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Sidney H. Griffith

Oral History Interview with Sidney H. Griffith, undertaken by Jeanne-Nicole Saint-Laurent at the Dumbarton Oaks Guest House (Fellows Building) on August 7, 2009. At Dumbarton Oaks, Sidney Griffith was a Fellow of the Byzantine Studies Program (1980–1981).

JNSL: Good morning

SG: Good morning.

JNSL: Today is Friday, August 7, 2009. My name is Jeanne-Nicole Saint-Laurent and I have the privilege of interviewing Dr. Sidney Griffith. We're at Dumbarton Oaks in the Fellows Building. Thank you for agreeing to do this.

SG: Well, you're welcome.

JNSL: I wonder if we might begin – what was the first time you heard of Dumbarton Oaks and in what context was that?

SG: Well, I'd heard of it in the course of my studies at Catholic University, and I knew many of the people who were here because they were very prominent scholars in their fields, of course. And faculty members at Catholic U. – many of them had connections with Dumbarton Oaks. Some of them had been Fellows here, including some of my own, most immediate colleagues like David Johnson, for example, and Dr. George Dennis, who is a friend of mine, who was a faculty member at Catholic University who was very much involved with Dumbarton Oaks. So, when I finished my degree and was beginning my teaching career at Catholic U., when the time came for me to have a sabbatical, it seems a reasonable thing to apply here even though I worked in areas to the east of Byzantium, as they called it or thought of it then. It seemed not unreasonable to apply for a fellowship, and I had previously participated in a symposium here having to do with east of Byzantium, so that had sort of inspired me to be bold enough to apply. And at first I was an alternate, but then some lucky thing happened and I got the fellowship and I was very happy to be able to live in the Fellows Building because it meant I was right near the library, and I didn't have to commute as local people normally did. The other Fellows had apartments in various places, but they were actually further away than I was in the end. So, that's how I knew of Dumbarton Oaks, because just prior to the time of my fellowship, Dr. John Meyendorff was here as Director of Studies and, of course, Ihor Ševčenko and Cyril Mango had been here, so they were very imposing people and those of us who lived in the city and who worked in the field were very well aware of them. Now, they were gone just prior to the time of my fellowship, which was when Giles Constable was the Director of Dumbarton Oaks, being a western medievalist, he had, let us say, a broader view of Byzantine history than, perhaps, some byzantinists, strictly speaking, may have had.

JNSL: Right, right. And how would you have described the tone of Dumbarton Oaks at that time in the early '80s – the environment?

SG: It was not an intense time. It was fairly relaxed. We had tea every afternoon and we had formal lunches together and we were expected to come to these, and people sometimes grumbled about that but, in fact, when we arrived I think all of us enjoyed the camaraderie. There were some very interesting people here at the time and both among the Junior Fellows and the so-called Fellows, so it was a very pleasant time. And, of course, it was an institution, and like every institution it had its own ethos and its own sort of mini-politics, I guess, and sometimes they used to say that there's nothing too small that it can't become a big issue at D.O. depending on the, you know, the day. But I don't recall any serious issues or problems like that, and I have a very happy memory of my time here and still think fondly of the people with whom I enjoyed the place. There were the incomparable resources of the library, of course, but it was not only just the library and the time to do one's work without much interference, but I think it was true to say, at least in my instance, that the opportunity to converse with others working broadly in the field was very, very educational, to use that, and inspiring. Well, I found it a very pleasant and extremely helpful experience.

JNSL: And as somebody who works in Semitic languages and Oriental languages, how did you find the collection here at Dumbarton Oaks, although it's always been famous for its Byzantine resources?

SG: Well, yeah, but I think the library staffs over the years have taken a fairly broad view of what needed to be in the library and by and large I was very impressed by the amount of material in my field that was actually accessible here. That's one thing I had wondered about a little bit coming from the library to which I'm accustomed at my own institution and, indeed, I did have to go back there for some things, but for the most part I was well served here and if a particular thing wasn't immediately available the library staff did everything to get what I needed, so I thought it had a lot more coverage in my areas of interest than I had expected. Now, it wasn't – that's not the focus of the library, so it didn't have everything I might have wanted, but yeah, especially in Arabic –

JNSL: Do you recall in particular some of your interactions with some of the other Fellows or people who were permanent scholars here? – any special anecdotes from those relationships?

