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Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

Middle Eastern Studies
Ali Reza and Mohamed Soudavar Reader in Persian Studies
Email address: 
+44 (0)1223 335130
Fellow of: 
Darwin College
Director of Studies at: 
Sidney Sussex College

"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, and  member of the Management Committee of the Centre for Islamic Studies at Cambridge. 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.

Teaching responsibilities: 

Dr van Ruymbeke teaches intermediate and advanced literary Persian to undergraduate students, bringing to bear her expertise in and love of one of the great canons of world literature

Supervision information: 

Dr van Ruymbeke welcomes approaches from potential graduate students with research interests relevant to hers. She requests that prospective students email her to discuss their proposed projects before sending in their applications.

Research interests: 

I have just completed a monograph on the fifteenth century re-writing in Persian prose of the ubiquitous collection of Persian animal fables, the Kalila wa Dimna tales (Kashefi's Anvar-e Sohayli. Rewriting Kalila-Dimna in Timurid Herat). My fifteenth-century work, named Anvar-i Suhayli, has suffered virulent criticism both in Iran and in the West and was virtually put in the dustbin of Persian studies. I am thus – how exciting ! – reviving and studying what is tantamount to a forgotten text. It is a Mirror for Princes, containing advice for youths (aged from 7 to 77!) at Court.  I have also worked on a series of essays related to this research (“Dimna’s Apologia. The Place of Morality in the Trial of a Rhetorical Genius”).

Nezami Ganjavi is never far from my thoughts, naturally. In 2011, I edited a volume of essays (A Key to the Treasure of the Hakim. Artistic and Humanistic Aspects of Nizami Ganjavi's Khamsa) following on the Nizami conference I organised with Professor Christoph Buergel for the Iran Heritage Foundation in Cambridge in 2004. You will find on my page several further essays (or abstracts of forthcoming essays) dedicated to Nezami.

Current PhD students

Ms Parwana Fayyaz: Jāmi's Poetics of Vision and Poetry of the Eye in Salāmān va Absāl
Ms Armaghan Khosravi Nia: To be confirmed

Articles, Book Chapters etc

Dimna’s Apologia. The Place of Morality in the Corrupt Trial of a Dialectical and Rhetorical Genius ournal of the Royal Asiatic Society, FirstView, vol 26/4 pp. 549-583 (2016)
Sir William Jones and the Anvar-i Suhayli. Containing a fortuitous but nevertheless essential note on the "Orient Pearls I. Szanto (ed.) From Asl to Za'id: Essays in Honour of Eva M. Jeremias (2015)
The Kalila wa Dimna and Rumi: That was the Husk and This is the Kernel Mawlana Rumi Review 2013/4 pp. 85-105 (2013)
Iskandar’s Bibulous Business: Wine, drunkenness and the Calls to the Saqi in Nizami Ganjavi's Sharaf Nama Iranian Studies 46/2 pp. 251-272 (2013)
Murder in the Forest. Celebrating Misreadings and Rewritings of the Kalila-Dimna Tale of the Lion and the Hare Studia Iranica 41 pp. 1-69 (2012)
What is it that Khusraw learns from the Kalila wa Dimna stories? C. van Ruymbeke (ed.) & C. Buergel (ed.) A Key to the Treasure of the Hakim. Artistic and Humanistic Aspect of Nizami Ganjavi's Khamsa (2011)
L’histoire du Concours des peintres Rumis et Chinis chez Nizami et Rumi. Deux aspects du miroir D. De Smet (ed.) & M. Sebti (ed.) & G. de Callataÿ (ed.) Miroir et Savoir. La transmission d'un thème platonicien, des Alexandrins à la philosophie arabo-musulmane. Actes du colloque international tenu à Leuven et Louvain-la-Neuve, les 17 et 18 novembre 2005 pp. 273-291 (2008)
The Middle-Eastern Illustrated Manuscripts The Fitzwilliam Museum’s catalogue of the Spittle Grandchildren settlement temporary exhibition (2007)
The Hellenistic Influences in Classical Persian Literature J.T.P. de Bruijn (ed.) History of Persian Literature, vol I (2007)
Firdausi’s Dastan-i Khusrau va Shirin: not much of a love story! Charles Melville (ed.) Proceedings of the Shah Nama conference held in Cambridge, November 2003 (Pembroke Papers, 5) pp. 125-47 (2006)
Kashefi’s forgotten Masterpiece: Why rediscover the Anvar-i Suhayli? Iranian Studies 36/4 pp. 571-588 (2003)
The Application of Scientific Knowledge in Mediaeval Persian poetry: Nezami’s Sandal Tree M. Szuppe (ed.) Iran, Questions et Connaissances. Actes du IVe Congres Européen des Etudes Iraniennes Organisé par la Societeas Iranologica Europaea, vol. ii pp. 141-51 (2002)
From culinary recipe to pharmacological secret for a successful wedding night: the scientific background of two images related to fruit in the Xamse of Nezâmi Ganjavi Festschrift in honour of Professor J.T.P. de Bruijn, Persica, Annual of the Dutch-Iranian Society pp. 127-136 (2002)