Yale marks 175th anniversary of Arabic and Islamic studies with exhibit, public events

The Yale Corporation appointed Edward E. Salisbury professor of Arabic and Sanskrit languages and literature in August 1841, the first appointment of its kind in the United States.
September 6, 2016

When assuming his appointment as Yale’s first professor of Arabic and Sanskrit languages and literature in August 1843, Edward E. Salisbury urged his colleagues to be patient with him as he strived to establish a new field of study both on campus and in the United States.

“I would earnestly ask of you all, to bear with my weaknesses, to be patient with my slowness in doing all that I ought to do to honor my place, and to allow me to find refuge from the feeling of loneliness and discouragement in your sympathising (sic) recognition, that each department of knowledge is truly kindred with every other — the sentiment which should pervade every great institution of learning …” Salisbury said during his inaugural lecture to Yale faculty.

Two years earlier, the Yale College Corporation had formally appointed Salisbury, B.A. 1832, as professor of Arabic and Sanskrit languages and literature, the first appointment of its kind in the nation. 

At the time, Salisbury had recently returned from a three-year sojourn in Europe, where he had studied Arabic in Paris and Sanskrit in Berlin with leading European scholars. Following his appointment, he spent another year studying Sanskrit in Bonn before returning to New Haven to assume his teaching duties. By the end of his career, he had made lasting contributions to the fabric of the university and aided its transformation into a modern research institution.

The Yale community is marking the 175th anniversary of Salisbury’s appointment with a series of exhibits, symposia, lectures, and other events throughout the 2016-2017 academic year.  The Council on Middle East Studies at the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale is coordinating the year-long program, working with several institutions across campus, including the South Asian Studies Council (also at the MacMillan Center) and the Yale University Library. 

Kishwar Rizvi, associate professor of the history of art, and acting chair of the Council on Middle East Studies during last year’s fall semester, is coordinating the 175th-anniversary celebration.

“This anniversary has provided a wonderful opportunity to work across institutions, and there are a lot of exciting collaborations that have resulted from it.  I think that they fit with the nature of Salisbury’s work — how he moved beyond disciplinary boundaries in the pursuit of knowledge,” Rizvi said. “I hope we are able to recreate that spirit of intellectual curiosity and the pleasure of working across disciplines in this year of celebration.”

The celebration begins with “An American Orientalist: The Life & Legacy of Edward E. Salisbury,” an exhibit opening Sept. 6 in Sterling Memorial Library’s Memorabilia Room.

‘A very determined man’

Benjamin R. Foster, the Laffan Professor of Assyriology and Babylonian Literature, received a phone call more than 20 years ago from the Yale Library notifying him of a framed photograph that could be of interest. Foster recognized it as a portrait of Salisbury, whose work and contributions had been largely forgotten.

“I brought it back to my office and decided I would do some research about him,” Foster said.

Foster described Salisbury’s life and work in a 1997 article published in Al-ʿUsur al-Wusta: The Journal of Middle East Medievalists and later in the American National Biography.

Salisbury was born in Boston in 1814. His father, Josiah, was a clergyman and a successful merchant.

The future professor of Arabic and Sanskrit trained at the Boston Latin School and came to Yale in 1828 when he was 14 years old.

He graduated from Yale in 1832 and returned to Boston. His sister, Martha, got engaged to Theodore Woolsey, a professor of Greek at Yale who taught Salisbury.

After his sister’s wedding, Salisbury returned to Yale and spent three years studying theology. In 1836, he was examined and approved for the ministry in Boston.

In April of the same year, Salisbury married his cousin, Abigail Breese Phillips. The couple was well heeled — Salisbury had inherited considerable wealth from his father and Abigail’s family was wealthy. In June, they traveled Europe for a three-year grand tour.  

During this period, Salisbury studied in Paris with A.I. Silvestre de Sacy, a pioneering Western scholar of Arabic, and later studied Indian antiquity and Sanskrit with leading scholars in Berlin.

Roberta Dougherty, librarian for Middle East studies and curator of the exhibit on Salisbury at Sterling Library, said Woolsey’s influence might have inspired Salisbury’s interest in studying the languages in Europe.

“At the time, there was no easy way to study Oriental languages in the United States,” she said.

By the time of his appointment to the Yale faculty — which was unsalaried — Salisbury could write and translate Arabic accurately, and his early essays were the first professional scholarship in the field published in the United States, Foster said.

Still, launching the study of Arabic and Sanskrit in America — an ocean away from the European centers of scholarship on the languages — was a daunting task, notes Foster.

