May 18, 2015

Middle East meets Midwest in new Oriental Institute mini exhibit

Most Chicago historians would agree the World’s Columbian Exposition, held in 1893 in Jackson Park and on the Midway Plaisance, was a watershed moment in the city’s history. Held to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World, the World’s Fair also symbolized Chicago’s recovery from the devastation of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. The fascination with Oriental exoticism that prevailed in the late 19th century was reflected in the World’s Fair, which a new mini exhibit at the Oriental Institute entitled Cairo in Chicago seeks to bring to life.

Presented in conjunction with the exhibit A Cosmopolitan City: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Old Cairo, Cairo in Chicago is a collection of archival material chronicling the Fair’s famous “Street in Cairo,” a recreation of an Egyptian urban landscape built on the Midway Plaisance. Adjacent to the street was a replica of a temple of Luxor and two obelisks, one of which had inscribed upon it the name of then-President Grover Cleveland in hieroglyphics.

One of the highlights of this mini exhibit is the Fair’s guidebook to Cairo Street, which depicts a theatre with dancing girls, an image embodying the sexualized ideal of the Oriental enigma. A book in the exhibit, entitled The Dream City, contains photographs documenting people working at Cairo Street, most of whom were from Egypt and Sudan. In documenting the interface of Cairo and Chicago, Cairo in Chicago portrays a one-way cultural exchange between the Orient and the Occident, in which the ideals of American society are forcefully inscribed upon the Egyptian landscape.