also served as epigrapher at excavations in Iraq and met such luminaries of the profession as Leonard Woolley. As Gordon used to say, "Albright taught me the pots." This experience doubtless gave Gordon his enthusiasm for archaeology as a means to illuminate ancient culture, but I do not remember...