Thomas Benfey

 

I am in Berlin now, where I’ve been working on my dissertation for the past year, on a DAAD research grant. I spend most of my days between the State Library on Potsdamer Strasse, a beautiful modernist building in the middle of Berlin (featured in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire), and the Free University, which is in a quiet suburb called Dahlem. The State Library has many important Islamic manuscripts, and other relevant materials for my research. The libraries at the FU are also excellent, and I’ve been sitting in on a class there with my official supervisor here, Alberto Cantera, on the letters of the ninth-century Zoroastrian priest Mānūščihr, which can be difficult to read. Professor Cantera, an expert on Zoroastrian texts in Avestan and Middle Persian, has been very helpful to me during my time here. I have had useful contact with other scholars at the FU as well: particularly Beatrice Gruendler, who is working on a new edition of Kalīla wa-Dimna, whose Middle Persian Vorlage was written in Sasanian Iran, and Mark Geller, an expert on Babylonian medicine. Thanks to lessons I took with Yusef Saadat, a student at the FU, during summer 2017, my modern Persian abilities have also advanced considerably.

In front of the Berlin State Library

In front of the Berlin State Library

Broadly speaking, my dissertation focuses on intellectual trends in late Sasanian Iran, and the ways in which these trends informed early Islamic intellectual life. Over the past year, I have been particularly focused on medicine in Sasanian Iran, and the importance of the city Gondēšāpūr in this field: whether this was really the major pre-Islamic medical center that Islamic-era sources say it was, and how Gondēšāpūr and the broader region of Khuzestān fit into the larger picture of Sasanian and early Islamic medical history. Two unpublished Arabic manuscripts housed at the Berlin State Library have been especially important for this research: Sprenger 30, which furnishes an early, independent account of Sasanian history; and Ms. or. fol. 94, which includes a medical compendium with extracts from lost works from the early Islamic period.

Manuscript including a dialogue between the sixth-century Sasanian king Khusrō I and al-Ḥārith ibn Kalada, a companion of Muḥammad said to have studied medicine at Gondēšāpūr

Manuscript including a dialogue between the sixth-century Sasanian king Khusrō I and al-Ḥārith ibn Kalada, a companion of Muḥammad said to have studied medicine at Gondēšāpūr

In addition to the advantages it offers for my research, Berlin has some personal significance for me. My grandfather spent the first eleven years of his life in Charlottenburg, a neighborhood in western Berlin, before being forced out of the country due to his Jewish ancestry. In the time I haven’t been studying and doing research, I have enjoyed getting to know long-lost relatives, working on my German, and exploring the city and country.