Iranian and Persian Studies at UC Berkeley: A History

Iranian and Persian Studies at UC Berkeley: A History

UC Berkeley’s distinction in the field of Iranian Studies, and particularly ancient Iranian Studies, has always been tied to the Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures (formerly Near Eastern Studies).

First and foremost was Professor Walter Bruno Henning, who came to Berkeley from SOAS in September 1961 to accept a position as Professor of Iranian Studies, which he held until his untimely death in 1967. Many of Henning’s works on Middle Iranian languages and writing systems remain authoritative, and his command of Old and Middle Iranian philology was unmatched in the US at the time, making Berkeley the only US institution offering training in that area, as well as in the history of Zoroastrianism and Manichaeanism.

One of Henning's students, Professor Martin Schwartz, carried on in the same vein. An NES faculty member between 1970 and 2010, Schwartz focused in his research largely on the Zoroastrian scriptures in Avestan, as well as on Iranian historical linguistics and Middle Iranian philology. On the archaeological side, the late Professor David Stronach (1931-2020) joined the NES faculty in 1981 from the British School of Archaeology in Tehran (where he was director) and remained here until his retirement in 2004. At Berkeley, he founded one of the strongest programs in Iranian archaeology in the country, advising numerous students, and directed excavations throughout the lands of ancient Mesopotamia, Iran, and Syria, in many sites of extraordinary importance (including Pasargadae and Nineveh, for example). In the areas of art history and material culture, Professor Guitty Azarpay further consolidated Berkeley faculty’s prominence in the field of Iranian Studies. A member of the faculty from 1964 till her retirement in 2000, Azarpay trained many scholars in Iranian and Central Asian art history while participating actively in local Bay Area institutions like the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

Currently, Dr. Sanjyot Mehendale, a scholar of Iranian and Central Asian art and archeology, who studied under Professors Stronach and Azarpay, is serving as the director of the Tang Center for Silk Road Studies and lectures in MELC. Professor Adam Benkato joined the faculty of MELC recently as the inaugural holder of the Bita Daryabari Chair in Iranian Studies.

The study of Persian language and literature has been another core component of Iranian Studies at Berkeley. From 1965 until his retirement in 2010, Professor Hamid Algar led Berkeley’s efforts to become a vibrant center of scholarship in classical Persian literature, Sufism, and Islamic intellectual history. In this endeavor, the contributions of Professors Hasan Javadi, Ravan Farhadi, and the late Mohammad Jafar Mahdjoub, were also significant. Currently, Professor Wali Ahmadi, whose expertise includes not only present-day Iran but also Afghanistan and Tajikistan, leads the department's Persian language and literature programs. Finally, it is worth mentioning the efforts of Dr. Jaleh Pirnazar, who for over three decades was the principal force in attracting generations of students to Berkeley to study the Persian language at various levels.

Long recognized as a major center for the study of Iran as well as Persian scholarship, Berkeley houses one of the largest collections of books, rare manuscripts, journals, and magazines in Persian in the United States. The late Dr. Hamid Mahamedi, who served as a librarian and was an established scholar of Old and Middle Persian, helped expand the library’s Persian collection. In addition, MELC has an excellent collection of reference books in Persian, as well as on Iranian Studies generally, to serve the research interests of the faculty and graduate students.