ABF: Today we are here to interview Professor Irfan Shahîd, Associate Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks and Oman Professor at Georgetown University. We are in the Dumbarton Oaks Guest House on August 11, 2008, and we are Anna Bonnell-Freidin and Clement Wood. So, first we’d like to begin by asking you how your ongoing project on Byzantium and the Arabs has changed your time here at Dumbarton Oaks.
IS: I’m glad you started by asking me about that, because I have been dealing with this theme for half a century. So, I will speak with some detail about it, because it throws light on my stay at Dumbarton Oaks and the various periods of the development of the institute. I conceived of my project, which is Byzantium and the Arabs, when I was a student at Oxford, reading Literae Humaniores, that is, classics and Greek and Roman history. My tutor was a distinguished historian, Nicholas Sherwin-White, and I used to go to the lectures and hear the famous Sir Ronald Syme. I chose as a special subject not the early Greek history, but the one which involved Alexander the Great, because he came to the Near East, where I was born. I was born in the Holy Land; I left in 1946, long before the Arab-Israeli conflict.
So, I took that and I decided to deal with the history of Byzantium and the Arabs; not with the Arabs as such, but to deal with them as a force in Roman history. In other words, the traditional view of the fall of the Roman Empire was to the German tribes in the west in the fifth century, but in the east the Arabs attacked in the seventh century. So, the fall of Rome has to take care of the two thrusts, the German and the Arab. Gibbon in his book put between two stiff covers the two peoples, but then they parted company. The descendants of the Germans, distinguished German scholars nowadays in Germany and in the nineteenth century and the twentieth, have dealt with the German problem. No one has really dealt with the Arabs as part of Roman history. They dealt with it as Arab history or as Islamic history, but not as a theme in the larger theme, the fall of the Roman Empire. This is what I decided to do. And I thought that that would be a worthy theme. It would be both Arab and classical and would do justice to my training.
Then I came to Princeton for my Ph.D., where I did Islamic and Arabic studies. The distinguished Islamic historian Philip Hitti was in his last days, and I added Persian and Turkish to my Arabic, to surround Arabic with a new family of Islamic languages which Islam created. They are unrelated structurally to each other: the one is a Semitic language, the other is an Indo-European language, Persian, and Turkish is a Turkic language, but they are Islamic, united by Islam.
Then I met there the famous distinguished scholar Amerigo Castro, the Spanish scholar who has written important works on the Arab factor in Spain and its importance, and he asked me to help him on the Arabic words in his book on the structure of Spanish history. The atmosphere there was no longer Mohammed and Alexander; it became how the Arabs split the Mediterranean. Everybody was talking about Henri Pirenne and Mohammed and Charlemagne and how the Arabs made Western Europe by the conquest of North Africa and Andalusia.
So, when I received my Ph.D., the department sent me to the Institute for Advanced Study. Ernst Kantorowicz, the famous medievalist, was there. He had just left Berkeley, having quarreled with the administration there about swearing an oath which he didn’t want to. So, he said, “You know, it’s better for you now at this stage of your development to start with the East rather than with the West – with Andalusia.” I wanted to do Arab-Spanish history and try to answer Pirenne’s question. I thought then, as I still do, that Pirenne raised the right question, Mohammed and Charlemagne – the Arabs contributed to the rise of Western Europe and Charlemagne – but he may have given the wrong answer. So, I wanted to give the right answer from Arab history, which briefly is that the Arab wall on the Ebro in Andalusia prevented the Carolingians from invading the Mediterranean, and so they stayed in the landmass of Western Europe, and this is how partly Western Europe was created.
So, he said, “Well, you should really apply to Dumbarton Oaks, because then you can deal with the Arabs and the Umayyads in the homeland before you come to the province,” which was Spain, and so I came to Dumbarton Oaks. That was in 1954, as a Junior Fellow. 1954-1955. I thought I would stay for a few years there, and then I became so involved in it. I decided that this is the more difficult theme to do, much more difficult than the Arabs, Spain, and Charlemagne, because it was possible to do only by one who had the two sets of sources, the classical as well as the Oriental. In my case, by the accident of birth, I had the Arabic and Islamic, and then by training, I did the classical course. So, I thought, well, this should be done and that it is more difficult than the other one, because it involved dealing with inscriptions and with the various languages – Arabic, Syriac, and Greek and Latin – and it had to do with seals and coins, which is very time-consuming. So, I decided to stay in this field, but I didn’t realize it would take that long. However, I’m glad I did.