SG: Well, yeah, there are some very interesting ones. There was another person who worked on eastern things, as I did, a man named Ahmad Shboul, who got his degree from SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies] in London and now teaches in Sydney, Australia, and he worked on the view of the Byzantines or the Romans in Arabic literature. So, we were sort of natural allies and experienced many things together. Professor Irfan Shahid was very much a presence here, then as now, of course Professor Kazhdan was here. I had a very good personal relationship with him, in fact, I don't know if I should claim responsibility for this publicly, but during my year here I helped him learn to drive and get his license, which was something of a scary experience, and anybody who has ridden with him may wonder if I was a good enough teacher because of course he was an interesting driver. So, I remember another interesting experience, since I lived in the Fellows Building I got to meet people who came in and out for various periods of time – longer or shorter. And one of the most interesting was the art historian Kurt Weitzmann, who was here for some months, and the thing that I remember about him is that one holiday morning, I was sleeping late – because it was a holiday – and I woke up to Weitzmann shaking my foot because I hadn't shown up for breakfast and he wondered what was the matter. So, he came into my room and he said, “Wake up! Wake up! You mustn't lose any time for scholarship!” So it's not every day that you have someone of that, how shall I say, standing shaking you by the foot to wake up and get busy with your scholarship. So, yeah, that was an interesting little phenomenon. There were lots of other things, like the evening concerts and the lectures and all sorts of things like that. People generally were a little fearful when they had to make their presentation about the topic they were working on, and I remember that one of the Fellows here with me at the time was Walter Kaegi, and we used to have breakfast together every morning. And he would already have been up and read the paper and would tell me the news. But he would say that if you make a poor showing at your presentation it will be news all over the field by dinner time. Anyway, I remember my presentation – there was Ernst Kitzinger sitting there with a great sense of purpose and Ševčenko – neither of them were permanently here at the time, but just happened to be here that day, which, of course, added to my anxiety a little bit. Anyway, we didn't have a Director of Studies, as such, at the time. Michael McCormick, who is now a professor at Harvard, sort of oversaw the Fellows in terms of their scholarship and projects and things like that, and then Gary Vikan was also somewhat in that vein here at the time and they managed us, as it were, but very lightly.

JNSL: And was there a lot of interest and openness to topics about Syriac and Arabic from the other scholars?

SG: Oh yeah, I think so. We had a very interesting group of people and I think everyone who was here at the time realized that the Syriac speaking people or at least a large portion of them actually lived within what one would think of as the Byzantine empire and many of them had projects of their own that I think profited from having others around whose field was not so much focused just on Greek. There was a heavy presence of art historians so, for example, one of the fellows in my time was Danny Ćurčić, the architecture historian from Princeton, and his student Robert Ousterhout, who was a Junior Fellow, but they at the time were working on structures both in Jerusalem and in Constantinople, as I recall. Ousterhout later wrote about the Anastasis, and so, you know, there was an interest there. And there was Leslie...

JNSL: …Brubaker.

SG: Brubaker, yeah, who was an art historian but also very interested in eastern things, so yeah, it was an interesting time.

JNSL: And you had already been to the symposium “East of Byzantium;” it would have been in the late '70s?

SG: Yes, I don't recall the exact year, but yeah, I had presented a paper in that symposium. It was one of the symposia, if I remember correctly, for which they left some slots for people to make proposals to join the symposium. Quite frequently the symposium was put together by a symposiarch who simply chose all the people and things like that, but I don't remember being asked to participate. I think I sent a proposal and it was accepted.

JNSL: The publications from that symposium contain some very classic articles in our field now, and it must have been a very exciting interaction.

