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Professor Ann Lambton: Persianist unrivalled in the breadth of her scholarship whose association with Soas was long and illustrious

Among the litany of failures enumerated by James Bill in The Eagle and the Lion: the tragedy of American-Iranian relations (1988) was the fact that only 10 per cent of American diplomats posted to Iran in the 1970s spoke and read fluent Persian, compared to almost 45 per cent of the British. Bill attributed this latter figure to the "stiff exams" of Ann Lambton, one of "the West's leading Iran specialists", and that all the senior diplomats had been taught by her at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Lambton, unsurprisingly, in a Foreign Office brief during the 1951 oil crisis, concluded that Americans "lack our experience or the psychological insight" of Iran. Whitehall's mostly male mandarins routinely sought her scrutiny of bilingual treaties in recognition of her "knowing the language and mentality of its people better than anyone else". She acquired, as even Freya Stark noted, an intimate knowledge of the East that only a female could acquire.

More embarrassed than even the Shah's Western allies were those social scientists observing Iran implode in 1978-79. Only Lambton, an Orientalist thoroughly grounded in Persian culture and Islamic thought, had adumbrated in a seminal essay on spiritual authority in Twelver Shi'ism, the state religion, "the tendency to look for the establishment of the kingdom of God upon earth, which, if pressed to its conclusion, is likely to lead either to political quietism or violent revolution".

Published in the journal Studia Islamica in 1964, the year Ruhollah Khomeini was exiled to Turkey, its oracular import cannot be gainsaid. A troublemaker under surveillance for instigating clashes the previous year, Khomeini now came into his own with the fiercest denunciation of the government for acquiescing to an immunity agreement covering US military forces and dependants in Iran. When ejected to Iraq, he expounded his 1970 "Guardianship of the Jurist" ("Velayat-e faqih") lectures, inveighing against monarchy as un-Islamic, hence illegitimate. Khomeini envisaged in lieu a learned divine or "Supreme Leader" (rahbar), an office he assumed after 1979, and which is now occupied by Ali Khamenei.

Lambton was unrivalled in the breadth of her scholarship, covering Persian grammar and dialectology; medieval and early modern Islamic political thought; Seljuq, Mongol, Safavid, Qajar and Pahlavi administration; tribal and local history; and land tenure and agriculture. Her association with Soas in London, which lasted from her time as an undergraduate in 1930 until her death as Professor Emerita, aged 96, was one of the longest and most illustrious, and Lambton became acknowledged as the dean of Persian studies in the West. Without hyperbole, an era has passed in Middle Eastern studies.

"Nancy" to friends, Ann Lambton was born in Newmarket in 1912, the granddaughter of the second earl of Durham, George Frederick d'Arcy Lambton, by his fifth son, George Lambton, and Cecily Horner. The Lambtons were a landed family with coal-mining interests and estates in Co Durham and Fenton, Northumberland. Lambton Castle was one of the earliest homes to be lit by gas in Britain. George Lambton, private trainer to the earl of Derby, was a distinguished racehorse trainer and breeder of his day. Nancy's middle name, Swynford, commemorated her father's 1910 St Leger winner, and she herself won acclaim for her skill in the saddle. She roller-skated in her teens and commuted by bicycle to teach and to thrash varsity squash opponents.

Upon matriculation with a certificate in Persian (1930-32) from the then School of Oriental Studies, Lambton began her Persian honours, with a subsidiary in classical Arabic, plus German, Geology and Latin at neighbouring King's. Her teachers were the school's first director, Sir Denison Ross, and Professors Hamilton Gibb, Arthur Tritton, Vladimir Minorsky and Hasan Taqizadeh; the last two also taught the renowned Iranist Mary Boyce. Lambton won the Ouseley Memorial Scholarship in Persian (1934) and gained her BA in 1935, as well as the Aga Khan Travelling Scholarship.

She commenced her doctorate in 1935 on the Seljuqs of pre-Ottoman Anatolia and submitted it in 1939 despite spending 13 months in Tehran and major provincial centres recording dialects (published as Three Persian Dialects, 1938); studying craft guilds and history in Persian in a girls' school in Isfahan; and further Persian and Arabic with such local scholars as Fazili Tuni and Rashid.

Lambton returned to Persia in July 1939 for further research when war broke out. Appointed Press Attaché to Sir Reader Bullard at the British Legation (later Embassy), she made her mark interpreting at press conferences, summarising local papers for a weekly digest, and editing news commentaries on Allied efforts. She was appointed OBE in 1942. Her links with Persians across all classes afforded her an extraordinary insight into local life, and this was to be reflected in her outstanding œuvre.

The Ministry of Information reluctantly released her to accept an offer from Arthur Arberry, Soas chair of Persian. London University could not afford the proposed Readership and Lambton came after VJ Day as Senior Lecturer, in October 1945. A Readership, three years later, was swiftly followed by the Professorship in 1953, a signal year when her landmark books Landlord and Peasant in Persia: a study of land tenure and land revenue administration and Persian Grammar appeared. They remain standard works, even today. A sequel, The Persian Land Reform: 1962-66 (1969) incisively analysed the mixed results of the Shah's "White Revolution".

Austere and patrician, Lambton garnered immense respect from colleagues, students and the administration at Soas. She headed the Near and Middle East department, 1972-78, even as articles and profoundly meticulous studies appeared in The Cambridge History of Islam (co-edited with another Gibb protégé, Bernard Lewis), The Cambridge History of Iran, Encyclopaedia of Islam and Encyclopaedia Iranica. Her Theory and Practice in Medieval Persian Government (1980) and State and Government in Medieval Islam (1981) are indispensable for comprehending Muslim statecraft. Her Columbia University lectures, Continuity and Change in Medieval Persia: aspects of administrative, economic and social history, 11th-14th century (1988) crowned her output.

Accolades assuredly arrived: fellowship of the British Academy (1964); and honorary doctorates from London (1954), Durham (1971) and Cambridge (New Hall, 1973); honorary membership of Soas (1983); and honorary fellowship of the Middle East Studies Association of North America. An annual A.K.S. Lambton Honorary Lecture series was established at Durham University in 2001. The British Institute of Persian Studies, of which she was an honorary vice-president, hosted her 90th birthday reception at Carlton House Terrace in 2002. In 2004 the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies' outstanding service award was conferred upon her, as well as the Cross of St Augustine, by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Burzine K. Waghmar

Ann Katharine Swynford Lambton, Persianist: born Newmarket, Suffolk 8 February 1912; Press Attaché, British Legation (later Embassy), Tehran 1939-45; OBE 1942; Senior Lecturer, School of Oriental and African Studies, London University 1945-48, Reader 1948-53, Professor of Persian 1953-79 (Emerita), Honorary Fellow 1983-2008; FBA 1964; Honorary Fellow, New Hall, Cambridge 1973; died Wooler, Northumberland 19 July 2008.