Thursday, 23 November 2017

Persian and Iranian Studies in Britain in the 1960s: A brief survey

Image courtesy of the British Council. 

Amid the shifting currents of Anglo-Iranian relations, there has been continued scholarly interest in the cultural history of Iran among British academics. Developments in the 1960s in particular have proven to have a lasting impact.

همزمان با اوج بی اعتمادی ایرانیان به بریتانیا بعد از کودتای شهریور بیست، چه شد که مطالعات ایران شناسی در دانشگاه های بریتانیا چنین اوج گرفت؟

by Aida Foroutan, Underline MagazineBritish Council

It is an understatement to say that the 1960s was an important phase in Iranian history, yet in terms of cultural relations between Iran and the United Kingdom, it was rather a quiet period. In art and culture generally, other areas of Europe were more obviously affected by Iranian influences – France, Germany and Italy, for example. The low points of Anglo-Iranian relations were, of course, the Abadan crisis of 1951-54, and the 1953 MI6-CIA-backed Coup and Prime Minister Mossadegh’s overthrow in August of that year. It took the rest of that decade for wounds to heal. In between, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi made a state visit to the UK for a few days in May 1959. It was then less than two years before the Shah returned the compliment, welcoming Queen Elizabeth II to Iran in March 1961.

What needs pointing out among all these high profile crises and royal to-ings and fro-ings, is that there was ongoing interest in the UK towards Iran’s history and culture at the highest level of academia. This is evidenced by the quiet scholarly work and collaboration in academic research focusing on Iran – Iranian languages, texts, documents, artefacts of history and archaeology. This intense attention paid to everything Persian and Iranian is all the more surprising as Iran was never directly colonised by Britain, and drawn into its Empire, like India. One may ask: why was Iran the source of such fascination in Britain?

One of the keys to answering this question is the founding of the British Institute of Persian Studies in December 1961, just after Queen Elizabeth’s visit earlier that year. The foundation reflected rather than created an already existing long-term interest in Iranian and Persian studies: along with the physical Institute – located both in Tehran and London – a learned journal entitled IRAN: Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies, was inaugurated: it ‘was to make its field of interest the whole spectrum of Iran’s archaeology, history, and culture, from prehistory through ancient and Islamic Iran to modern times’. [1]

British universities already had a long-established interest in Iranian Studies– specifically, at the universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, London (SOAS), Manchester, and Oxford. Arthur J. Arberry’s very readable collection of seven essays on seven notable British scholars of Iran [2] testifies eloquently to a long tradition, from the work of Simon Ockley and Sir William Jones in the eighteenth century, through Reynold Alleyne Nicholson, to Arberry himself in the twentieth century. In the 1960s Arberry continued to promote Persian from his chair in Arabic at Cambridge, while Harold Bailey, Ilya Gershevitch and others at Cambridge pursued Indo-Iranian and Iranian studies with their groundbreaking work throughout the decade.

At the London School of Oriental Studies between 1936 and 1961 the celebrated Iranist and linguist Walter Bruno Henning had drawn to him a number of very notable scholars, including Mary Boyce, D.N. Mackenzie, H.K. Mirza, Shaul Shaked, Martin Schwartz and many others. [3] Ann Lambton succeeded Arberry in 1953 in the Chair of Persian at SOAS and remained there until her retirement in 1979. At the University of Manchester a number of distinguished Persianists were at work in the 1960s, principally John Andrew Boyle from 1950 until his death there in 1978 – indeed ‘His services to Persian studies were recognised as early as 1958, when he became the only European ever to receive the Iranian order of Sepas (First class).’ [4] Such facts as these, and the learned works that flowed from these Western trained men and women in the UK at this time, are evidence of a great fascination with all things Iranian and Persian. Many of these academics were originally classical scholars, who moved on from classical Greek and Latin literature to study the more sublime and exotic literatures and languages of ancient and medieval Iran.

The period was of one of utmost significance in Iran, as the repercussions of the 1953 Coup and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s self-proclaimed White Revolution of 1963 ‘sank in’, and led Iranians to a perhaps unprecedentedly heated debate on their own identity.

Previous discoveries, such as the Cyrus Cylinder in 1879, had become very important by the 1960s; world-renowned artefacts that were emblematic of an ancient Iranian ethnicity. Persian literature had begun to be celebrated again in the West (after the demise of the once ubiquitous Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam), through the popularisation by Nicholson and Arberry of Mowlana, as ‘Rumi’. The razzamatazz of the 1970s, with its ‘royal celebrations’, and the revolution at the end of that decade, were still a way off. The world was about to have its romantic image of ‘Persia’ redrawn in completely different terms. But scholarship endured and contributed enormously to the Western understanding of Iran. Many of the scholars were trained in the UK in this period, and their influence and legacy continue to spread far and wide. [5]

The question as to why Iran has always been fascinating to the West, and to Britons as much as anyone else, remains open and alive. The interest long predates Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s enthusiasm for the westernisation of Iran. It is surely obvious to any impartial observer that now, perhaps more than ever before, it is vitally important to understand Iran and the countries surrounding it. Yet, a legacy of scholarship that has taken centuries to build may be very quickly destroyed by careless, short-sighted false economies.


[1] See C. Edmund Bosworth and Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis’s 2006 entry on the journal in the Encyclopedia Iranica online edition

[2] A.J. Arberry, Oriental Essays (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1960).

[3] See Werner Sundermann’s excellent 2003 article on Bruno for the Encyclopedia Iranica

[4] See Peter Jackson’s 1989 Encyclopedia Iranica entry on Boyle at

[5] See Charles Melville’s most informative essay, ‘Great Britain x. Iranian Studies in Britain, the Islamic Period’ (2002) for the Encyclopedia Iranica:

The Persian translation can be found here (به فارسی):

Via Underline MagazineBritish Council

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