Faculty Research

Faculty Research


The Faculty of Oriental Studies' staff and students are involved in a wide range of research projects, leading the world in the study of the languages and culture of the Middle East, Inner and South Asia, and East Asia.

Details of DPhil student research interests are available on the Student Research page, or on request from the Faculty Office by emailing orient@orinst.ox.ac.uk.

Academic staff may refer to the Grant Application page for forthcoming research schemes and application procedures.

The Post-Award Management page (Faculty members only) provides information and instructions for grant holders on how to manage a grant from start to finish.


The University has been successful in gaining the European Commission’s HR Excellence in Research Award. The award recognises the systems and practices we have in place to support researchers’ career and professional development in line with the national Research Concordat (which we are implementing via the University’s Code of practice for the Employment and Career Development of Research Staff). It acknowledges that we are committed to looking after our research staff and their development.

HR Excellence

Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Statues, Reliefs, and Paintings

The Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Statues, Reliefs, and Paintings is one of the longest-running and largest research projects in the humanities in the University, or indeed outside it. The undertaking originated in the 1890s, under the overall direction of F. Ll. Griffith, who was appointed the University’s first Egyptologist at the beginning of the 20th century, later becoming Professor. It is the central project of the Griffith Institute, which was founded with the legacy of Griffith to the University. The project has published eight original volumes with three major revisions, in a total of sixteen books; it is now about to begin a major phase of development toward online provision. This will be supported through synergies with the Online Egyptological Bibliography, the second major project of the Griffith Institute, led by Professor John Baines and run by Dr Gareth Roberts. The Topographical Bibliography is a primary research project, in which published and archival material is brought together, analysed, and synthesized on the basis of the project officer's judgment. As an integrated research conspectus, it provides comprehensive published and unpublished information about ancient Egyptian artefacts and sites, beginning with those in their original location or for which a definite provenance can be traced.

Project site

AHRC The Online Corpus of the Inscriptions of Ancient North Arabia (OCIANA)

From the early first millennium BC to around the fourth century AD, literacy was extremely widespread among both the settled and nomadic populations of the Arabian Peninsula and they have left us tens of thousands of inscriptions and graffiti. Since the late nineteenth century, approximately 48,000 of these have been recorded by travellers and scholars and have appeared in hundreds of articles, books, and unpublished dissertations in a number of different languages. This makes it extremely difficult for all but a handful of specialists to keep track of and use the rich material they contain. Moreover, any visit to the deserts of southern Syria, eastern and southern Jordan and the western two-thirds of Saudi Arabia reveals that there are thousands more inscriptions waiting to be recorded.

The OCIANA project, is based at the Khalili Research Centre, Oriental Institute, University of Oxford, and directed by Professor Jeremy Johns and Michael Macdonald. It will create an online Corpus of all the pre-Islamic inscriptions of north and central Arabia, both those in the various Ancient North Arabian dialects and scripts, and those in Old (i.e. pre-Islamic) Arabic. A project at the University of Pisa (the Digital Archive for the Study of pre-Islamic Arabian Inscriptions, DASI) is producing an online corpus of the inscriptions of pre-Islamic South Arabia, and the two projects are working closely together so that it will be possible to search the information in both corpora through the same portal.

In 2012, the first phase of OCIANA, funded by a grant from the John Fell Fund, launched a demonstration site in which a corpus of 3420 previously unpublished Safaitic inscriptions was made available online with readings, translations, commentaries, ancillary information, tracings, and photographs (see http://www.ociana.org.uk). In January 2013, the project received a large grant from the AHRC for Phase II which will last three and a half years from October 2013, and in which the Dadanitic, Taymanitic, the rest of the Safaitic, Hismaic, and Old Arabic inscriptions will be entered and tagged, with all available ancillary information and with photographs whenever these are available. Phase III will see the entry of all the approximately 13,000 Thamudic inscriptions.

