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Professor Geoffrey Lewis 24 février 2008

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The Times (UK)

February 20, 2008

Scholar who introduced Turkish studies to Oxford and worked tirelessly to foster friendship between Britain and Turkey

Professor Geoffrey Lewis, who was the prime mover in introducing Turkish studies at Oxford and whose 1953 Turkish primer is still the classic introduction to the language, took up Turkish only “as a hobby” on the advice of his Latin tutor. It was to change his life.

He was reading classics at St John’s College when his studies were interrupted by the war, during which he served in the RAF as a radar operator from 1940 to 1945, mainly in Egypt and Libya. He pursued his new hobby whenever possible while in the Middle East.

On his return to Oxford after the war, he took the advice of Sir Hamilton Gibb and read Arabic and Persian, being awarded first-class honours in 1947. There was no one to supervise a thesis in Turkish, and he therefore chose to do his doctorate in Islamic philosophy.

In 1950 he successfully submitted a thesis on the so-called Theology of Aristotle, which formed the backbone of his Plotiniana Arabica, published in 1959. His Turkish studies had continued apace, and in 1950 he was appointed university lecturer in Turkish at Oxford. He became in turn senior lecturer in Islamic studies, senior lecturer in Turkish, and finally Professor of Turkish. He was first elected to a Fellowship at St Antony’s College, Oxford, in 1961, where he later served as sub-warden and senior tutor. He retired in 1987.

He taught the whole range of the Turkish syllabus from the Orkhon inscriptions to modern Turkish poetry. He was also fully at home in the main Turkic languages and, when required, taught Azeri, Chaghatay, Kazakh and Uzbek. He was a remarkably good teacher in whom a thorough grasp of his subject, ease of manner, and a fine sense of humour made a happy combination. Those who studied under him remember him with admiration and affection.

In addition to his teaching at Oxford, in 1959-60 he inaugurated and directed the bilingual humanities course at Robert College in Istanbul, a course designed to give engineering undergraduates a background in the history and traditions of Eastern and Western thought. He continued to act as Visiting Professor of Humanities at Robert College from 1960 to 1968. He was always much in demand both in Turkey and abroad and remembered with affection his spells as Visiting Professor at Princeton (1970-71, 1974); UCLA (1975); as a Leverhulme professor in Turkey (1984), and as Gunnar Jarring lecturer in Stockholm (2002).

Lewis maintained an active interest in a wide variety of subjects within the Islamic field, particularly in philosophy and science, culminating in the publication in 1973 of Albucasis on Surgery and Instruments, written jointly with Dr Martin Spink. He was also a fine Koranic scholar. However, his main academic interests lay in Turkish language and literature and current affairs in Turkey. His first publication in this field was Teach Yourself Turkish (1953, revised 1989), still the classic introduction to the language. This was followed by Modern Turkey (1955). Books like this are now taken for granted, but it was the first book in English written by a scholar who knew Turkish and Turkey. In it Lewis made clear his sympathy for, and admiration of Kemal Atatürk’s reforms, though he was the first to agree that much yet remained to be done. The book appeared in several editions, with the 1978 reprint having been almost completely rewritten to keep up with the times.

More books followed, but his magnum opus was his Turkish Grammar, first published by the Oxford University Press in 1967 and revised several times. His final work was The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success (1999, Turkish edition 2003). There were also numerous articles.

Geoffrey Lewis was born in 1920 and educated at University College School, in North London, before going up to Oxford. He was chiefly responsible for the establishment of Turkish studies at Oxford, this culminating in 1964 with the acceptance of Turkish as a main subject of study in the Honour School of Oriental Studies. This was achieved despite vociferous opposition orchestrated by two die-hard conservatives from the Queen’s College.

The Lewises had a wide range of friends and were generous with their hospitality. They kept open house for Turkish scholars visiting this country and for anyone who sought knowledge of Turkey. For the Turks who found themselves in hospital in Oxford or, rather more rarely, were detained by the Oxfordshire police, they willingly acted as interpreters.

Lewis was much in demand to serve on bodies outside Oxford, and he was unstinting of his time. He gave much service to the British-Turkish Mixed (Cultural) Commission of which he was a member from 1975 to 1995. He was particularly fond of the Anglo-Turkish Society, of which he was vice-president from 1972 to 2003 and president from 2003 until his death; of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, which he helped to found and of which he was president, 1981-83; and of the E.J.W. Gibb Memorial Trust, which publishes works on Arabic, Persian and Turkish. His last public appearance was at the trust’s launch last month for a new translation of the Koran, which it had just published.

Away from the public eye, Lewis advised a succession of British and Turkish diplomats on ways to further the cause of friendship between the two countries.

Over the years the Turkish Government showed its appreciation of Lewis’s work by awarding him a Certificate of Merit in 1973, the Exceptional Service Plaque of the Foreign Ministry in 1991 and finally the historic Order of Merit of the Turkish Republic in 1998. In the same year he was appointed CMG.

He visited Turkey whenever possible. The visits started in 1947, when he spent six months in Turkey to bring his knowledge of Turkish up to a standard that was acceptable to himself, and continued until his final visit to Ankara in 2007 when he lectured for the British Council on the problems of language reform. His contributions to Turkish studies were widely recognised in Turkey, and he was elected a corresponding member of the Turkish Language Society as early as 1953. Later manifestations of this esteem included honorary doctorates from Boaziçi University in 1986 and Turkey’s oldest university, Istanbul University, in 1992. In this country he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1979 and an honorary Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford in 2000.

Lewis’s academic work combined the best of the classically trained philologist with a sense of the importance of literary style, and displayed a range of interests and accomplishments that few could match. His scholarship, driven by a love of learning that owed much to his Jewish background, was informed by great analytic skills and by lucid exposition, and he had a style of learning that combined erudition with wit, sympathy and an old-fashioned breadth of education. Study and research were both his work and his recreation, and he had the humility of the scholar who knows that there is always the yet undiscovered. He said that he regarded the existence of language as proof of the existence of God – “We could never have done it on our own.”

In July 1941 he married Raphaela Rhoda Bale Seideman (Raff), his childhood sweetheart (who was to publish her own ground-breaking Everyday Life in Ottoman Turkey in 1971). She and their daughter predeceased him, and he is survived by his son.

Professor Geoffrey Lewis, CMG, scholar of the Turkish language and culture, was born on June 19, 1920. He died on February 12, 2008, aged 87


1. Stacey Derbinshire - 24 février 2008

I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

Stacey Derbinshire

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