Pembroke opens Centre for Persian Studies after £1.2 million donation

Beth Price 25 May 2014

This weekend Pembroke College celebrated the formal opening of the Shahnama Centre for Persian Studies, after a £1.2 million donation from Bita Dayrabari.

Benefactor Bita Daryabari spoke of her passion for the project, noting: “We can offer the world a more accurate image of Iran”.

The donation means that the College’s “phenomenal tradition” of Oriental and Persian studies can continue. Pembroke alumnus E.G. Browne was famously one of the first Western scholars to publish works on Persia, even having a street named after him in Tehran.

The centre will acquire an extensive library of books and publications on Persian literature and culture.

The Shahnama Centre is a development of The Shahnama Project, founded by Professor Charles Melville in 1999. It has an online database of illustrated manuscripts of the Shahnama, Book of Kings.

Speakers included professors and students involved in Persian Studies at Cambridge, such as Dr Abdullaeva, Dr Olga Davidson, Professor Touraj Daryaee and Dr Sussan Babaie. The speakers held high hopes for the future of Persian studies at Cambridge University.

The event, based in Pembroke’s Old Library, included an exhibition of Medieval and Contemporary art based on the concept of the Shahnama, an epic poem written by 11th-century author Firdausi, and the longest poem ever written.

The poem is central to the cultural identity of modern-day Iran and Afghanistan and Dr Firuza Abdullaeva, Head of the Shahnama Centre, said: “all my life is linked to the Shamana”.

Benefactor Bita Daryabari has dedicated much to Persian studies, setting up the Bita Daryabari Endowment in Persian Letters at Stanford University in 2008 to allow the University to fund their Iranian Studies Program and hire full-time professors.

Among other projects, she has also collaborated with Moms Against Poverty (MAP) to educate girls in the Shaheed Shojaie Orphanage in Tehran, as well as building a women’s centre in West Bank Palestinian Territory in 2008.