SG: Oh yeah, at that particular symposium – oh yeah, because there were people who worked in Armenian and, of course, D.O. has had something of a history of cultivating Armenian and Syriac, of course, and some of the major people in Syriac participated in that symposium. In addition to Sebastian Brock, who is ubiquitous in Syriac things, there was Robert Murray and Jan Drijvers, and, well, with those three you pretty much had the Syriac field, in the anglophone world anyway, present.

JNSL: Right, right. You mentioned earlier when we were walking over that you, from time to time, would see Elizabeth Taylor across – that must have been funny.

SG: Yeah, I remember one funny occasion when someone arrived at the door, I don't remember, this door right here, the door, the front door to the Fellows Building. I don't remember if it was lunch time or dinner time, anyway, it was a florist with this large preparation, I guess you could call it, for her but no one was home and they wanted to know if we would accept it and take it over later and the guy who answered the door was the Fellow from Chicago whose name I just mentioned, Walter Kaegi, he said, “No! No! We have nothing to do with them! Nothing! No! We won't accept it!” So they took it away. But other than that, it was just a matter of seeing her leaning on her railing over there and peering at the world.

JNSL: And what was Giles Constable's leadership like, how would you characterize that?

SG: Well, I found him a very supportive director. He was very interested in our well-being, I think it would be fair to say. He was approachable – one could visit him in his office and discuss whatever one had on one's mind, not necessarily a problem. I went to talk with him, for example, about how best to access the Syriac manuscript collection in the Houghton Library, because of course he was also a Harvard professor and was able to arrange for me to have a painless entree there. Things like that. He always was interested in having lunch or dinner with the Fellows, and he would move around to different tables to make sure he encountered everyone and was always wanting to know what one thought about this or that, was interested in bibliography, things like this. And he's one of those people who seems always to remember even others whom he hasn't seen in years. For example, just recently I was participating in a program at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton where he had held an appointment, he's actually retired now, but he was there and he remembered me and, I mean, that's after quite a few years. I'm not sure I'd remember someone whom I met that long ago. I found him very encouraging and very supportive. He seemed to administer the place with aplomb and I'm sure there were those who disagreed with this, that, or the other, but I personally had a very good relationship with him and I have the opinion that he was a fine director precisely because of the wider view he took of things, at least from my point of view. Now, I know that there were some who felt that things should be more focusedly Byzantine.

JNSL: In what year did you join the faculty at Catholic U?

SG: I think it was 1977 that, I mean, I had been there for a very long time, even by then, but I wasn't officially a faculty member until the fall of 1977.

JNSL: And George Dennis was already on the faculty?

SG: Yes, George Dennis was already a member of the History faculty, and I had known him before that, of course, because I had been a student at Catholic U.

JNSL: And you mentioned that already at that point there was some links through him and through you with Catholic U. and Dumbarton Oaks, I wonder if you might speak to how that has developed in the last thirty years or so, as you see it.

SG: Well, at the time, I think it was about that time or shortly after that time, that Dumbarton Oaks began to make arrangements with local universities whereby the local university and Dumbarton Oaks would jointly hire someone for a three year period and the person would be on a tenure track in one of the local universities, like Georgetown, like Catholic U., and the idea was that after the three year period when the individual was being supported by both D.O. and the local university, the local university would just take over the support of the person and he or she would become a member of the regular faculty there. That was a very, very productive program from my point of view. At the time, I was the director of Early Christian Studies, the program in Early Christian Studies at Catholic U., a job I had for about fifteen years. And we acquired Linda Safran, an art historian from the Greek and Latin department that way. Now, I know that it didn't work out quite so well every time with every other institution, by that I mean the individual involved didn't always get tenure in the institution which was sharing them with Dumbarton Oaks for whatever internal reasons, but even if it didn't work in the sense that the person got tenure, it still was a very fruitful exchange in that three year period where both institutions enjoyed having the individual, so I thought that was a very good program and I don't know when it actually came to an end, but I know that now there's another kind of an arrangement, but D.O. has always been interested in working closely with the local schools and I think has done so pretty effectively. There used to be a group of pretty steady former Fellows in the local universities who were constantly coming to D.O. I was among them for a while, although I haven't in recent years been as much or hardly at all involved with D.O., not from any disinclination, but one just gets in one's own groove and gradually we went our separate ways. And also in the earlier period, former Fellows had a lot more immediate access than they came to have in later times, so it was a pretty easy thing to, you know, come and go, and the procedures for entering and such were much, much more relaxed.