So, this set what my project would be: Byzantium and the Arabs, especially in the seventh century, the rise of Islam and the Arab attack. And then I said, “Well, how can I deal with this without dealing with the centuries before the rise of Islam?” This had been a blank, only a few references here and there. The German scholar Nöldeke has done a classic on one Arab group, the Ghassanids. So, I decided to do the centuries before the rise of Islam on all the Arab groups involved with Byzantium.
My project became tripartite; so I divided it into: Rome and the Arabs from the settlement of Pompey until Constantine, and then the middle period, Byzantium and the Arabs from Constantine to Heraclius, and then the third part, which is the climax, the rise of Islam and the Arab conquest. So, far I have finished one and two in six volumes, and volume seven is being now prepared for publication, which will bring to a close part two. Byzantion in Belgium has published three volumes collecting my articles, which are collateral with the six volumes, so we have now almost ten volumes on these three centuries. These have their own identity as contributions to late antiquity, but they are more importantly prolegomena for the rise of Islam and the Arab conquest, the climax of my work, which I hope to finish in the next few years. I have done most of the researches; it is a matter of reflecting on it and writing it; and if it has one virtue, it will be because I’ll be the first historian to have filled the gap of all these centuries with my gaze fixed on the seventh to know exactly what happened and why it happened the way it did. My work will be facilitated by the two important works which have appeared by Fred Donner and Walter Kaegi on the Arab conquest, but I will treat problems which have not been done by them and which have been left out. In my hands, I think, there are the answers to the big questions of the Arab conquest: one of them is the incomprehensible victory of the Arabs over not only one empire, but two empires: Byzantium and Sassanid Persia, which they challenged and defeated, both within two years. So, it is an incomprehensible victory. This is part of my job to elucidate.
So, much for my work, which has been done here. It could have been done only at Dumbarton Oaks, because here is the major center for Byzantine studies. I keep telling Junior Fellows who come here when they are bored sometimes, “Now, look here. Napoleon said, ‘Ask me for anything except time,’ and scholarship is energy and time. One hour’s work here is worth five hours’ work elsewhere.” And I give them an example: when I was in Oxford in 2001 for my sabbatical, I think one of my volumes – the last volume was printed in 2002 – was being done by the copy editor, and he asked me about a reference; I couldn’t find it. I ran from my college, St. John’s, to Balliol to the Ashmolean and to the Bodleian – couldn’t find it. So, I called Glenn Ruby, in Publications at D.O., and I told him, “Glenn, please go to the third floor of the Main Building and look it up for me.” So, he did it in five minutes, and then it was done. Working in Dumbarton Oaks is a great privilege, and it is a great economy in time.
Well, I think I have given you now how my work is related to Dumbarton Oaks and how Dumbarton Oaks has made it possible. Now, you want to see how the administration reacted to my work: when I came here, Dumbarton Oaks was in the hands of art historians, and it was natural, because it started as a museum. The director, Mr. Thacher, was an art historian too – although he was not an academic, but he had a degree in art, I think Spanish art – painting. And Miss Der Nersessian, who was then acting director in ’54 after the death of A. Friend, was an art historian, Armenian. And then E. Kitzinger was a distinguished art historian; he became the director. So, there was little interest in my work, and the other scholars who were not art historians were not interested in it. Then I had some trouble.
When I came in 1954, Dumbarton Oaks had asked a distinguished French scholar, Marius Canard, who had worked on Byzantium and the Arabs. So, I felt at home with him, he was a very good man, and very helpful, and he came to look at the Nachlass of a distinguished Russian scholar, Vasiliev, who had worked on Byzantium and the Arabs, and unfortunately for me, he had died before I came. In other words, if he had been here when I came to D.O., the administration would have been more understanding of what I was doing.
Marius Canard understood my work, and I contracted a friendship with him until the end of his life, as I did with Speros Vryonis, who was with me as a Junior Fellow, and we still correspond. In the second semester I felt in a vacuum. I worked with Mr. Downey, Glanville Downey, who was a scholar here, but who had no interest in the Arabs. He was a very competent scholar, but a very difficult man. I understand he used to see a psychiatrist. If you made a mistake with him, he became angry. Let me give you an example: there was a Fellow, Byron Tsangadis, who came to work with him. He had an appointment with him, and he came three minutes late, so he kicked him out; he told him, “I cannot waste three minutes of my short life on earth waiting for you, so come tomorrow at the exact time.” So, the poor man came two or three minutes before, so he kicked him out again. He told him, “Come exactly at the same time, at the time I wanted you to come.”
In any case, he had also difficulty with the most distinguished man in Dumbarton Oaks, the leading Byzantinist of his generation, Cyril Mango. He picked him up from Turkey, because he noticed that he was precocious: he had written an article when he was, I think, twenty-one years old, and Downey said, “Well, we must bring him to Dumbarton Oaks.” Then he had the same trouble with him – I get this from both Mango and from Julia Warner, who was the editor of Dumbarton Oaks Papers: Mango corrected him on the translation of, I think, the word teleosis, and Downey thought it meant “perfection” and Mango thought it meant “death,” the “dormition of Virgin Mary.” He became very unfriendly to him. Julia Warner told me that he used to sing his praises and then all of a sudden he said, “We cannot have him here, because his German is not very good, and you must read German to be a good Byzantinist.” So, nobody, of course, listened to him: Miss Der Nersessian and everybody knew that Mango was a distinguished young scholar, precocious, and came to his support.
Well, I had the same problem with him; I forgot what was the problem, and he became rather unpleasant. And I presented him with an essay on Procopius. Procopius, as you may know, is the main historian of the reign of Justinian, and I discovered many mendacities he said about the Arabs in his work, so I collected them and wrote an essay. He was negative towards it; it was very strange, and I said, “Fine.” Then I had an appointment to go to UCLA to teach. I sent the same article, but with footnotes and appendices, to the BZ, the Byzantinische Zeitschrift, the foremost Byzantine periodical, and F. Dölger loved it, but the article I gave Downey was without footnotes then, because I wanted him to know the substance of my argument. It has been described by some of my friends as one of the most influential articles I have written, the one which Downey had reported negatively on. However, Downey was a decent man; he became very friendly later and he gave me every support writing recommendations.
When I was teaching at UCLA, Sir Hamilton left Oxford; he gave up his Laudian Professorship of Arabic and accepted the Jewett Professorship of Arabic at Harvard and became a University Professor. He was a giant in every sense, physically and otherwise. So, my fortunes with the administration improved. Since he was an Arabicist/Islamist, he could understand and so appreciate what I was doing, and he asked me to participate in the first symposium of 1963, Byzantium and the Arabs. That was truly exciting. Mrs. Bliss herself wrote me a letter; she said, “This is the only lecture I enjoyed. Will you please send me your lecture?” So, I sent it to her and she sent me a letter, which I still have, in which she thanked me for the lecture. And so I contracted a friendship with her since then, until she died in the late ’60s. Unfortunately Sir Hamilton disappeared; he had a stroke and went back to England.
In the ’60s I was a little diverted (not entirely) from Byzantium and the Arabs. The Teubner Classical Series asked me to do a speech by Themistius which survived only in an Arabic translation, so I had to prepare it for the Teubner, and it appeared in 1974 in volume three of Themistii Orationes.
Something more important happened: when I came again as a Senior Fellow when Gibb was still at Harvard, I discovered in the library of Dumbarton Oaks a reference to a most precious manuscript, Syriac manuscript – which has been ignored by all the South Arabian scholars and by all the Syrologists – on the persecution of the Christians in South Arabia before the rise of Islam. I immediately wrote to the patriarch in Jerusalem and then we got the manuscript from there. It turned out to be a translation into Arabic of the original Syriac, and we wanted the original Syriac, so he traced it to Damascus to Istanbul to Mardin and finally we found it; it had returned to Damascus and finally we got it. I translated it with an extensive commentary.
The Bollandistes, the Société des Bollandistes, asked me to submit it to them, and they published it as number 49 in their Subsidia Hagiographica as The Martyrs of Najrân. It is a very important volume, because it opened the dossier on the importance of Najrân as the major Christian center in Pre-Islamic Arabia, which was radiating Christianity to all the Peninsula. So, those who talk about Koranic Christology and how the Arabs got to know about what Christians call unorthodox views of Christianity depend on Najrân; and so the Najrân problem is now open, and everybody’s talking about Najrân and its Martyrium Arethae from different perspectives.
