Studying Persian at Oxford

Portrait of a Persian King.

Portrait of a Persian King.

Persian is one of the major languages of the contemporary Middle East. It is spoken throughout Iran and over large areas of Afghanistan; and one of its branches, Tajik, is widely current in Central Asia. In the early modern period, it was the lingua franca for the educated élite in the Indian sub-continent and is still taught in Muslim communities there. Its literature contains some of the finest epic and lyric poetry and its general intellectual and artistic contribution to Islamic culture is unmatched. Ever since the ninth century when Persian (or Farsi) evolved, there has been little discrepancy between the spoken and written languages. In structure it is an Indo-European language (although written in the Arabic script), and therefore relatively easy to learn. Indeed, even in the space of an undergraduate course, it is possible to attain a good command of classical and modern Persian and to express oneself clearly and accurately in the language. There are none of the difficulties of a multiplicity of dialects or of a great chasm between classical and modern. For these reasons it is a sensible choice of subject for an undergraduate to make, since a thorough grounding can quickly be established from which the more challenging aspects of a different literature and culture can be explored.

Undergraduates studying for a B.A. honours degree in Oriental Studies may choose to focus entirely on the Persian language and related subjects in literature, history, art and culture or may combine Persian with an additional language. In addition to these courses, Persian may also be studied as an additional language as part of other degrees within the Faculty and wider University.

Tachar (Dariush Palace), Persepolis, Marvdasht, Fars, Iran.

Tachar (Dariush Palace), Persepolis, Marvdasht, Fars, Iran.

Undergraduates are encouraged to spend some months in Iran where they may attend courses at Tehran University or at provincial centres. This will provide an exciting opportunity to study Iranian society and Persian as a living language at first hand. The 'year abroad' is recognized as often being a most formative and important part of an undergraduate's career and every effort is made to ensure that it is properly structured and monitored. For more information on the Year Abroad, please refer to this webpage.

Almost all those who study Persian use their knowledge of this important language in their subsequent careers. Some become journalists, or work in broadcasting. There is always a demand from the diplomatic service, oil companies, other multinationals, banking and commerce for those with a specialist knowledge of the area. A high proportion take higher degrees and then move into one of the above careers, the academic world, museum or library work, or international organizations.


For a general survey of the language H.W. Bailey's article 'The Persian Language' in the Legacy of Persia, ed. A.J. Arberry (Oxford 1963) is of value. The best introduction to classical literature is still E.G. Browne, A Literary History of Persia (Cambridge 1902-24) 4 vols.; it is discursive, idiosyncratic, but written with great panache and affection. Volumes 2 and 3 cover the period of great medieval poetry, and the translations there can be supplemented by Gertrude Bell, Poems from the Divan of Hafiz (London 1897). A more selective treatment of medieval poetry is J.S. Meisami, Medieval Persian Court Poetry (Princeton, 1987); also of interest are Chapters 4-6 and 12-15 of J.T.P. de Bruijn, Of Piety and Poetry: The Interaction of Religion and Literature in the Life and Works of Hakim Sana'i of Ghaznah (Leiden 1983). (A more comprehensive Bibliography is available from the Oriental Institute).

A useful guide to more recent literature is H. Kamshad, Modern Persian Prose Literature (Cambridge 1966); Critical Perspectives on Modern Persian Literature, ed. by Thomas M. Ricks (Washington, D.C., 1984) is an anthology of essays on both general and specific aspects of modern literature. The Literary Review, vol. 18, Autumn 1974, contains a selection of translations of short stories and poetry. A good, short history is A. Bausani, The Persians (London, 1971), written with more emphasis on social and economic aspects than is usual in general surveys.

N. Keddie, Roots of Revolution (Yale 1981) provides a good introduction to the recent revolution, and Roy Mottahedeh, The Mantle of the Prophet (London 1986) is an excellent, stimulating study of different aspects of Persian culture (both classical and modern) as explored through the life and experience of one man. E.G. Browne's A Year amongst the Persians (Cambridge 1927) is a classic of travel literature, both entertaining, and instructive, and an amusing, highly readable modern travelogue is T. O'Donnell's The Gardens of the Brave in War (Chicago 1980). Dick Davis's Epic and Sedition (Fayetteville 1992) provides a valuable and very readable introduction to the great Persian national epic, the Shahnama; Davis's translations of the Legend of Siyavash, a section of the former work, and Attar's mystical allegory The Conference of the Birds (both in Penguin editions) are also recommended and also his translation of Iraj Pizishkzad's novel, My Uncle Napoleon (1996).

For further information please see the Course Handbook, available here as a downloadable pdf. The Course Handbook is a comprehensive introduction to all aspects of the study of Islamic subjects at undergraduate level: