Dr Christine van Ruymbeke
Ext. Director of Studies
"Study Classical Persian? Vous êtes sure? Totalement et complètement pointless. You'd better choose something useful. Economics, perhaps?"
This was the advice I received from the Secretariat at Brussels’ Université Libre, where I wanted to enrol as an undergraduate, back then. But I stuck to my guns and enjoyed to the full four perfect years of being regarded as a nutcase by outsiders who did not know the exhilaration of studying an extraordinary subject that grows more gripping as it unfolds. We read the rock inscriptions of Darius, the King of Kings, dabbled in Zoroaster’s Avesta, discovered the Islamic world empires, the terrifying Turcs and the mind-boggling Mongols. We fell in love with Timur and his extremely sophisticated lineage but the crème de la crème for me were the classes in codicology (study of manuscripts in all their component parts) and those in Persian literature and especially in classical Persian poetry. The antics, tantrums and sometimes heroic deeds of the Shahnama heroes, the tongue-in-cheek humour of Sa’di, Hafez’ incomparable elegance and wit…the oh! so depressing nightmares of Sadeq Hedayat. What an opening to Persian culture and to world wisdom!
A few years later, I came back to Persian studies and started a PhD, still in French, still at Brussels. A mad topic: the botanical references within the giant work of the twelfth-century Persian poet, Nizami of Ganja. But the man was so great a poet, so wise a thinker that he filled the five years of my research with more delight than exasperation and sweat. I still consider him a boy-friend to this day! At the end of this research, I was granted a Wiener Anspach postdoctoral fellowship to spend a year at Oxford, following on which I was offered a part-time position as assistant researcher to the big Cambridge Shahnama project while being also appointed lecturer in Persian language, literature and art history at my home university in Brussels. I moved to Cambridge as full-time lecturer in Persian in 2002, when the post was created with the generous endowment of the Soudavar family. Never looked back since!
At the beginning of 2010, I became Trustee and Honorary Secretary of the Ancient India and Iran Trust, 23 Brooklands Avenue, Cambridge. Anyone who has ever been at the Trust will agree that it is a unique place in Cambridge. Set in a lovely garden (frothing with old roses in May and June!), this gentleman’s house, once home to Professor Harold Bailey, has become a centre for scholarly research and for the promotion of popular interest in the Indian Subcontinent, Iran and Central Asia. The AIIT houses a unique collection of books mainly centred on these domains, but spilling over into many neighbouring cultures. It also has a collection of manuscripts well worth perusing and holds Friday-evening talks on cognate subjects as well as seminars and conferences.
I am also Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 14, Stephenson Way, London, member of the Academic Committee of Iran Heritage Foundation, (www.iranheritage.org) and member of the Management Committee of the Centre for Islamic Studies at Cambridge (www.cis.cam.ac.uk). In 2017, I became Tutor at the Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education, giving a Summer Course entitled "Jewelled Pages. The art of the Book in Persia and Japan" with Dr Laura Moretti. We hope to pass on our enthusiasm to a wider audience.