In the ’70s I was still dealing with Byzantium and the Arabs on the side, but these two volumes had taken most of my time in the ’60s. In the ’70s Giles Constable became the director. Now here for the first time the Director was not an art historian. Before him was Loerke, who was an art historian, and Kitzinger, and Der Nersessian had been an art historian. Giles Constable was a medievalist, a historian who had worked with the Islamicist, J. Kritzeck, so he had a clear conception of the importance of Islam. He looked at my work and he saw my publications, the Teubner and the Bollandistes, and what the BZ had published, and so he appointed me as an Associate Fellow. But since I came to Washington from UCLA and Indiana in 1963 as a professor at Georgetown University, there was no need to apply for fellowships, because I am here, and it’s only a ten minutes’ walk from Georgetown. And this is the big bargain of being at Georgetown, because Dumbarton Oaks is close. I do my other work there, Arabic poetry and Koranic studies at Georgetown, and I do Byzantino-arabica at D.O.
Giles Constable made me an Associate Fellow because he thought of me as a historian who is dealing with a major theme, Byzantium and the Arabs. I reverted to working on my theme now for volumes, not for articles. So, since then and for the last twenty-five years or so, I have been able to publish these six volumes: Rome and the Arabs, which dealt with the first part of my trilogy, and the second part, the Byzantine one, from Constantine to Heraclius, the five volumes which have appeared, and the sixth will appear, hopefully next summer. This was made possible because of working conditions here at Dumbarton Oaks.
A propos of Constable and me: in addition to my representing the Orient, Christian as well as Islamic, Giles Constable also felt that I was a liaison between Dumbarton Oaks and Georgetown. Why? Because there was that program of joint appointments between Dumbarton Oaks and various universities, which is still going on. I spoke very strongly with the administration at Georgetown for having Frank Trombley, who was there for three years, to be there.
When my last book comes out, then I will work on the climax of my work in two volumes, one on the rise of Islam, the big questions which only the Byzantine sources can give. And I have collected all the references. And then the second one – the Arab conquest, the incomprehensible victory of the Arabs both in Syria and in Egypt, which split the Mediterranean. So, this is then my work here, and I need your prayers to finish them. Do I have them? Because I crossed the Rubicon of longevity recently, so I am an octogenarian now!!
Well, so much then for my work. You said you wanted to know something about the directors and what I think of them. As you know, I have seen Der Nersessian, Ernst Kitzinger, Ihor Ševčenko, Romilly Jenkins, William Loerke, Giles Constable, Robert Thomson, Angeliki Laiou, and then Edward Keenan, and then our current director, Professor Jan Ziolkowski. Now, of all these people – and all these were distinguished scholars – the one who really attended to the problems of Dumbarton Oaks, the first one to do so, was Giles Constable. Let me tell you what he has done.
First of all, this building in which we are sitting was a scandal. In other words, it had one bathroom here and most of the people had to come to this one, and it was not even closed. So he renovated the building, made of it eight self-contained apartments upstairs, and so it became a place where scholars would come and live here. That’s one thing he did.
Then he started the idea of summer fellowships. You know, these are very, very valuable. Many scholars in Europe and elsewhere may not be able to come during the term, and so the summer provides them with the time to come to Dumbarton Oaks, do what they want. And, as you know, Dumbarton Oaks has become a pilgrimage center, when you come to Dumbarton Oaks, especially from Europe. So, the summer fellowships are very important.
And then he restructured the administration of Dumbarton Oaks. Dumbarton Oaks used to be ruled by the director, then he instituted the Senior Fellows Committee, which includes scholars from various parts of the world, who get together and discuss problems.
Then even the gardens: he said those who visit the gardens should pay at least a nominal fee in order to pay for the upkeep; so like all people of a powerful mind, he had interest in details too, not only in the general problems.
I think there’s something else which is his achievement – let me see [looks at notes]. The lunches used to be formal; they used to be sit-down lunches. He thought that was good, but you know, a buffet is better, when people can come not only precisely at 12:00 or half past 12, say, but between 12 and 1, and then they can serve themselves. So, he’s the one who started the buffet.
Because of the five things he did for D.O., it renders utterly untrue the charge that Constable wanted to move D.O. to Harvard.
Robert Thomson did something very good. Where the museum is now had been open: there was no roof. He roofed it, and he started what has become D.O.’s splendid museum. So, this is to his credit. And before he retired as director, he recommended that D.O. cannot be run by a director only: you need a director for the entire establishment, which is tripartite in structure – Byzantine, Landscape Architecture, and Pre-Columbian – and you need a director of studies for each of these three divisions.