Salisbury's various gifts provided the foundations for Yale's extensive collection of Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit manuscripts and printed books. The Beinecke Library acquired this lavishly decorated Quran from the Hartford Seminary. The text is framed in gold leaf.“We must remember that in 1841 there was no such entity as the ‘professional scholar’ as the term is now understood; there were no universities, no research in the colleges, no graduate schools or degrees; no ‘doctrine of expertise’ in higher education or academic specialization; no professional societies or periodicals in what are now called the humanities … no ‘research libraries’ with collections of Orientalist books, periodicals or manuscripts,” Foster wrote in his 1997 article.

Despite the raft of challenges, Salisbury devoted himself to promoting the study of Oriental languages and literature at Yale and in the United States. He assembled an extensive research library of books and manuscripts and in 1842 was elected a member of the fledgling the American Oriental Society, whose journal he used as a vehicle for sharing the latest scholarship from Europe as well as platform for American scholarship in the field.

“He was a very determined man, and a very strong one, but very modest as well,” said Foster, who will participate in a panel discussion about Salisbury and the ancient Near East on Nov. 4 at the Hall of Graduate Studies, 320 York St.

Dougherty, who presented a paper on Salisbury at a conference in Leiden at the end of May, said Salisbury was never very confident in his ability to teach.

In 13 years as a professor, he had only two students: the classicist and linguist James Hadley and William Dwight Whitney, who would become a leading scholar of Sanskrit. (Both pupils studied Sanskrit. Salisbury never had a student in Arabic.)

“Hadley describes Salisbury’s teaching in a diary entry as ‘not much of a session,’” Dougherty said. “Salisbury attempted to resign in 1848 because he felt he had little of value to share and needed to renew his studies. You can tell very clearly that he missed the excitement of his experiences in Europe.”

Salisbury displayed his generous spirit in 1853 by resigning his Sanskrit chair so that Whitney could be appointed to the faculty. Having served without a salary, Salisbury endowed the new position from his own pocket.

He retired from Yale in 1856, but he remained active in the American Oriental Society, becoming its president in 1863. He continued to build his “Oriental” library, amassing a collection of more than 100 manuscripts and hundreds of rare early printed books in Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit that he donated to Yale in 1870.

Salisbury became a major benefactor to the university, donating substantial sums of money and collection materials to its library and art gallery. He endowed two professorships, including a professorship first held by pioneering geologist James Dwight Dana. Foster calculates that Salisbury’s total gifts to Yale in cash and collections exceeded $130,000 in 19th-century dollars.

Salisbury’s first wife, Abigail, died in 1869. He remarried two years later and worked closely with his second wife, Evelyn, on genealogical research. They moved between their homes in New Haven and Lyme, Connecticut. Edward Salisbury died in 1901.

Rich program of events

Dougherty began pondering the beginning of the study of Arabic at Yale shortly after she arrived at the university in 2012. After calculating that the 175th anniversary of Salisbury’s appointment would fall in 2016, she began researching Salisbury and planning the exhibit at Sterling Library.

The exhibit, on view through Feb. 6, explores Salisbury’s scholarly development, his career at Yale, and his legacy. It also charts the growth of Yale’s collections of Islamic manuscripts following Salisbury’s death. It draws on his correspondence, lecture notes, journals, and other papers, which are housed in the library’s Manuscripts and Archives Department.

Many of the books Salisbury donated to Yale remain in circulation in the Sterling Library stacks. Examples are displayed along with reproductions of highlights from Yale’s extensive collection of Arabic, Sanskrit, and Persian manuscripts. Items Salisbury donated are shown alongside manuscripts, including rare Qurans, maps, and literature acquired later by the library.

“Yale still benefits from his amazing legacy,” Dougherty said. “His collections remain available to scholars; the chairs he endowed still exist; the library, which he helped to build, has grown into a world-class institution.”

Dougherty will discuss Salisbury and related materials held in Yale’s libraries during an opening lecture on Wednesday, Sept. 21, in the lecture hall at Sterling Library (enter on Wall Street).

The 175th celebration will feature a series of lectures and symposia; community events such as a concert of Sufi music, and mural painting and Arabic workshops; and an exhibit of modern art from the Middle East.

Karim Jabbari, a Tunisian artist who has modernized the ancient art of Arabic calligraphy using light, will visit campus Oct. 4-7. He will give a performance of his work and lead workshops on Arabic calligraphy on campus and at local high schools, among other activities. Jabbari’s visit is co-sponsored by the Chaplain’s Office.

“Modern Art from the Middle East,” an installation at the Yale University Art Gallery, features works from the Barjeel Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates — the most comprehensive private art collection in the Middle East — highlighting the art movements that blossomed in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria in the second half of the 20th century.

The following institutions are also contributing to the 175th-anniversary celebration: the Departments of the History of Art and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, the Babylonian Collection, and the Institute for Sacred Music.

Details about upcoming events and more information on Salisbury are available at salisbury175.yale.edu.