History of MELC

The department was founded in 1894 by order of the Regents of the University of California as the Department of Semitic Languages with one faculty member. Now known as the department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures, it has over 20 faculty members in multiple disciplines. While the focus of this page is the faculty of MELC and their accomplishments, in some cases it will make note of relevant Berkeley faculty and goings-on in other departments.

1890s: Beginnings of Semitics at Cal

  • 1894: The Regents announce the establishment of a Department of Semitic Languages, the first of its kind in the US west of Chicago (itself only established in 1893).
  • 1894: Dutch-born Jacob Voorsanger (1852-1908), Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, appointed as unsalaried Professor of Semitic Languages. Proposing a complete curriculum for Semitic studies at undergraduate and graduate levels, he teaches courses on the Hebrew Bible and Comparative Semitics until his death in 1908. Voorsanger had little formal academic training, but received honorary Bachelor's and Doctorate degrees (HUC 1895, 1903).
  • 1897: Lithuanian-born Max Leopold Margolis (1866-1932, PhD Columbia 1891 under Richard Gottheil) appointed as assistant Professor of Semitic Languages. He expands the Department's language instruction to include Arabic, Assyrian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Phoenician, and ancient Greek. A close collaborator with Linguistics and History, he also taught courses such as “Fundamental Problems of Linguistics” and “The Relationship of the Indo-European, Semitic, and Egyptian Families of Languages” and even co-supervised Pliny Goddard’s thesis on Hupa. He leaves for the Hebrew Union College in 1905.
  • 1898: The women of congregation Emanu-El endow the “Emanu-El Fellowship in Semitic Languages” which provides a $500 prize for a student undertaking graduate work at Berkeley.
  • By the late 1890s, the University has received gifts of about 2,000 volumes in Judaica from community members, including the personal libraries of Rabbi Elias Grünebaum of Germany and Rabbi Elkan Cohn of San Francisco; funds from the women of Emanu-El go towards the purchase of medieval Hebrew manuscripts for the library. Voorsanger’s library is donated in 1906. At the time, it is one of the largest collections of Judaica in the US; today, it counts over 250,000 volumes.

*1899-1900: Excavations in the ancient Graeco-Roman city of Tebtunis in Egypt financed by UC benefactor Phoebe Apperson Hearst; over 20,000 objects and papyri—the largest papyrus collection in the US—are brought to the Bancroft Library where they are now managed by the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri.

*1899-1905: The Hearst Expedition excavated cemeteries in the area of Qift in Egypt, likewise financed by Phoebe Hearst. The expedition brought back numerous objects, among them stelae and the Hearst Medical Papyrus now cared for in campus collections.

Max L. Margolis (Prof. of Semitic Languages and Literatures, 1897-1905)

1900-1920: Stability and first students

William Popper (Prof. of Semitic Languages, 1905-1945)

  • 1902-1905: Max L. Margolis serves as department chair
  • 1905: William Popper (1874-1963, PhD Columbia 1899 under Gottheil) hired as Instructor in Semitic Languages, appointed as assistant professor a year later. In 1907 Popper married Tess Magnes, the sister of Judah L. Magnes, founding president of HUJ.
  • 1905: Herbert Harry Powell receives the first PhD in “Semitic Languages” with the dissertation The Supposed Hebraisms in the Grammar of the Biblical Aramaic.
  • 1907: The series University of California Publications in Semitic Philology is inaugurated by Popper; its first issue is the dissertation of Powell. The series mostly serves to publish Popper’s life work, his monumental edition and study of the chronicles of Mamluk historian Ibn Taghribirdi. It ceases in 1963 with the final fascicle of Popper’s edition thereof.
  • 1912: San Franciscan Martin A. Meyer (1879-1923, PhD Columbia 1906 also under Gottheil), who had succeeded Voorsanger as Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in 1910, hired as Lecturer in Semitic Literature and History, teaching until his death.
  • 1917: Louis Israel Newman completes the first M.A. in the department, on “Parallelism in Amos”, published as Univ. Cal. Sem. Phil. Vol. 1 No. 2 (1918); he succeeds Martin Meyer as Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El from 1924 to 1930.

*1911, Arthur Upham Pope (1881-1969), the foremost promoter of the field of "Persian Art" in the West, was hired at Cal as associate professor of Philosophy. He taught on philosophy and aesthetics until 1918. In 1914 he organized an exhibition of Phoebe Apperson Hearst's 'oriental' carpets at the University and in 1916 collaborated on a catalogue of her collection for an exhibition at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts.

1920s-1930s: Egyptology arrives at Cal

Henry Lutz (Prof. of Egyptology and Assyriology, 1921-1954)

  • 1921: Henry Ludwig Frederick Lutz (1886-1973, PhD Yale 1916 under Albert Clay) hired as Professor of Egyptology and Assyriology, the first position outside the traditional areas of “Semitics” at Berkeley. Lutz and Popper are the only two representatives of the department between 1923 and 1945. Lutz retires in 1954.
  • 1922-1945: Popper serves as department chair.
  • 1923: Lutz loses all his work materials in the Berkeley fire.
  • 1930: Popper named Faculty Research Lecturer.
  • 1932-1935: Popper also serves as Chair of the Department of Oriental Languages (now East Asian Languages and Cultures).
  • 1938: George S. Rentz Jr., later the pioneer of Research and Translation for ARAMCO, completes his M.A.—only the second awarded by the department—under Popper’s supervision.
  • 1939: Lutz named Faculty Research Lecturer.

