Richard Frye first professor of Iranian languages

Area studies to Islamic studies 1949

Richard Frye First Professor of Iranian Languages

Richard Frye, “dean of the world’s Iranists,” was born in 1920 in Birmingham, Alabama and earned his B.A. at the University of Illinois and Ph.D. at Harvard. He held posts at Columbia, in Germany, and in Iran and served in the secret intelligence agency known first as the Office of the Coordinator of Information and then the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime agency preceding the CIA, in Afghanistan. Professor Frye’s expertise spanned ancient to contemporary Iranian studies and he was called “Irandust,” “friend of Iran,” by an Iranian linguist for his love of all things Iranian. His courses included Old Persian, Middle Persian, Modern Persian, Sogdian, Pahlavi, Old Turkish, “Iranian Languages and Literatures to Firdosi,” and “Iranian Religions.” In 1957, he became Harvard’s first Aga Khan Professor of Iranian and was one of the founders of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He published over 20 books and 150 articles including The Heritage of Persia (1962) and “The Charisma of Kingship in Ancient Iran” (1964). Among his notable students is Roy Mottahedeh, Gurney Research Professor of History.


Richard Frye Pioneers Iranian Studies

Roy Mottahedeh

One has to give credit to Frye, the pioneer. He wanted to study Iran, but they [Harvard] told him, "Well we don't have proper Iranian studies here, so study Sanskrit," which he did for a couple of years. Then they [Harvard] told him to go to London and study Persian in London, which he did. So he bounced around. He was enthusiastic, he was interested in the Iranian heritage as a whole, knew all sorts of ancient languages, which I studied with him, in part. And so there was, of course, Iranian studies is a philological field as well as a historical field, and he was more of a philologist than a historian, but he did write some good history. I don't know if he ever published his memoir. He wrote a memoir. I don't know if it was ever published. But anyway, in that he tells his story about how the Office of Strategic Services, I think it was, wanted somebody in Kabul, in Afghanistan, to monitor what was going on. Kabul was a somewhat important place, in that it was neither Russian, it bordered on Russia, it was neither Russia[n] nor British. The British were, of course, in India and [it] had maintained its independence. Richard Frye was really, until he went to Shiraz in his later life, was really more of an Afghan Persian specialist than an Iranian Persian specialist. Then he went to Shiraz late in his life, and spent five, six years, I've forgotten how much, and became a little bit more Iranized.

Richard Frye
Richard N. Frye (1920-2014)