JNSL: Were you a part of Alexander Kazhdan's Greek reading group?

SG: Yes. I started reading with the group while I was a Fellow and I carried on with it afterwards for quite a long time. We were reading Psellos, as I recall, and Elizabeth Fisher was part of the group, and you may know that eventually she went on do quite a bit of work with Psellos, and I found that an extraordinary experience for me. I'm sure I was the poorest one in the group because it involved Michael McCormick and Elizabeth Fisher and one or two others and not everyone came every time. I think I pretty much did – but. And of course Kazhdan was a master, especially in a setting like that where we were reading texts together and he would come very well prepared and it was a very encouraging experience for me, not to mention the obvious: that my Greek improved considerably, albeit that I was probably not the most adept of the group. My focus had been on other languages, but what facility I did have in Greek was immensely improved by that experience.

JNSL: He sounds like quite an interesting man.

SG: Kazhdan?

JNSL: Yes.

SG: Oh yeah. He was an extremely interesting man. That was the period when he was beginning to put together the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium and many of us were involved in writing entries for it, including myself.

JNSL: I think that began in '84, maybe? Or previously?

SG: Well, it certainly was beginning even previously because I remember when I was a Fellow, Kazhdan brought along a list of the Syriac topics to be included and wanted me to review it and to add or subtract or whatever, so. And I wound up writing quite a few of them. There's an interesting thing there. For the other editors, they appreciated my entries because I always kept within the word limit and tried to be very succinct. So, I was getting all this praise from the other editors about my entries, but Kazhdan wound up being somewhat disappointed, and I remember getting a note from him telling me how he wept when he read my entries because he expected more, and it turned out that what he meant was that I hadn't included as much of the Russian scholarship as he would have thought important. And so in a couple of instances, he helped my articles along considerably. But I must say he certainly did improve them and I wasn't as astute in the matter of the previous scholarship in Russian as I should have been because, of course, I had always to have someone check my Russian, whether or not I had understood correctly and things like that because I wasn't so facile in Russian. Anyway, it was a very interesting experience. And I used to frequently go on hikes with Kazhdan – he loved to hike – especially on Saturday, and he knew every area around Washington where one could take a longish hike of several hours, so I often did that with him, and he would invite others, so I met some interesting people. I remember in particular one very long hike, I think it was in a park in Virginia, but I can't remember the exact location, and it was Kazhdan and Maria Mavroudi, and I, and Maria Mavroudi and I sort of engaged in a long discussion that lasted almost the whole hike about the Middle East and the level of Greek that persisted there after the Islamic conquest, all these things about which we still disagree. It was a very pleasant hike – that was a very Kazhdan thing to do, of course.

JNSL: That sounds lovely.

SG: He was very much of a presence here and easily accessible. He had this large file of bibliography that he kept on very small pieces of paper and you could go visit him in his office and have him consult this material and he was always willing to help.

JNSL: More broadly – a broader question – perhaps less related directly to Dumbarton Oaks, because we haven't had an opportunity to interview as many Orientalists in this project – can you describe for our institutional memory, how Syriac studies has changed, evolved, or some thoughts about that larger question in the last, say, since when you were a student and when you were writing a thesis?

