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.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops
films
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'
TVGrace Dent thinks we should learn to 'hug a Hooray Henry', because poshness is an accident of birth
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
art

Presents unwrapped, turkey gobbled... it's time to relax

Arts and Entertainment
Convicted art fraudster John Myatt
art

News
The two-year-old said she cut off her fringe because it was getting in her eyes
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Sales Manager

£60k - 80k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game