By the way, Giles Constable also paid attention to Pre-Columbian Studies, which was the Cinderella of the three, and he gave it prominence, and I think the Pre-Columbian scholars appreciated that. Elizabeth Boone was then the main figure there, and so that speaks well for him. Although he is a medieval historian, yet he was genuinely interested in other periods of history. I keep telling our Pre-Columbian friends, “We are not so distant from each other, the Byzantine and the Pre-Columbian, because both of us chronologically are Pre-Columbian, because Byzantium existed before 1492!”
Angeliki’s contribution was to buy the La Quercia. Before, visitors to Dumbarton Oaks used to be housed in an apartment house on Wisconsin Avenue. It was not good at all; I mean, the conditions were bad. So, she decided to buy the apartment building. La Quercia, as you know, in Italian relates with Dumbarton Oaks: the same as the word “oaks,” La Quercia. The only thing about La Quercia, which I gather from those who live in it, is its distance; because I have a car, I used to drive many of the Fellows, especially the ladies, in winter at night to it. It takes a good ten minutes’ walk to reach it from the Main Building. So, I thought that in the future maybe Dumbarton Oaks can sell it and buy something close. S Street should all be Dumbarton Oaks. There are houses which are in the market for selling on the corner. It will be difficult, but I think Professor Keenan did well to buy one house at S St., because it is not only the director’s house, it is useful for other functions and also for visiting scholars.
Director Edward Keenan, as you know, was a Russian scholar.
IS: He was also understanding of my project, because he had done some Arabic, and he was the dean or the director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies at Harvard. So, he was very supportive. And he, of course, did the major part in creating Dumbarton Oaks as it is. He realized there is a big endowment for Dumbarton Oaks, and money’s function is to be used, so instead of having it in banks, let it be used. And everybody first did not take kindly to the renovation, but now they are reconciled. They know it was a great achievement. Some think it lost its intimacy and closeness, but you know this is a research institute. It has many redeeming virtues, and I think that this is a great plus for Ned, the reconstruction of Dumbarton Oaks. Now everybody comes and wonders at it.
The present director, Jan Ziolkowski, has inherited what Giles Constable had done in administration and what Edward Keenan had done in the physical plant. And he is the ideal one now, because he is not an art historian. I don’t mean to speak pejoratively about art historians; I mean, his sympathies are wider. Jan Ziolkowski is a classicist to start with; Ned was not a classicist, I think. He’s a classicist and he is a medievalist, and of course Byzantium is part of medieval history, especially its relations with the West, with Western European history. He’s open-minded, he takes an active part in the life and work of the Fellows, and he lunches quite often with them. He also has done some Arabic, so he appreciates my work and I feel that for writing the climax of my work, he is the ideal director. Let me give you an example of how he is aware of what can be done now for Dumbarton Oaks, and he discusses this with members of his academic community.
I spoke with him about the most important things that Dumbarton Oaks, as far as research is concerned, can do as an institute. I told him the most important project which Dumbarton Oaks has done started with Giles Constable when, under the direction of Alexander Kazhdan, Dumbarton Oaks did the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Although it’s called the Oxford Dictionary, it’s Dumbarton Oaks. These three volumes have done more for Byzantine history, for promoting Byzantine studies in the Anglo-Saxon world and elsewhere, than any other book. Better than the German Pauly-Wissowa, which is a great work, but you know it is so difficult to use it. There are many volumes, and the print is not so clear. But the ODB is so beautifully printed, clearly printed. I told him this was done in 1992, so it is utterly out of date. These are the most important three volumes which Dumbarton Oaks has done for the promotion of Byzantine studies. It needs a supplement, as even Pauly-Wissowa has a supplement, the new Pauly-Wissowa, even the smaller one is there. I told him what is needed is a supplement. Of the many fellowships you give, ten or whatever, give one or two to a scholar who will spend a year, either at home or doing it here, corresponding with all the authors who have written these articles asking them what new bibliographies have appeared, what new researches have been done. If they are dead, you can ask somebody else. Also, there are many mistakes in it. I have myself listed some of them, many of them. So, this is the first and the most important thing that should be done. I think the Senior Fellows Committee should attend to this.
Then I told him, “You know, Byzantine studies would not have prospered in this country had it not been for the Blisses.” We made a joke about this. I told him, “Well, if Mrs. Bliss was more fertile and she had a child, maybe she would not have donated the estate to Harvard.” We are not writing an essay in praise of sterility – no, no. We are very happy that this happened, so their memory should be perpetuated in a way which will keep their memory alive. You can have a bust for them in the entrance, you can have a picture of them in the Founders Room, but I suggest having a series called the Bliss Byzantine Library. Mr. Loeb – I think he was a banker or some such profession – endowed the publication of the famous Loeb Classical Series, and the Classics Department at Harvard operates it. And this has been a great success. I said, “The Bliss Byzantine Library would be the best ‘thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Bliss, for what have you done,’ because the people will use it all the time, and the word ‘Bliss’ will be very visible.”