1940s: Post-war years

  • 1945-1948: Lutz serves as department chair.
  • 1945: German-born Walter Joseph Fischel (1902-1973, PhD Giessen 1926) comes to Berkeley as a visitor from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is appointed as full Professor of Semitic Languages and Literature one year later. Fischel retires in 1970.
  • 1946: The Department changes its name from “Semitic Languages” to “Near Eastern Languages”.
  • 1948: The Department awards only the third M.A. degree since its founding, to John Barton Payne.
  • 1948-1958: Fischel serves as department chair. His reign was not without complaints—in order to use departmental stationery, faculty apparently had to go to Fischel’s home in person and obtain it a single sheet at a time.

Walter Fischel (Prof. of Semitic Lang & Lit, 1945-1970)

1950s: A modern NES begins to take shape

William Brinner (Prof. of Near Eastern Studies, 1956-1991)

  • 1956: William Brinner (1924-2011, PhD Berkeley 1956 with W. Popper) appointed as assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies. He retires in 1991.
  • 1956: Jacob J. Finkelstein (1922-1974, PhD Penn 1953) appointed as Professor of Assyriology; he leaves for Yale in 1965.
  • 1956: German-born John Joseph Gumperz (1922-2013, PhD Michigan 1956), who would become one of the most renowned linguists of the 20th century, invited to establish a Hindi-Urdu language program in the department. He holds the position of Lecturer until 1964, when he moves to a professorship in Anthropology.
  • 1959: German-born Klaus Baer (1930-1987, PhD Chicago 1958) joins the Department as Assistant Professor of Egyptology; he leaves for Chicago in 1965. He left his private library to the Department, where it forms the basis of the Baer-Keller Library of Egyptology.
  • 1959: Brinner named one of Cal's first undergraduate Distinguished Teaching Award winners.

By the end of the decade, the department counts 5 full-time faculty members (up from 2 the previous decade) representing the areas of Semitics, Assyriology, Egyptology, Islamic & Jewish Studies, and South Asian languages.

1960s: The department grows

  • 1960: The Lebanese poet and scholar Mounah Khouri (1918-1996, PhD Harvard 1964) arrives as professor of Arabic Language & Literature. He retires in 1989.
  • 1961-1965: Jacob Finkelstein chairs the Department.
  • 1961: Prussian-born Walter Bruno Henning (1908-1967, PhD Göttingen 1931) joins the Department as Professor of Iranian Studies; he dies unexpectedly in 1967.
  • 1961: Italian-born Ruggero Stefanini (1932-2005, PhD Florence 1957), a specialist in Anatolian languages and Romance philology, joins the faculty with an appointment of 1/3 in NES, 2/3 in Italian. He retires in 1994.
  • 1963: Anne Draffkorn Kilmer (1931–2023, PhD Penn 1959) joins the department as its first female faculty member as visiting lecturer in Assyriology; she is appointed to a tenure-track position shortly thereafter. She retires in 2001.
  • 1964: The department's second female faculty member, Iranian-born Guitty Azarpay (PhD Berkeley 1964), joins as professor of Iranian Art. She retires in 1994.
  • 1965: The Center for Middle Eastern Studies is established at Berkeley as one of the nation’s first Title VI National Resource Centers; Brinner serves until 1977 as its first Director.
  • 1965-1970: William Brinner serves his first term as Department chair.
  • 1965: Jonas C. Greenfield (1926-1995), hired as professor of Semitics; he departs for HUJ in 1971.
  • 1965: Hamid Algar (PhD Cambridge 1965) joins the department as its first professor of Persian Studies; he retires in 2010.
  • 1965: Ariel Bloch (1933-2018, PhD Münster), hired as assistant professor of Arabic; he retires in 1994.
  • 1965: Jacob Milgrom (1923-2010, PhD Jewish Theological Seminary) joins the department as assistant professor of Hebrew Bible; he retires in 1994.
  • 1966: Leonard H. Lesko (PhD Chicago 1969) hired as acting professor of Egyptology to replace Baer; regularized in 1969. He leaves for Brown in 1982.
  • 1966: Brinner co-founds the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad (based at AUC until the 2010s). He serves as its first chair until 1970, Khouri serves as its second chair until 1974. The first crop of CASA students can’t make it to AUC due to the 1967 war, so spend the Fall semester at Berkeley istead.
  • 1967: Robert Alter (PhD Harvard 1962) joins NES and Comp Lit as professor of Hebrew; he retires in 2011.
  • 1968: Mounah Khouri co-founds the American Association of Teachers of Arabic.
  • 1968: The Graduate Group in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology is founded; many MELC faculty have participated in it over the decades.
  • 1969: Gordon Charles Roadarmel (1932-1972, PhD Berkeley 1969) appointed as assistant professor of Hindi Literature, after serving since 1965 in an acting role. He dies unexpectedly in 1972.

*In 1965, Ira Lapidus is hired as professor of Islamic history in the History department.

Guitty Azarpay (Prof. of Iranian Art, 1964-1994)

Anne Kilmer (Prof. of Assyriology, 1963-2001)

To be continued...!