Project Site

Wellcome Trust Project - A Literary History of Medicine: “The Best Accounts of the Classes of Physicians” by Ibn Abi Usaybi`ah (d. 1270)

In the mid-13th century, a practicing physician in Syria named Ibn Abi Usaybi`ah set himself the task of recording the history of medicine throughout the known world. His book "The Best Accounts of the Classes of Physicians" covers 1700 years of medical practice, from the mythological beginnings of medicine with Asclepius through Greece, Rome, and India, down to the author's day. Written as much to entertain as to inform, it is not only the earliest comprehensive history of medicine but the most important and ambitious of the medieval period, incorporating accounts of over 442 physicians – their training, their practice, and their medical compositions – interlaced with amusing poetry and anecdotes illustrating the life and character of the physicians. The breadth of the book reflects the geographical and cultural reach of the Islamic empire. Written by a man who was himself a medic and a poet, this highly readable history reflects considerable medical experience and lies at the interface of the serious medical practice of the day with society's interest in biography and gossip.

For nearly three hundred years, attempts to translate this monumental work have failed owing to the extraordinary range of skills needed to tackle it. A joint Oxford/Warwick project funded by the Wellcome Trust, led by Professor Emilie Savage-Smith (Oxford) and Professor Simon Swain (Warwick), will assemble for the first time a team of senior and junior scholars to make this remarkable historical source fully available in a reliable and readable form.

Main project site is coming soon.

AHRC Follow-on Funding Project - Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), RTISAD 

The AHRC has awarded the Follow-on Funding to build on the RTISAD project. This project is a collaboration between Graeme Earl in the Archaeological Computing Research Group and Kirk Martinez in the Web and Internet Science group (WAIS) at the University of Southampton, and Jacob Dahl at the University of Oxford, Faculty of Oriental Studies. The grant will explore the possibilities of digital imaging in ancient document research, in archaeology, in industrial applications such as textile design, and in other contexts. The underlying technology called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) uses multiple images to produce an interactive representation of subtle surface details such as brush strokes on paintings. For more information about the RTISAD project, please visit http://acrg.soton.ac.uk/projects/rtisad/

AHRC Josephus Project

This research project investigates the reception of Josephus in Jewish culture from the 18th century to the present. Funded by the AHRC and generously supported by the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, the project focuses on the ways in which Jews since the middle of the eighteenth century have built on earlier uses of Josephus' writings for their own purposes, examining the reasons for fluctuations of interest over time and in different places and seeking to understand how such preferences were influenced by contemporary issues and how they in turn affected them.

Project Site

AHRC Authorship, originality and innovation in Tibetan Scriptural Revelations

This project explores the complex, multilateral processes involved in the initial production and subsequent literary expansion of revealed Tibetan Buddhist scriptures, processes which can extend over several generations.

Typically, each distinct revelatory tradition is associated with a specific charismatic lama, a prophesied and destined being who is considered to recall particular scriptural teachings from a previous existence, when he (or more rarely, she) received it directly, face to face with an enlightened being. Nevertheless such revealed texts often incorporate much already familiar textual material, and can also become enlarged over time, as later scholarly and visionary lamas contribute to them. In some cases, later lamas are recognised as rebirths of the earlier revealer, so that their re-working of the revelation may be seen as a religious duty.

Our research is based on a case study of lamas from the extensive and still vibrant Dudjom revelatory tradition, from which a number of rather different patterns are emerging. Modifications may in some cases represent an attempt to universalise a single specific revelation, combining it with liturgical practices and also other texts which are currently more widely known. Elsewhere, a later addition may derive from a revelation of an earlier generation or period, which is thereby re-introduced into the current tradition.

It is clear that these complex, rules-bound, communal methods of on-going scriptural revelation bear significant resemblance to methods once more widely found in Mahāyāna cultures. We are exploring the range of patterns in evidence, and asking what they indicate about Tibetan understandings of on-going scriptural composition.

Project site

Leverhulme Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage Project

The ancient walls of Balkh (A.Azad, July 2009).