SG: Well, when I was a student and writing my thesis in the area of Syriac studies, there weren't so many people working in it for itself. It wasn't unusual for people in Biblical studies for example to have had a semester or, if they were lucky, a whole year of Syriac study, but typically they didn't venture into Syriac literature itself, this was something they studied just to have a tool for other purposes like consulting the Peshitta, for example, the Syriac translation of the Scriptures. For among historians, I think fewer were involved in Syriac in those days, but because of the work of principally Sebastian Brock, of course, and Robert Murray, with his important book Symbols of Church and Kingdom, managed to stir up a considerable interest in Syriac studies in the anglophone world – Britain and America for the most part – and little by little people in various disciplines, particularly history or literature or theology or even Biblical studies still, began to dig in this area, let us say. I remember the very first Syriac symposium that we had in the U.S. at Brown, actually. We had very few people who came to participate but the group gradually grew until now there are quite a few, especially historians, late antique historians, who've cultivated an interest in Syriac. I think it had been encouraged at Princeton when Peter Brown came there. Of course, Susan Harvey was very much involved in it, and when she came here, home from her studies in England. So, it gradually grew and Dumbarton Oaks has played a particularly important part in it, I think, because a number of the people who wound up being very important in Syriac studies in the U.S. had been Fellows here at one point or another. Susan was and Kathleen McVey was and others, so, yeah, it's grown now quite a bit, and in the last couple of decades, I think, it got an impetus from the interest that Islamicists began to have in Syriac studies. Yeah, the interest in this field has grown considerably in Britain and in the U.S. in the last twenty to twenty-five years, and D.O. certainly had a hand in it by encouraging not only American students of Syriac but also bringing prominent Europeans here in the field, and Jan Drijvers, of course, was a Fellow here at one point, I think, and, of course, more recently his son.

JNSL: And what are you most grateful about in terms of your time that you've spent here through the years, in terms of what Dumbarton Oaks has provided for you?

SG: Well, if it's not heresy to say so, I think that it hasn't been for me so much a library, because in my field I do have access to a very good library, although I have certainly benefited immensely from the library, I think for me the most encouraging and most important part of my experience at Dumbarton Oaks – it may be different for other people – was the networking with other scholars from other places not only in the U.S. but abroad. That was, and continues to be, very broadening for me and very important. I am one who is encouraged by the opportunity to talk about my interests to learn about the interests of others and there are not that many places, even not many universities where you can have that kind of camaraderie, and I had that at D.O. not only as a Fellow but in subsequent years. And it continues now in a kind of distant way in that many interesting people come to D.O., and I often get to meet them, not often here on the premises, and to interact with them. And I no longer know the people who run the institution here, but occasionally I will come for a lecture or specifically to be with someone whom I know is a Fellow here that year. So, oddly enough, the networking, if one can call it that, or the interacting with others, has continued albeit slightly different. I mean, it's different from being actually present here and with the people every day, but there's scarcely a year that goes by that I don't have an interaction with the Fellows of that year, you know, in one way or another. Someone among them will either get in touch with me or I'll get in touch with them. It's not always that we had known one another from before, but because of our mutual interests our paths cross, so oddly enough an experience that began so long ago has continued in that way and I think that's been a very important part of the DO experience from my point of view.

JNSL: That speaks to things – we've heard similar things from other scholars who live in the Washington area in terms of D.O.'s place here in D.C., and it makes me wonder how different things would have been if that plan back in the '70s to move the library to Harvard would have actually happened.

SG: Well, I'm sure it would have changed it considerably, although, it's not just the Washington area that provides this networking. It still happens that people that I knew who were Fellows with me or at one point or another had been Fellows at D.O. – one meets them in various places around the world, and there's still that sort of connection that one enjoys with people whom one has known as a Fellow. It carries on as a relationship much beyond just the Washington area, although people in Washington are privileged to have a closer association perhaps, yeah.

JNSL: Were you aware, or was D.O.'s connection to Harvard something which was accentuated at that time in the '80s?

SG: I think we were very aware that it was part of Harvard. The fact that Giles Constable was a Harvard professor was evident and there was, in just the normal conversation, a lot of awareness of Harvard and of people there and the interaction, but I wouldn't say it was an overwhelming influence. I mean, I don't think that any of us felt that we were Harvard people just because we had been fellows at D.O., but we were aware of the Harvard connection, surely yeah.

