UC Berkeley adds Assyrian studies program through startup fund

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A startup fund will enable UC Berkeley to integrate an Assyrian studies program into the campus department of Near Eastern studies’ curriculum by sponsoring visiting faculty, new courses, digital projects and conferences, according to a press release from the department.

According to the press release, the fund was made possible by a gift of $675,000 from biotechnologist and philanthropist Nora Betyousef Lacey. The department of Near Eastern studies, located in Barrows Hall, will use the funds to attract a visiting professor, who will fulfill an initial three-year position and play an integral role in developing the Assyrian studies program, said UC Berkeley professor of Assyriology Niek Veldhuis.

“During those three years, we will evaluate how things are going, whether or not (Assyrian studies) is really adding something to our curriculum, and whether or not it is doing what the donor had in mind,” Veldhuis said. “If we are successful in that, then we will hopefully establish a more permanent position in Assyrian studies.”

Given the breadth of Assyrian history and culture — which dates back to the Assyrian Empire in the seventh century B.C. — the specific areas and disciplines encompassed by the Assyrian studies curriculum will depend on which visiting professor takes up the post, Veldhuis said.

Unlike traditional Assyriology, which focuses primarily on the study of ancient Assyrians, Assyrian studies will cover ancient history in conjunction with the experiences of modern Assyrians, an area that has rarely been the focus of academic study, Veldhuis said.

“Assyrian studies, at this point, really doesn’t exist anywhere at any university in the world,” Veldhuis said. “It will be a big challenge to actually make it happen and make it successful … but I think it is important that we create a place where the Assyrians are recognized and where their history, way of life and language is studied.”

The majority of Assyrians living in the United States and Europe are either refugees or the descendants of refugees who were displaced or persecuted during a variety of wars, Veldhuis said. These Assyrian refugees have brought their culture, language and history with them.

At a critical point for dispersed ethnic populations, Assyrian studies at UC Berkeley will draw Assyrian literature, religion, language and history into a cohesive and continuous narrative, shedding light on an important culture, said Near Eastern studies department chair Francesca Rochberg in an official statement.

“The process of preserving your culture while also adapting to a new situation is very interesting,” Veldhuis said. “We have large groups of Assyrians who live here (in California) and send their kids to local schools. Many of these kids will experience that once they go out of their home to college or to some other place, no one has really heard of the Assyrians.”

Veldhuis hopes that the Assyrian studies program at UC Berkeley will become a focal point for Assyrian students to see themselves, their history and their people reflected in teaching and research.

To strengthen the connection between the Assyrian studies program and the local Assyrian communities, the new visiting professor position will include community outreach in addition to teaching and research, Veldhuis said.

“There are large numbers of Assyrians in San Jose and in Turlock,” Veldhuis said. “(The new visiting professor) will talk to the Assyrian communities there to make known that this position is here, but also to see what is needed in the Assyrian communities. They will establish that point of contact between the university and the Assyrian community.”

Contact Annie Cheng at [email protected].