Oxford University launches the ‘Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage Project,’ funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The project has a dual aim of undertaking new research on Afghanistan’s early Islamic history, and in building the capacity of Afghan colleagues in cultural heritage research. For three years, from September 2011 to September 2014, a team of scholars in the UK and abroad will be studying the textual and material culture of Balkh in northern Afghanistan. Historical Balkh (near modern-day Mazar-i Sharif) was one of the oldest, largest and most important cities of Afghanistan until late medieval times. The study opens up exciting new areas of knowledge on Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic past, and the way in which Islam was incorporated into historical memory. The project is led by Professor Edmund Herzig, and includes a team of experts with specialist knowledge on Afghan archaeology, coins, ceramics, and Persian and Arabic texts. The project partners with several research and cultural heritage organisations in Afghanistan, including the Ministry of Information and Culture, the Kabul National Museum and the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan (DAFA).

Project site

ERC IMPAcT - From Late Medieval to Early Modern: 13th to 16th Century Islamic Philosophy And Theology

Dr Judith Pfeiffer has been awarded a five-year European Research Council grant to support frontier research for a project entitled 'IMPAcT - From Late Medieval to Early Modern: 13th to 16th Century Islamic Philosophy And Theology’.  IMPAcT will make accessible the crucially important, but much neglected 13th–16th century history of thought of the Nile-to-Oxus region on a broad scale by establishing, through an integrated database on Islamic philosophy, theology, and adjacent fields, the bio-bibliographical data necessary for systematic research in these areas.  IMPAcT’s ultimate aim is to bridge the gap between the much better studied classical and modern periods of Islamic intellectual history, and to enable scholars to study the intellectual and political history of the period in a holistic approach – all too often the two are perceived and hence studied as two separate fields.  IMPAcT’s objective is to overcome the current fragmentation of the existing expertise across Europe, the Middle East, and North America by collaborating with international projects in related fields, through bringing together experts in these fields at international workshops and conferences, and by encouraging especially the younger generation to engage in research on pertinent topics through travel bursaries for graduate students and by establishing post-doctoral research positions of an exceptional length, enabling researchers to devote themselves to the in-depth study of a specific topic for an extended period of time, without the distractions of teaching and administration.  IMPAcT’s aims will be further supported through the edition and translation of key texts, the publication of monographs, and the support of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers through research fellowships and association with the project, permitting them to carry out their research in a congenial and pertinent research environment.

Project site

Leverhulme Project on Toleration of Variant Practice and Theology within Judaism since 200 BCE

The project aims to investigate the evidence for tolerance of variant theology and practice within Judaism from the completion of the Hebrew Bible to the present, and to look for explanations of such tolerance (where it can be found) in the context of developments within Judaism; the social, cultural and economic status of the Jews affected within the wider society in which they lived; the religious, cultural and political assumptions of that wider society; and the personal predelictions and affections of the leading actors in the case studies investigated. Evidence for variety within Judaism is considerable, from the Samaritan schism and the varied groups of the Late Second temple era to the tannaitic notion of heresy, the Karaites, distinctive regional forms of rabbinic Judaism in medieval Europe, the followers of Shabbetai Zvi, the Hasidic communities of the early modern period, and the varieties of Judaism which have flourished since the Enlightenment. The aim of the project is to find out how Jews of these different religious persuasions have in practice behaved. How much have they argued with or attempted to discipline each other? How much have they simply ignored each other? And why did they choose to adopt the approach to their opponents that they did? The project is intended to provide answers to these questions by providing material, in the form of case studies, to inform a new narrative history which will explore how different expressions of Judaism related to each other not just through conflict but as part of a single religious system. The case studies themselves will be published with full supporting documentation. The narrative history will use the case studies alongside accounts of dissent and antagonism, in order to provide a paradigm for writing the history of Judaism which takes account of such cases of tolerance of variety.

Project site

AHRC Verb semantics and argument realization in pre-modern Japanese: A comprehensive study of the basic syntax of pre-modern Japanese.

