Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg (23 May 1944 - 28 May 2000)

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  • British Institute of Persian Studies

    Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg (23 May 1944 - 28 May 2000)Author(s): Amelie KuhrtSource: Iran, Vol. 38 (2000), pp. v-viPublished by: British Institute of Persian StudiesStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4300578 .Accessed: 12/06/2014 15:07

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    (23 May 1944 - 28 May 2000)

    Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg died on 28 May 2000 in Utrecht,just five days after her fifty-sixth birthday. She had been suffering from cancer for the last four years. With her passing, the study of ancient Iran has lost an exceptional scholar.

    Heleen began her studies in classical languages and history in Leiden, and moved on to research under the supervision of Professor W. den Boer, a specialist in Greek history. Her interest in early Iran arose from an engagement with the classical Greek period, which has provided such potent, but problematical, images of Achaemenid history. For her PhD thesis, she set herself the task (and it became a perennial theme) of try- ing to disentangle the complex realities of the Achaemenid empire from the distorting web created by Greek literary conventions. To do this, she studied Old Persian, mainly on her own, and Iranian archaeology with Louis Vanden Berghe in Ghent. The fruits of her work appeared in her doctoral dissertation, Yauna en Persai in een anderperspectief (Leiden 1980). The first, and perhaps most important, chapter was a detailed analysis of Xerxes' well-known daiva inscription, in which she argued forcefully against attempts to connect its state- ments with historical events, setting it instead into the context of the formal rhetoric of Old Persian kingship, which began with Darius I's Behistun inscription. This, in effect, detached the text from Xerxes as an individ- ual, and was a crucial first step in reassessing the significance notjust of Xerxes' reign, but, the entire history of the Achaemenid empire in the later fifth and fourth centuries.1

    The problems raised in interpreting the diversity of sources available for Achaemenid history, the temp- tation to fit them into a picture congruent with the image derived from Greek narratives, and the inevitable resulting sterility in terms of historical understanding, inspired Heleen to set up the Achaemenid History Workshops. Begun in 1980 in Groningen,2 with a small group of Dutch scholars, they became from 1983 on an annual event drawing together a group of scholars from across the world.3 The organisation was impor- tant: each Workshop focused on a specified theme, on which contributions were solicited; all papers were cir- culated in advance; the one and a half day Workshop sessions were devoted solely to discussions and the num- ber of participants limited to c. 30. The results were electrifying as the debates gathered momentum. One left at the end of these intense days exhausted but exhilarated, full of new ideas, information and approaches. Apart from the first two, all the Workshops were published, with contributors asked to modify their papers in the light of issues raised in the course of the Workshop sessions;4 they form the first eight volumes of the con- tinuing Achaemenid History series.5 The impact of the Workshops has been, and continues to be, immense in setting a new agenda for studying the Achaemenid empire, which in turn has had important repercussions on assessments of Alexander the Great and the hellenistic phase of Middle Eastern history.6

    Although the Achaemenid History Workshops are, and will remain, Heleen's most lasting memorial,7 her other work and interests should not be forgotten. In addition to a mass of stimulating articles on Persian topics,8 she was closely involved in, and an active contributor to, the growing fields of study on women in antiquity,9 history of food and eating,10 early travellers' descriptions of Achaemenid sites,11 early Greek histo- ry and the history of classical scholarship.12 In all these diverse areas she was immensely active: writing, lec- turing, fostering public interest, teaching, opening up new perspectives. She was a stimulating speaker and thus in constant demand: in The Netherlands she gave unstintingly of her time, addressing a variety of non- specialist audiences; she lectured extensively in the United States, Canada and England; she was invited to speak in France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Greece, Turkey and South Africa. In what has turned out to be a tragically brief life, she has been, with her acute intellect and personal generosity, almost single-handedly responsible for revitalising the study of early Persian history, in a manner that has changed the field endur- ingly. It is sad that her early death has prevented her from fulfilling one of her most cherished wishes - to visit Iran.

    1 An excellent summary of her approach and conclusions of this aspect of her work can be found in her article, "The personality of Xerxes," Archaeologia Iranica et Orientalia, Miscellenea in honorem Louis Vanden Berghe (eds. L. de Meyer and E. Haerinck), Ghent, 1989, 549-562

    2 After teaching history in a secondary school for some years, she was appointed to a lectureship in ancient history at the University of Groningen.


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  • 3 In 1984, Heleen and I drew up plans for six further workshops which would explore broad issues and made a firm decision to end them in 1990. All were held in Groningen, apart from 1985 (London) and 1990 (Ann Arbor, Michigan).

    4 Achaemenid History I-VIII, Leiden, Netherlands Institute for the Near East, 1987-1994. 5 Subsequent volumes: M.B. Garrison and M.C. Root; 1996-98, Persepolis Seal Studies (AchHist IX); P. Briant, 1996, Histoire de l'empire

    perse (2 vols. [co-published with Fayard, Paris], AchHist X); M. Brosius & A. Kuhrt (eds), 1998, Studies in Persian History: Essays in Memory ofDavid M. Lewis (AchHist XI); D. Kaptan, in prep., The Daskyleion Bullae (AchHist XII).

    6 See, for example, the many studies of P. Briant, an influential participant of the Workshops, on aspects of Alexander and Hellenistic history; also the studies of the Seleucid empire by A. Kuhrt and S. Sherwin-White (1987, 1993).

    7 It was a tribute to her achievement in putting Achaemenid history "on the map" of ancient history, that she was chosen to hold the Dutch Professorship in Ann Arbor, Michigan (1989-1990), followed by her appointment to the Chair of Ancient History in Utrecht in the spring of 1990 and her election to the Dutch Research Council.

    8 These range from her own fundamental analyses of the pernicious influence of "orientalism" on Achaemenid studies and a revolu- tionary approach to the "Median empire" to discussions of the royal practice of gift-giving (in P. Briant & C. Herrenschmidt (eds.), Le tribut dans l'empire perse, Paris 1989), "Persian political concepts" (in K. Raflaub (Hsg.), Anfiinge politischen Denkens in der Antike (Munich 1993) and historiography (in C. Kraus (ed.), The Limits of Historiography, Leiden 1999).

    9 An article of particular relevance for readers of this journal is "Exit Atossa: images of women in Greek historiography on Persia", in A. Cameron & A. Kuhrt (eds.), Images of Women in Antiquity, London 1983-1993.

    10 She co-edited a book on the history of food (with sample recipes), which reached the bestseller list in The Netherlands in the sum- mer of 1994. See also her "Persian food and political identity", Food in Antiquity (eds.J. Wilkins, D. Harvey, M. Dobson, Exeter 1995).

    1 The Ninth Achaemenid History Workshop (1989) was devoted to this subject. Simultaneously, Heleen organised an exhibition of relevant books and drawings, accompanied by a volume discussing, for example, the limitations imposed on European visitors to Persian sites by prevailing artistic ideas and conventions. This abiding interest was taken further in her involvement with a group interested in the Dutch eighteenth-century traveller, Cornelis de Bruijn (cf. the exhibition catalogue of the Allard Pierson Museum (Amsterdam 1998) on de Bruijn'sjourneys).

    12 Just a few days before her death, the papers from a conference on Peisistratos, which she had organised and edited were published (Peisistratos and Tyranny: a Reappraisal of the Evidence). A symposium on the classical tradition, set up by Heleen, will be held in Athens later this year.

    AMELIE KUHRT University College London


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    Article Contentsp. vp. vi

    Issue Table of ContentsIran, Vol. 38