Ilya Gershevitch, 1914-2001

address given by Nicholas Sims-Williams at the memorial service in the chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge, on 6 October 2001


We who have gathered to pay tribute to the memory of Ilya Gershevitch knew him in many different capacities: as a teacher, a friend, a colleague in the Fellowship of Jesus College, or a fellow-worker in philological or Iranian studies. Some here will remember in particular the graceful manner in which he, as praelector, presented them for their degrees and the elegance of his Latin diction. In whatever way we came to know him, we could not fail to realize that we were in the presence of a truly exceptional man. Ilya could always be relied upon for something extraordinary: a daring etymology, a paradox, a colourful and felicitous choice of words. An occasion which sticks in the memory was a meeting of the Philological Society in the Prioresses Room here in Jesus, when Ilya was both speaker and host - two roles which he played to perfection. Having already introduced a new word into the English language in the title of his lecture, "The Alloglottography of Old Persian", he entertained his audience with a lively paper in which an important and entirely serious argument about the function of the Elamite language in ancient Iran was adorned with whimsical stories about the fictitious Mithradata and his girl-friend Hutautha, jokes about vacuum-cleaners and char-ladies, and puns about El-amite and El-ectronics - two subjects, he implied, which to many of us are almost equally mysterious.

Unfortunately I was not present on the occasion of Ilya's Ratanbai Katrak lectures in Oxford, when, I am told, he burst into song in order to illustrate his reconstruction of the musical form of an Avestan hymn. By all accounts Ilya was a fine musician. As a boy he learnt to play both the piano and the cello and at one time it seemed likely that he might follow a career in music, like his mother, a professional pianist. When he settled in Cambridge in the early 1940s, Ilya cemented his friendship with Sir Harold Bailey, the Professor of Sanskrit, by accompanying him in violin sonatas. A few years later he took up the cello again in order to play with Bailey and others in a string quartet. In later years he no longer played himself, but he continued to take delight in music and was a keen supporter of the Jesus College Music Society.

The other passion which stayed with Ilya from his earliest to his latest years was of course languages - an interest which was perhaps natural for the son of Russian-speaking parents growing up in multi-lingual Switzerland. In 1914 Ilya's father was studying medicine in Germany; his wife, who was already pregnant, was on a visit there when war broke out. To escape internment they fled over the border to Switzerland on the last possible train; and so it came about that Ilya was born in Zürich under the auspices of the Red Cross. The exiled family had a hard life. Ilya's father became too ill to finish his medical studies and died from TB when Ilya was only twelve; his mother supported the family by teaching the piano and playing for dances. The need for Ilya to contribute to the family finances nearly led to his being apprenticed to a hairdresser; luckily for him and for us, he managed to escape this fate and in 1933 he enrolled as a student of classics at the University of Rome. In Rome he was introduced to Indo-European comparative philology by Antonino Pagliaro, from whom (as he later wrote) he "first learned of the existence of such languages as Pahlavi and Sogdian".

After completing his studies in Rome, Ilya came to England in 1938 with the intention of staying for three months. In fact, he remained for the rest of his life. Though his decision not to return to Rome was no doubt influenced by political events, an equally important motive was a desire to pursue the study of Iranian languages under the guidance of W.B. Henning at the School of Oriental Studies in London. Henning was an inspiring teacher, whom Ilya revered both as a man and as a scholar. Ilya regarded Henning as almost infallible: a scholar with such a perfect command of his sources and such penetrating judgement that (I quote) "the chances of his having actually committed to print opinions which will turn out to have been serious errors of judgement are negligible ... Scholarship at large", Ilya continues, "does not thrive on mere facts, suggestions, and counter-suggestions. Over and above these ingredients it needs to be able to rely on the wisdom of the few whose intuition has consistently proved felicitous. To follow them with intelligent confidence does not mean demeaning oneself; it merely means increasing the likelihood that one is not wasting time in blind alleys, but may achieve instead valid results by forging ahead from where they left off." Those are Ilya's own words; and he practised what he preached. A good example of his "forging ahead" where Henning had left off was his work on Bactrian. Virtually nothing was known of the Bactrian language until the discovery of the first well-preserved inscription in 1957. Henning immediately recognized that the inscription dealt with the construction of a well; but the article in which he demonstrated this fact did not include a complete translation. That task fell to Ilya, who successfully filled in the gaps which Henning had left, and then moved on to apply his newfound knowledge of Bactrian to the still undeciphered cursive script of the later Bactrian manuscript fragments.

When Ilya met Henning in 1938, Henning had just published his edition of the so-called Bet- und Beichtbuch, a long Manichean text in Sogdian, one of the most complex and least known of the Middle Iranian languages. Ilya took on the daunting task of analysing the structure and development of the language on the basis of the fragmentary Manichean manuscripts, completing it so successfully that his Grammar of Manichean Sogdian, submitted as a thesis in 1943 and published in 1954, remains a standard work of reference to this day.

After the outbreak of war, the School of Oriental Studies was evacuated from London to Cambridge, and Henning and Gershevitch soon followed. Once a week Ilya cycled to Henning's house for a ten-hour working session; on other days he would drop in on Sir Harold Bailey to discuss any problems which arose during the course of the week. In an affectionate memoir written to celebrate Bailey's 90th birthday in 1989, Ilya wrote of Cambridge in the early 1940s as "an unusually high-powered place for introduction into Iranian studies", above all because of the presence of "two such luminaries" as Bailey and Henning. Later on, Professor R.E. Emmerick wrote much the same about Cambridge in the 1960s, except that for him the second "luminary" was Ilya Gershevitch.