Now, of course the volumes which appeared in the Loeb Classical Library are more important in a sense than the Byzantine ones, more important in the sense that they have more popular appeal, but there is enough in Byzantine history to justify having a smaller number of books there, and the Loeb Classical Library has hijacked some of the works which belong to Byzantium. Let me give you an example. Ammianus Marcellinus is the first – his Res Gestae. He is Byzantine, he worked when Constantine and Constantius ruled. So, he should be re-done in the Byzantine Bliss series. Procopius: everybody would love Procopius! Everybody loves it: gossip – it’s too human to be suppressed. So, the works of Procopius should be re-done, with so much scholarship now done on them, and published; there are other fragmentary historians. So you can have a perhaps smaller Byzantine Bliss Library.
Director Ziolkowski said a Medieval Bliss Library would be an alternative possibility, because in one of her inscriptions on the outer wall of D.O., Mrs. Bliss talks about the medieval humanities. She emphasized the word “medieval.” So, he thought this one will perpetuate the memory of this couple who have given such an impetus – not only in America, but in the whole world – to Byzantine studies.
And then the third point I discussed with him concerned the symposia which are held. Sometimes these symposia deal with problems which may interest a member of the senior committee, but it should have a more universal appeal and a more important one. I gave him an example. There was a time when I think there was a symposium on Anatolia and Oriens. There is no relationship between the two of them – two dioceses. And then even Oriens, half of it was in the Byzantine period and half of it was in the Islamic. It was interesting, but the papers were not published, apparently, because it was not a successful symposium. Its conception was not a sound conception, as interesting as it was: either Oriens or Anatolia would have been much better. I said symposia should deal with major problems, and I gave him an example. I told him, to use that cliché, the mission civilisatrice of Byzantium, its civilizing mission, was the translation of the Bible to every new people that was converted to Christianity: the Slavs, Cyril and Methodios; the Goths, Ulfilas; the Armenians; the Georgians; the Copts; the Ethiopians. Whenever the Bible was translated (and Byzantium actively, positively, and aggressively favored the translation of the Bible), then a Christian literature exploded in all these literatures.
This is not unknown, but so much new research has been done on each of these translations that there is need for having a symposium on all of them to show the extent of the mission civilisatrice. When you bring them together, when you publish that in Dumbarton Oaks Papers, it would be a beautiful thing for an art historian to see the various scripts. You can take, for instance, a page from Genesis or a page from St. John in Old Slavonic, in Old Gothic, in Armenian, in Georgian, in Coptic, in Arabic, in Syriac, in Ethiopian, to display them. It is a theme which inspires so many areas of research. And then I told him, “What about Byzantium and Islam?” There are about eight centuries: four with the Arab-Byzantine conflict, from the seventh until the 11th, and then the Turkish one from the 11th until the 15th when Mohammed the Conqueror captured Constantinople in 1453. This is a theme which needs to be telescoped and to be freshly understood. This is not to say the themes which have been dealt with in previous symposia are not important; they are. But I feel that more attention should be paid to the Orient, because Byzantium is in the Pars Orientalis.
This, by the way, brings me also back to how Giles Constable, being a historian, understood my relevance here. He looked at me as representing the Orient. In other words, because of my knowledge of Arabic, Syriac, and Persian, I am here to write on this and also to help Fellows in their areas when they come. Invariably, whenever a Junior Fellow, or not only a Junior Fellow, scholars and Senior Fellows would come, they always have Arabic problems. Even last year I spent some time with one of the students of Angeliki Laiou, a Turkish gentleman, correcting his translations.
Perhaps you might like to hear how the outside world looks at Dumbarton Oaks as it used to be when you had about ten scholars and now after those have left.
IS: When I came here two or three times the first two decades, there was an impressive number of scholars who were working here. Cyril Mango was here, Ihor Ševčenko was here, Romilly Jenkins, Glanville Downey, Milton Anastos, Paul Underwood, and above all, there was Father Dvornik, the most colorful of all the scholars.
