The beginnings: individual languages and posts
Long before the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies existed, the languages and literatures of Asia, the Middle East and North Africa were taught in Oxford by individual professors and tutors, sometimes including native speakers of these languages, and often without permanent University posts. The first professorship in what would later become Asian and Middle Eastern Studies was the Regius Professorship of Hebrew, to which Thomas Harding was appointed in 1546. It was one of five Regius Professorships founded by Henry VIII: the Regius Professors of Divinity, Civil Law, Medicine, Hebrew, and Greek. It was followed almost one hundred years later by the Laudian Professorship of Arabic, founded in 1636 by William Laud (Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of the University, who also codified the university's statutes). The first postholder of the Laudian Chair was Edward Pococke, also a specialist in Syriac, who later took up the Regius Professorship of Hebrew. From 1724 to 1913, the University also had a Lord Almoner’s Professor of Arabic.
The first permanent post in Sanskrit was established in the 19th century with the creation of the Boden Professorship of Sanskrit, founded by Colonel Joseph Boden of the East India Company. The first postholder was Horace Hayman Wilson (appointed 1832), followed in 1860 by Sir Monier-Williams, who founded the Indian Institute. (His rival for the chair was another Oxford Indologist, Max Müller.) Various Indian languages were taught in the 19th century through Lecturerships and Teacherships, including Hindustani, Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, and Telugu.
The first Professor of Chinese was Rev. James Legge, appointed in 1869. “In or about the year 1875 the University accepted a proposal on the part of persons interested in promoting the study of Chinese to contribute to a sum which ultimately amounted to £3003, as the endowment of a Professorship of Chinese” (Oxford Historical Register, p.79). The first Professor of Assyriology was A.H. Sayce (1891). The University of Oxford Gazette notes the creation of teaching positions in other areas not represented by a Chair, for example Persian (from 1880, John Thompson Platts) and Burmese (1893, Richard F. St. A. St. John). The Gazette also reports new courses in Assyriology and Semitic Philology (1908), Syriac and Aramaic (1909), and Japanese (1909).
1901 marks the beginning of Egyptology at Oxford, with the appointment of Francis Llewellyn Griffith as Reader; he was made Professor of Egyptology in 1924 and was succeeded by Battiscombe George Gunn in 1934. The 1930s also saw the establishment of further posts in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies: the Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics (1936, Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan); and the Professorship of Semitic Philology (1938, Godfrey Rolles Driver).
Before the twentieth century no women held formal posts in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies in Oxford, but there were some notable scholars working in the city, such as Jessie Payne Smith (1856-1933, Syriac lexicographer and leader of the Oxford movement for women’s suffrage).
Taking shape: the establishment of the Faculty of Oriental Studies
Even though individual languages and subject areas had been taught much earlier, the concept of “Oriental Studies” as a coherent area of study was created in the 19th century. A “Board of Studies for the Honour School of Oriental Studies” was established in 1871 but abolished in 1894 when its work was transferred to the “Board of the Faculty of Oriental Languages”, which had been set up in 1883 within the Faculty of Arts. The Faculty of Arts had three Faculty Boards: Literae Humaniores, Oriental Languages and Modern History. In Michaelmas term 1913, Oriental Languages became a Faculty of its own; in Trinity term 1914 it was renamed “Faculty of Oriental Languages and Literature”, and in 1936 it became the “Faculty of Oriental Studies”.
The end of the colonial era and the Scarborough Report
The end of the colonial era meant a major shift in the landscape of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. Government support for the study of the languages of the former colonies dwindled after their move towards independence. “In 1959 G. F. Hudson pointed out in the Oxford Magazine that the end of British Rule had led to abolition of arrangements for teaching Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Tamil, though these were the languages of 400 million people in the Commonwealth.” (Oxford and Empire, p.291) Already towards the end of the war, however, a commission had been established to take stock and make recommendations for the teaching and study of Eastern languages. Their findings were made available in the so-called Scarborough Report, named after its Chairman, the Earl of Scarborough.
“The remit of the Commission of Enquiry into the Facilities for Oriental, Slavonic, East European and African Studies [Scarborough Commission] was to research facilities available in Britain and elsewhere for Oriental, East European and African studies, surveying existing facilities using questionnaires, and discussing potential needs with individuals, companies, government departments, trade associations and other organisations, including universities in South Africa and North America. [...] The Commission was appointed on 14 December 1944, and reported in 1945.” (https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk)
The Oriental Institute
H.N. Spalding (1877-1953), through whose support the Spalding Professorship of Eastern Religions and Ethics had been created in 1936, had promoted the vision of an “Asia House” at Oxford, anticipating the idea of a centre for the study of Asian languages and cultures. This vision was eventually realised under a different name, in the form of the Oriental Institute.
Within the scope of the Scarborough Commission, there was a sub-committee which looked into the matter of founding an Oriental Institute at Oxford (Oxford University archive UR 6/II/9, files 1-10). This sub-committee consisted of Homer H. Dubs (Professor of Chinese), G. R. Driver (Professor of Semitic Philology), Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (Spalding Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics), and the warden of New College (A. H. Smith). It was in particular thanks to the efforts of G. R. Driver that the idea of an Oriental Institute was finally realised.