In 1948 Ilya became the first holder of a new Lectureship in Iranian Studies in Cambridge. Having drawn up an elaborate syllabus covering no less than seven Iranian languages, he devoted his energies to making himself expert in each of them, studying Khotanese with Bailey and Ossetic with a 'native informant' employed for the purpose. In preparation for teaching Avestan, the language of the Zoroastrian scriptures, he began his second book, The Avestan hymn to Mithra, a work which came to be recognized as inaugurating a new era in Avestan scholarship. Ilya customarily used this book to introduce students to Avestan, though it makes no concessions to the beginner: almost every page of the commentary contains references to cognates in half-a-dozen obscure languages, not to mention quotations in French, German or Russian. But the book is characteristic of Ilya's attitude to teaching, which was dedicated but wholly uncompromising. His last pupil, Anna Chaudhri, has described how he "was prepared to spend hours of his time with a student and regularly appeared with two small suitcases of books and articles to be used during one session". When he was teaching, time seemed to have little meaning for him; as his research student I sometimes had to beg for mercy after a long afternoon's grilling - the term is appropriate in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense, since Ilya's study was turned into an oven by the combination of his cigarette smoke and electric fire. But not everything was serious. Ilya was always ready to see the funny side and sometimes became helpless with laughter over some convoluted translation or reductio ad absurdum.

As well as a tremendous sense of fun, Ilya had a romantic streak. My wife and I were both his students - it was in fact the only time that he ever had two students in the same year. He was delighted when we got married and liked to take credit for having brought us together. Further proof of his matchmaking abilities came with the marriage of two colleagues whom he had introduced to one another at dinner here in Jesus. His own marriage to Lisbeth in 1951 was one of the best things which ever happened to him. They were married for 49, nearly 50, years, and throughout those years Lisbeth was a constant support, providing Ilya with ideal working conditions, taking an interest in his work, and accompanying him everywhere, even on a three-month visit to Southern Iran in 1956 to record the unknown dialects of Bashkardia. One might think of Ilya as a typical "armchair scholar", and indeed he himself described his natural habitat as a library, "any library I can lay my hands on". But he did not lack a spirit of adventure. The trip to Bashkardia was adventurous indeed: scarcely any European had previously penetrated this region, which had been described as "the most ill-famed of the Shah's dominion on account of the hostility of its inhabitants". Shipwrecked on arrival in true "Arabian Nights" fashion, Lisbeth and Ilya were obliged to travel with an armed guard; but they did of course return safely, and Ilya was able to make good use of his field-notes in subsequent articles.

Ilya spoke many European languages fluently and had an affection for each of the many countries with which he had a personal connexion. Russian was of course his mother-tongue, though he was not able to visit Russia until 1960, when he went to Moscow for an Orientalist Congress. Switzerland was the land of his birth, and that of his wife; in Italy he had taken his first degree and received his introduction to Iranian studies; Britain was the country which had welcomed him as a refugee, the first and only one of which he was ever a citizen. In due course he received honours from all these countries: he became a Fellow of the British Academy in 1967 and later a corresponding member of both the Accademia dei Lincei and the Russian Academy. In 1971 he received an honorary doctorate from Berne, and endeared himself to the Swiss audience by addressing them in Schwyzerdütsch. But it was in Britain that he felt most at home. Once settled in Cambridge as a member of the University and a Fellow of Jesus, he found it so congenial that he could not bring himself to leave, despite tempting offers from the United States.

Ilya's contributions to Iranian studies cover a remarkable range, including history and religion as well as languages. I have already referred to some of his major achievements, such as his pioneering work on the Bashkardi dialects and the decipherment of Bactrian, or his books on Sogdian and Avestan. But he also worked in other fields, such as Ossetic and Elamite, Zoroastrian studies and Achaemenid history. Many of his brilliant discoveries and intuitions do not lend themselves to being summed up in brief, so I will limit myself to mentioning a few of the smaller jewels in his crown, such as his recognition that two lines of apparent mumbo-jumbo in a Sogdian manuscript represented a version of one of the most sacred Zoroastrian prayers, and thus the earliest known copy of any part of the Avesta. Some of his etymologies, such as his derivation of the Persian word for "grass" from a compound meaning "cattle-nourisher", were so felicitous that they almost seemed to partake of the character of revealed truth. Other interpretations, which at first seemed too daring to be believed, have since received confirmation from newly-discovered texts. Such a case is his identification of Bactrian lruhminan as the equivalent of Middle Persian du¹menàn "enemies". A discovery that particularly delighted him was made during his travels in Bashkardia, where he found that the sisoo tree was known locally as jag and thus established the identity of the yaka wood used in the building of Darius' palace at Susa.

I would like to end by quoting from an article on "Iranian studies" which Ilya wrote in the hope of arousing the interest of potential students. Many scholars would have regarded the writing of such a piece as "hack work", but Ilya characteristically devoted to it as much effort as to any scholarly article. It concludes with these words: "The broader an education ... a freshman brings to the subject, the sooner he will overcome the initial difficulties, achieve control of the sources, learn to spot problems, and begin to contribute to their solution. This last is the chief satisfaction one may hope to derive from the pursuit of Iranian studies. Vast tracts of virgin land still lie uncharted. Almost any step a trained observer takes in them leads to a discovery. And the most promising recipients of training are those endowed with intelligence, a gift for languages, curiosity, and perseverance."

In these last words Ilya could have been describing himself. Ilya was indeed supremely endowed with all these qualities, as well as imagination, warmth, loyalty, affection and wit. Without him, the world is a poorer place.