JNSL: And just one final question. I wonder if – we're hoping to interview Dr. George Dennis eventually down the line – but could you just talk about him as a person a little bit and your experiences with him, and how you would describe him and his work?

SG: Well, George Dennis, in my experience, was a very personable, is a very personable, very approachable man, very down to earth, in many ways he defies the typical thought one may have of a scholar. He was interested in military history and for many of the years that I knew George he lived in a house with several other Jesuits here in Washington, on Jennifer St., I think was the street where the house was if I've got the name correct, and George was very interested in the youth of the neighborhood, he was a very outgoing person that way, he was always encouraging the young people and riding his bicycle with them and this sort of thing. I mean, he was a very outgoing guy like that, he was very serious about his scholarship and he served in many capacities here at D.O., including among the Senior Fellows. He would be the least pretentious Senior Fellow you could imagine, but I think had a very positive effect on younger scholars. He was very encouraging and he's up in years now and he lives in a Jesuit – not in an infirmary exactly, but a community for older and infirm people. He'd had some considerable health problems in recent years, but he's an extremely congenial man and with a very ordinary touch, very cheery and a scholar, I think. Yeah.

JNSL: And Dr. Meyendorff?

SG: Dr. Meyendorff, I had some interaction with Dr. Meyendorff before I was a Fellow here, and he did come around several times while I was a Fellow here. He, of course, was a lot more formal than George Dennis, but he was extremely open as well, and very helpful, and I often would encounter him in scholarly meetings, particularly in the American Academy of Religion and of course in the Byzantine Studies Conference, and so I had a good relationship with Dr. Meyendorff and I remember him very fondly, and he was also very encouraging to younger scholars and one of the results of my having been a Fellow here and having gotten to know a lot of people among the Byzantinists is that, for a period, I wound up being the president of the Byzantine Studies Conference some years ago and the way it came about is kind of funny because, as you may know, among Byzantinists a little differently, I think, than among the people in other areas of historical and cultural study there is a large group of art historians and a larger groups of text historians. And there's always a little – I wouldn't call it tension, but interesting interactions between the two groups, and I remember at this board meeting – somehow I had gotten onto the board – and the board would choose the president for the Byzantine Studies Conference, and there was tension between the text historians and the art historians and it was clear that nobody was going to agree on anyone from either one of the groups, and someone turned to me and said, “Sidney, you're not even a Byzantinist, but everybody will vote for you!” So for a period I was the president – I mean talk about an unlikely development! But that was how it happened between the – it wasn't, tension would be too strong a word, it's just an interesting...

JNSL: Like little factions.

SG: Yeah.

JNSL: Well, I'm so grateful for this opportunity to talk with you today. Did you have any other final anecdotes that you would like to share?

SG: Well, let me see.

JNSL: If not, then we'll wrap things up.

SG: I don't know if I can remember, I'm sure there were lots of things that were interesting that happened.

JNSL: Moments in the garden or special things?

SG: Well, there are interesting things that one wouldn't necessarily want to record having to do with the interactions among us and the friendships that developed during the year. I can remember very happy moments with, there was a woman who worked in the Byzantine collection called Carol Ann Moon, who had been a student at Bryn Mawr, I think, a Ph.D. student in art history, but she worked for the Byzantine Collection, and I struck up quite a friendship with her and it was very interesting over, you know, the course of that year and subsequent years for a little while, of course, you know one drifts in and out of these friendships with various people. There was also a woman who was the person in charge of the Pre-Columbian section at the time called Elizabeth Boone, who was a very interesting person, with whom I had a very interesting friendship and that was something that just lasted the course of that year, but I remember that very vividly. And, of course, I've kept up my friendship with Walter Kaegi, and then just the opportunity, I think, to meet these people and I've had a long and continuing relationship with Professor Shahid, who has always been here it seems, and is still here through various administrations and changes of focus and status and I don't know what all, but you know, he's done some wonderful things over all these years.

JNSL: Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

SG: You're certainly welcome. It was my privilege. One thing professors do very readily is talk. But I'm sorry I haven't kept up with, well I don't even know the current director.