This project investigates verb semantics and argument realization through pre-modern Japanese, from the beginning of the recorded history of Japanese in the 8th century until the end of the 16th century. Argument realization is a fundamentally important aspect of the syntax of a language as it concerns the way in which verb meaning determines the number of arguments and their morpho-syntactic and semantic properties. The project has a synchronic and a diachronic part, each with theoretical, descriptive, and practical implications of relevance to Japanese studies generally, Japanese linguistics, and historical and general linguistic theory.

The initial phase of the project consists of building an extensive electronic database of representative texts from all periods of pre-modern Japanese which will form the basis for the descriptive and analytical work of the project. More information about the project can be found on the project website.

The project is funded by a generous grant of almost £1 million from the Arts and Humanities Research Council which has enabled us to set up a dedicated research team of both internal and external members. The project is hosted by the Research Centre for Japanese Language and Linguistics.

The Book of Curiosities Project

In June 2002, the Bodleian Library acquired a unique manuscript of a hitherto unknown Arabic cosmographical treatise, the Kitab Ghara’ib al-funun wa-mulah al-‘uyun, loosely translated as The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eyes. The manuscript is a copy, probably made in Egypt in the late 12th or early 13th century, of an anonymous work compiled in Egypt between 1020 and 1050. It is extraordinarily important for the history of science, especially for astronomy and cartography, and contains an unparalleled series of diagrams of the heavens and maps of the earth.

The acquisition of the Book of Curiosities was made possible by donations from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Arts Collections Fund, the Friends of the Bodleian Library, ARAMCO (Saudi Arabia), and several Oxford colleges as well as some individual donors. These donations also provided funds for the conservation, pigment analysis, and digitisation of the manuscript; the exhibition of the manuscript for the general public; the preparation of a school teacher’s pack based on portions of the manuscript; and the creation of website dedicated to its full publication. The project (now partially funded as well by the AHRC) to fully edit, translate, and analyse the manuscript is being conducted by Prof. Emilie Savage-Smith and Dr. Yossef Rapoport, with the collaboration of Prof. Jeremy Johns. The newly established Khalili Research Centre for the Art & Material Culture of the Middle East has provided a home for the execution of the project.

This map of the inhabited world is unlike any other recorded ancient or medieval map. At the top of the map, which is labelled South, there is a carefully executed graphic scale. The ‘Mountain of the Moon’—considered by medieval Arabic writers to be the source of the Nile—is represented at the centre of the scale. In the lower right part of the map is Europe, with the right half dominated by an extremely large Iberian peninsula. In the upper left of the map, the Indian Ocean is shown together with Arabia (the larger of the two peninsulas) and Persia/India. The two highly stylized and complicated river systems between and below the two peninsulas represent the Euphrates and the Tigris. In the lower left of the map, we find the gate constructed by Alexander the Great to enclose Gog and Magog.

The Nizami Ganjavi Programme for the study of languages and cultures of Azerbaijan and the Caucasus

The idea for the Nizami Ganjavi Programme for the study of ancient languages and cultures of Azerbaijan and the Caucasus was born in 2013 when Professor Robert Hoyland came to Azerbaijan to visit archaeological sites and was invited to meet Professor Nargiz Pashayeva, rector of the Baku branch of Moscow State University. Their shared interest in education and research resulted in a joint decision to work towards the establishment of a Centre in Oxford that could provide resources for students and scholars from all over the world to come together to investigate and discuss the pre-modern history and culture of Azerbaijan and the Caucasus. The first step in realizing this aim has been the creation of the Oxford Nizami Ganjavi Programme, which will oversee the excavation of Barda in Azerbaijan, the translation of major works of Azeri and Russian scholarship into English and sponsor a number of graduate students. 

This programme will run for five years, in the course of which we will plan the establishment of a more permanent Centre with a long-term endowment. We hope thereby to fill a gap in modern scholarly work on the Caucasus, which tends to focus on recent politics and to ignore the long, rich and diverse history of this strategically and culturally important region of the world.