So, let me tell you something about Father Dvornik. Father Dvornik was a Czech ecclesiastical historian, and he used to live in this cottage here. It makes a lot of difference, especially for Junior Fellows, to come and be inspired by these people and talk to them. As far as Father Dvornik is concerned, he was at heart a peasant and remained a peasant until the end of his life here. Although he lived most of his life in an English-speaking country, he never mastered English. “Frankly say” – “frankly say,” translating from French, was his favorite phrase. And then he was a great cook; he used to invite people for supper. And then he was fond of a whiskey, of a scotch, called VAT, and he used to say this was the telephone of the Vatican! And I told him once, “Father, someone called the other day and asked about you, but he thought your name was Father Dvořák,” the composer. He laughed and said, “Well, fine, we are very proud of Dvořák.” Many outsiders used to think that his name was Dvořák.
And then he used to tell us how surprised some of the saleswomen were. He had nieces in Czechoslovakia who would write to him to buy for them nylon stockings; the nylons had come into existence then. So, he would go to buy stockings, and then the girls would look at this priest who would buy stockings for women; it was very embarrassing for him.
However, we miss him; he used to go every year to Czechoslovakia, and he was lucky. The last time he went, he died in his village in his homeland in his bed. I think he had a heart attack. So this was Dumbarton Oaks as it used to be.
And then we used to have lunches here, sit-down lunches and dinners, served, and Miss Der Nersessian used to preside with a bell; she used to ring a bell and the waiters would come. And once I put a little piece of cloth in the bell and it didn’t ring, so we all laughed at her. She had a sister called Araxie, and she was a good cook. And there were two Armenias: Armenia Maior and Armenia Minor, and we used to refer to Sirarpie as Armenia Maior and to Araxie as Armenia Minor, and we used to refer to Father Dvornik as Moravia – he was very fond of it. And he created a Slavic atmosphere in the house, especially when Father Meyendorff used to come here. And then, of course, when Alexander Kazhdan came, it was very Slavic, and we used to call the West Cottage the Slavic lodge, the Slavic cottage, because all the Slavs used to live here.
We must say something about Alexander Kazhdan a propos of resident senior scholars, when in the ’70s it was decided to disband these scholars and spend the money on fellowships. This was justified up to a certain point, but as you see, the institute lost that scholarly weight it had by the concentration of talent. In any case, in my opinion, it did more good than harm, because when these scholars disappeared – for instance Downey to Indiana, Milton Anastos to UCLA, Cyril to Oxford – they created new centers for Byzantine studies in these universities. There wasn’t anything in Indiana before Downey went there, there wasn’t anything in UCLA before Anastos went, and Oxford was rather sleepy as far as Byzantine studies was concerned. Cyril’s presence made the difference. So, I think that the dispersion of the scholars, and the diaspora – you could call it the diaspora of the scholars – was helpful in that sense.
When Alexander came in the ’80s, he functioned more or less as a senior scholar with whom others could consult. And as I said, a most fruitful project was the dictionary, the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. The ODB is a product of both Constable’s initiation and Kazhdan’s writing most of its articles and acting as its editor.
You ask me about the Blisses. I am one of the people who remember the two Blisses, and as you know, she was the predominant partner as far as the Bliss visibility in Dumbarton Oaks was. She used to come to the teas and she used to talk to the Fellows.
By the way, there used to be teas, afternoon tea at 4:00, in the Founders’ Room where the Study is. It was a very colorful room, and her formidable presence was felt; we enjoyed her conversation, she spoke perfect French, she was a highly cultured woman. And so she created a certain atmosphere, and it’s interesting to see the books she used to read – old-fashioned now from our point of view – it will tell you what people of her age used to read so many years ago.
I must not forget to say that when William Tyler was here, he was of special interest to her, because his father, Royall Tyler, used to be Mrs. Bliss’s boyfriend. And one saying has survived from Mr. Royall Tyler – I think it was his son William who told me. By the way, we got on very well, because he was a very talented linguist; he served as ambassador to Holland, and he went the length of learning Dutch. You know everyone in Holland speaks English, French, and German, but he decided to learn Dutch, which impressed the Dutch so much, who said, here is an American ambassador who learnt our language. His mother was an Italian contessa, so he was already bilingual. So, here is what his father said about marrying into money: “The bonds of love are never so strong as when the links are made of gold.”
What else would you like to hear? Let’s see whether I have left anything. I think we talked about the directors, the Blisses – oh yes! The Center for Hellenic Studies.
