U of T launches world's first professorship in the ancient languages of Zoroastrian sacred texts and literature, thanks to community support

June 16, 2021 by Michael McKinnon - A&S News

The University of Toronto is now home to the world’s first endowed professorship focused on preserving the languages and culture of Zoroastrianism, one of the world's oldest continuously practiced religions, thanks to a US$1.1-million gift from the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America (FEZANA) and its community.

The FEZANA Professorship in Zoroastrian Languages and Literature at the University of Toronto cements the University’s position as the premier institution for scholarship in this field and will help prepare a new generation of rigorously trained scholars dedicated to original research in primary Zoroastrian texts.

“This generous gift from the FEZANA community propels our Zoroastrian studies program as a leader on the global stage, greatly elevating its significance and contribution to the study of Zoroastrianism,” says Tim Harrison, chair of the Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations (NMC), in which the professorship will be based.

“This professorship will help us greatly increase the number of students able to read and understand the ancient languages of Avestan and Pahlavi, and advance research and publications on the translated texts and their context in history. Ultimately, it will help raise awareness of Zoroastrianism around the world.”

With its exceptional strengths in scholarship of Middle East and Islamic civilizations, U of T is the ideal home for this professorship. It already offers the largest class on Zoroastrianism in the world, and NMC’s scholars and students have access to unique Persian collections at U of T’s Robarts Library, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Aga Khan Museum. Since 2008, NMC has been the headquarters of the Association for Iranian Studies, an association of more than 1,000 scholars worldwide.

The professorship will help NMC’s program reach new levels of excellence. Many texts in Avestan, Pahlavi and other ancient Iranian languages need to be examined from a linguistic approach. This professorship will drive original research and yield many deliverables, such as monographs (including critical editions of Avestan and Pahlavi texts), scientific articles published in top journals and papers presented at international conferences on the most relevant texts transmitted in these languages.

The professorship builds upon U of T’s established expertise in this area. Since 2007, NMC has regularly offered courses in the languages and literature of the Zoroastrian community at the undergraduate and graduate levels. These courses have demonstrated the foundational importance of this curriculum to the study of the ancient cultures, history, languages and literature of Iran, the Middle East and the global Zoroastrian community.

Recognizing that importance, FEZANA, a well-respected institution that represents the interests of the Zoroastrian community in North America, rallied its community to draw support from more than 250 individuals and institutions from around the world.

“In the three decades and more of FEZANA’s existence, this has been the single largest project we have initiated and its completion is deeply gratifying to the entire community,” says Arzan Sam Wadia, FEZANA president. “We will forever remain grateful to every single donor who helped in the realization of this dream.”

Wadia credits the leadership, perseverance, tenacity and decades of goodwill of Homi Gandhi, former FEZANA president, for helping make the initiative a success.

“I am incredibly proud of what FEZANA and the Zoroastrian community — small in numbers, but large at heart — have done to create this legacy,” Gandhi says. “We have great expectations of what the professorship will offer and FEZANA looks forward to working with the University in the years to come to make this a premier program for the study of Zoroastrianism.”

The professorship will enable U of T to permanently offer advanced training in the languages of the Zoroastrian scriptures and sacred texts and ensure the wealth of research being conducted by faculty and students will be sustained over generations. It will help consolidate already established scientific networks and help create new ones.

“I am deeply inspired by the generosity and collaborative spirit that have made this new professorship possible,” says Melanie Woodin, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science. “Through their vision, a thoughtful and passionate community of donors are making a profound impact on the study of Zoroastrian language, history and culture. The professorship will enrich the program and build on the international reputation of the Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations."