Universiteit Leiden

nl en

In memoriam: Prof. dr. J.T.P. de Bruijn (1931-2023)

On Monday 23 January 2023 J.T.P. (Hans) de Bruijn passed away at the age of 91. Until 1995 he held the Chair of New Persian Language and Culture at Leiden University.

In the 1950s Hans de Bruijn studied Semitic languages, Islamic Studies, (New) Persian and Turkish at Leiden University. Among his teachers was Karl Jahn (1906-1985), a specialist in the history of Central Asia, Persian historiography and Turcology.

After his studies De Bruijn took up a position as the curator of the Middle East section at the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde (Museum for Ethnography) in Leiden, where he worked from 1960-1964 on the material culture of the Islamic world. In 1964 he began working as a lecturer at Leiden University, focusing in particular on the study of Persian and Persian literature and soon became a world-renowned specialist in the fields of classical Persian poetry and Sufism. His thesis, entitled Of Piety and Poetry. The Interaction of Religion and Literature in the Works of Hakim Sana'i of Ghazna, published with Stichting de Goeje in Leiden in 1983, is the result of groundbreaking and meticulous philological research into the life and work of the twelfth century Persian poet Sana’i, whose work greatly influenced the later mystical poet Rumi. De Bruijn’s study on Sana’i became a standard work of Persian literary history and inspired a new generation of literary historians, among whom was the American Persianist and Rumi expert Franklin Lewis (1961-2022).

In the years that followed, De Bruijn continued his research into the interaction between religion and Persian poetry. His book Persian Sufi Poetry – An Introduction to the Mystical Use of Classical Poems was published in 1997 with Curzon Press. Like many other works of De Bruijn, this book was translated into Persian and became available to a large audience in Iran. Persian Sufi Poetry contains many translations of Persian mystical poets: De Bruijn was a talented and precise translator of Persian poetry both in English and in Dutch. His translations, including the anthology of classical Persian poetry Een karavaan uit Perzië (A Caravan from Persia), De rozentuin (Rosegarden) of Saʿdi and the quatrains of Omar Khayyam (all published with Bulaaq in Amsterdam) opened the world of Persian poetry and the poetic arts to a Dutch-speaking audience. De Bruijn also worked extensively on the history of the Persian language and the reception of Persian literature in the Netherlands, and this was the topic of his inaugural lecture (De ontdekking van het Perzisch – The Discovery of Persian) in 1990. He presented many short lectures about the reception of quatrains ascribed to Omar Khayyam in the meetings of the Dutch Omar Khayyam Society, of which he was a member for many years. These lectures were published in the yearbooks of the society, hand-printed by Jan Keyser of the Avalon Press in Woubrugge. 

From the 1960s to the 1990s De Bruijn taught at the Faculty of Arts at Leiden University, in the Department of Arabic, Persian, Turkish and South Semitic Studies – the predecessor of the present-day Middle Eastern Studies programme. Hans de Bruijn was fully versed in the textual traditions of the great languages of the Middle East and Central Asia. Besides Persian, he knew (Ottoman) Turkish and Arabic, and he used to share this broad knowledge and erudition with small groups of students in inspiring and well-prepared classes. In his classes, a few verses of the fourteenth-century poet Hafez could lead to an enthusiastic excursus into the history of Iran, the Persian language, the art of poetry, Islam and Sufism: he was able to explain the various connections in a crystal-clear manner.

In his teaching, he focused on classical Persian literature, but he also gave classes on the modern history of Iran, modern Persian literature, Islamic art, Iranology, manuscript culture, Kurdish, Middle Persian and Tajik. In meetings with students at the beginning of the year he would propose a number of possible topics for classes, which were then discussed with his students, and tailored according to their interests and specialisations.

Apart from his teaching and research in Leiden, De Bruijn was involved in a variety of international initiatives and publishing projects. Early in his career he took part in a project to translate the handbook History of Iranian Literature (Dordrecht, 1968), edited by the Czechoslovakian Iranologist Jan Rypka. De Bruijn wrote a great number of excellent articles on the topic of Persian literature for the Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, the Encyclopaedia of Islam, THREE, and Encyclopaedia Iranica. He edited and contributed extensively to the first volume (General Introduction to Persian Literature, 2008) of the multi-volume series A History of Persian Literature, initiated by Ehsan Yarshater and Columbia University. From 1987 to 1995 De Bruijn was a board member, and later also secretary, of the Societas Iranologica Europaea. He was in close contact with colleagues in Iran, such as the well-known Iranologist and codicologist Iraj Afshar (1925-2011), who invited De Bruijn to Tehran in 2006 in order to receive the prestigious Dr. Mahmoud Afshar Foundation Award.  

On 26 January 1996 Hans de Bruijn took leave from Leiden University with a valedictory lecture entitled Een Perzisch handschrift in Leiden (A Persian Manuscript in Leiden). In this lecture he mapped the travels and the vicissitudes of manuscript Or. 242 from the Leiden University library. This is a manuscript copy of the Golestan (Rose Garden) of Saʿdi, which ended up in Leiden in the seventeenth century. Scripta manent, is what De Bruijn wrote in this lecture, and during his years as an emeritus professor he certainly lived up to his expression. Until a very advanced age he continued to publish and to translate. His collected translations of the quatrains of Omar Khayyam and other Persian poets, published for the first time in 2009, had its fifth reprint in 2021, demonstrating how successfully De Bruijn managed to transfer the often intricate meanings of Persian poetry into Dutch. The title of this collection of quatrains - De ware zin heeft niemand nog verstaan (“No one can ever in this world explain”) – comes from a verse of a well-known quatrain. Both De Bruijn’s Dutch and English translations are modest, restrained and masterful:

De rondgang van ons komen en ons gaan
daar vind je geen begin, geen einde aan.
De ware zin heeft niemand nog verstaan:
vanwaar dit komen en waarheen dit gaan?

The circle of our coming and our going
Has no beginning and shall have no end.
No one can ever in this world explain
Whence was this coming and to where the going.

It is with this quatrain that in the latter days of January 2023 the final farewell of Hans de Bruijn was announced. His legacy is a comfort to all who cherish and love Persian and Persian literature. As the motto of De Bruijn’s Een karavaan uit Perzië goes (by Nezami of Gandja):

یادگاری کز آدمی زادست

سخنست آن دگر همه بادست

Wat blijft er bewaard van een mensenkind?

Niets dan zijn woord, de rest waait weg.

What is left of mankind are words, all else is wind


Text: Gabrielle van den Berg

This website uses cookies.  More information.