IS: I have always been interested in curricular development. I don’t like administration, I have no talent for numbers or the practical aspects of administration, but I like curricular development. So when I came here in ’54, another family other than the Blisses wanted to do what the Blisses had done: they endowed some money for a center which was to be in Washington – I forgot the name of the family. So, what should the center be? I gave them, as my opinion, it should not be classical, it should not be Byzantine, it should be a Hellenistic center. If that became a Hellenistic center, then Harvard would have three centers which will take care of the entire Greek heritage: the pagan classical, the department in Cambridge; the Hellenistic, which came after the Hellenic, after the conquest of Alexander for three centuries of the Macedonian period and three centuries of the Roman until Constantine; and then Dumbarton Oaks, Byzantine. They will be complementary to one another.
And I said, “I do not know whether there is any Hellenistic center in the world just called ‘Hellenistic’.” It is usually lumped together with other periods of Greek history. And I remember none other than W. Jaeger, the distinguished refugee German scholar, who was interested in Arabic – I don’t know why; I think because he taught Walzer, the Jewish refugee who went to Oxford and became the professor there of Arabic philosophy and who had been both a classical scholar and an Orientalist. So, he said to me, “You know, I agree with you, but Harvard doesn’t seem to want this.” However, it became a Hellenic center for the classical period. Not all its directors were distinguished. I think one of the most distinguished was – what was his name? the Yale man who wrote on Greek tragedy and who fought in the Guerra Civil in Spain; oh, what is his name? It’s on the tip –
CW: Bernard Knox.
IS: Yes, yes, Bernard Knox. He was really a very good man, distinguished. But now it is also under another distinguished scholar, Gregory Nagy. Do you know why? – because he brings something new to the study of Greek poetry, because he is a trained linguist. I mean linguist in the strict sense of the science of linguistics, and he is abreast of all of the breakthroughs in the discipline of linguistics, so he’s applying all this to the study of Greek classical poetry. And he’s married to a lady who’s an Iranist, Holly. She is also a very good scholar in Iranian studies; she wrote on the epic of the Persians, the Shāhnāmé.
So, Greg is a distinguished director, and I think he justifies that the center deals with classical Hellenism, although I hope that he will pay some attention to the Hellenistic period, because it is the child of classical Hellenism, after the torch of Hellenism was carried by Alexander.
As I told you, I have a great love for Alexander, because I did him as a special subject in Oxford, and I always read Arrian, his inspiring history of Alexander, in my study of Christian theology and its relations to the Koran. Few people realize that Alexander contributed one of the most important words for Christian theology, and no one I think has mentioned this: the word logos! You know, the word logos which appears in not the Synoptic Gospel, but the Gospel of St. John; we owe to Alexander. If Greek had not spread, the word logos would not have been at the disposal of Christian theologians for dealing with the mystery of the incarnation and the mystery of Christ’s being the logos. When you translate it into English as “the word,” it loses its meaning, it doesn’t mean “the word,” it means both “word” and “reason” only in Greek, and when you translate it into Arabic as kalimah, it spreads theological confusion.
CW: We should take a break, because the tape is about to run out.
IS: Yes, we are about finished now. I have been thinking of answering two problems about Alexander: the question of the brotherhood of man. I have no doubt that the old controversy between Professor Tarn and Professor Badian, our distinguished scholar, whether Alexander wanted the brotherhood to be between the Persians and the Greeks or whether he wanted a universal brotherhood. I had delivered a Mellon lecture called “Mohammed and Alexander” thinking that Badian was correct. Now after so many years, I have come to the conclusion that Tarn is correct and I will deliver a lecture on the brotherhood of man as conceived by Alexander by bringing several new points not mentioned before in this controversy.
The other problem is Alexander’s sexual orientation. Many people have thought that Alexander was homosexual. I don’t think so. I have now so many new points which have never been brought even by Mr. Cartledge, the Cambridge historian who wrote so well on Alexander; there are so many elements which I think support the view that his sexual orientation was heterosexual.
Well, thank you for having me, and I enjoyed it. I think that my six volumes, which will soon be seven, and my three volumes published by Byzantion, I owe to Dumbarton Oaks and to Mrs. Bliss and Mr. Bliss. Dumbarton Oaks’s self-image has been “the most civilized square mile in America,” and I truly believe in that. Thank you for having me reminiscing on it. “Poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility,” as Wordsworth said.
CW: Thank you.
ABF: Thank you very much. You answered all our questions.