The Hebdomadal council passed a decree to establish the Oriental Institute in 1955 (when Smith was Vice-Chancellor). The building was built in 1959-1960, opened in 1960, and the library was founded in 1961. The opening ceremony of the Oriental Institute was held on 12 October 1961.
The Hayter Report (1961) and the Parker Report (1986)
The outcome of the Scarborough Report was due to be reviewed after a ten-year period and in 1959 the University Grants Committee appointed another commission to evaluate the status of Oriental, Slavonic, East European and African Studies in the UK. Its report, published in 1961, became known as the Hayter Report, named after its Chairman Sir William Hayter. The commission visited universities in the UK and the US; it concluded that UK universities should follow the US model in putting greater emphasis on contemporary languages and societies. The recommendations of the report led to largescale financial support for the newly emerging field of area studies.
In the early 1980s, a further review took place under the Chairmanship of Sir Peter Parker. Its title “Speaking for the future: a review of the requirements of diplomacy and commerce for Asian and African languages and area study” indicates its aim of promoting the teaching of languages that were of strategic importance for commerce and diplomacy. The review, carried out during Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister, noted a dramatic decline in financial support for Asian and Middle Eastern languages and recommended a substantial increase in funding. Oxford was allocated a generous amount to secure the study of a number of languages that were at risk, including Persian, Aramaic and Syriac, and Turkish, as well as Assyriology. Originally allocated to Oriental Studies as a ring-fenced grant, it was later absorbed into a general grant to the University.
Recent decades: growth and diversification
Since its establishment, the Faculty has kept growing and integrating new subject areas. The establishment and continued support of posts was often possible thanks to the generous support of individual benefactors rather than through government funding. This includes the Gulbenkian Chair in Armenian, established in 1965; the Soudavar Professorship in Persian, created in 1990; the Shaw Chair of Chinese, endowed in 1993; the Associate Professorship in Tibetan and Himalayan Studies, established in 2000; the University's creation of the Associate Professorship in Korean History in 2006, which was quickly followed by endowment of the Young Bin Min-Korea Foundation Associate Professor in Korean Language and Linguistics in 2007; the AlBabtain Laudian Chair of Arabic, re-endowed in 2016; and the Bahari Associate Professorship in Sasanian Studies, established in 2017.
The Faculty has outgrown the ‘Oriental Institute’ building and its staff and students are based in seven different locations, including at the time of writing the Griffith Institute (1939), the Middle East Centre (1957), the Nissan Institute (1981) at St Antony’s, the Khalili Research Centre (2005), the China Centre at St Hugh’s (2014), and the Hebrew and Jewish Studies Centre (1972, incorporated 2018) in the Clarendon Institute. The Faculty currently offers twenty-five ancient and modern languages, and a large variety of graduate and undergraduate degrees.
A particular feature of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford is the possibility to combine several of the languages taught or to study cross-faculty degrees such as the joint degrees between our Faculty and Classics, Medieval and Modern Languages, Theology and Religion, and the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies. The most recent addition is a degree in Comparative Literature and Critical Translation. The research interests and approaches of the Faculty cover a wide range, including philology and linguistics, history, archaeology, literature, religion, philosophy, social sciences, and anthropology. What unites most subjects in the Faculty, however, is a shared focus on sources in original languages, ancient and modern, which form the basis of the Faculty’s teaching and research.
The Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
By the time of the Faculty Review in 2019 – and arguably much earlier – the term ‘Oriental Studies’ was felt by many to be outdated and to have unfortunate connotations of colonialism and imperialism. That review recommended that the Faculty should reconsider its name and this happened through a comprehensive and extensive programme in 2020-22. Students, staff and other interested parties were consulted and surveyed, many alternatives were proposed and discussed, and in 2022 the Faculty Board finally recommended that the name ‘Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies’ be adopted. This was approved by the University in May of that year, and the formal change to the new name occurred on 1 August 2022.
Names of the degrees offered by the Faculty, and of its headquarters building (the ‘Oriental Institute’ since 1960) are changing to reflect the Faculty’s new name.
The Faculty has inherited academic posts from the sixteenth century and was established as an independent entity in the nineteenth century, but it has continued to grow and develop not only in its structures and areas of specialisation but also in its rejection of colonial and Eurocentric approaches. In continuity with our predecessors we consider it essential that we try to understand the cultures we study from within, treating them as independent agents and studying what they have to say about themselves, as documented in their own oral and written literatures and material cultures.
based on archival materials compiled by Anja Hollowell
April 2019; revised David Rechter and Thomas Hall July 2022
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Hayter, William. “The Hayter Report and After.” Oxford Review of Education, Vol. 1, No. 2, Education and Pluralism (1975), pp. 169-172.
“Hayter Report”: University Grants Committee. “Report of the Sub-Committee on Oriental, Slavonic, East European and African Studies”. London, 1961.
“Parker Report”: University Grants Committee. “Speaking for the future: a review of the requirements of diplomacy and commerce for Asian and African languages and area study”. London 1986.
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