Conference Report: Oriental Studies and Research (not only) in Central Europe. Conference organized to mark the centenary of the Prague Oriental Institute, September 5–7, 2022, Prague
We had the pleasure of being part of the Oriental Studies and Research (not only) in Central Europe conference in Prague, organised by Dr Tomáš Petrů (Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences) and Dr Adéla Jůnová Macková (Masaryk Institute and Archives of the Czech Academy of Sciences). The conference is part of a series of events commemorating the centenary of the Oriental Institute in Prague.
During his welcome speech, Tomáš Petrů commented that “all things are connected”, and throughout the conference, this became apparent. Although hailing from different disciplines, common themes emerged in the 21 papers presented. The most salient, perhaps, were those observed by Hana Navrátilová (University of Oxford) in the closing remarks of her panel “The Development of Near and Middle Eastern Studies”. She identified two key factors that influenced and shaped the development of Oriental Studies in Europe: 1) local contexts; and 2) transnational networks. The latter, in particular, frequently surfaced during the conference. Šárka Velhartická’s paper, for example, touched on how it was commonplace for scholars in Czechoslovakia to travel to neighbouring German-speaking countries to study Ancient Near Eastern studies, whilst Ronald Ruzicka and Petra Aigner (Austrian Academy of Sciences) drew attention to the extensive correspondence that took place between the Austrian Arabist, Eduard Glaser, and academics scattered across Europe and North America.
The Development of a Discipline? Tibetan Studies in Europe
These two strands were also present in our contribution, ‘The Development of a Discipline? Tibetan Studies in Europe’, which introduced the lives and contributions of four pioneers of the field. Using quotes and visual materials from our archive, we sought to trace the academic trajectory of our interviewees: how and why did they become interested in Tibet? What was their experience of pursuing their interest(s) at university? Were there challenges and obstacles, and how did they deal with these? What were their major contributions to the field? In following the lives of these pioneers, it was clear that local circumstances, especially due to the changing geopolitical landscape of Central Europe, had a marked impact on their research and studies. For example, Géza Bethlenfalvy’s attempts to enter university were initially blocked for two years by the regime as his father’s family had been landowners.
However, transnational networks—established through conferences and correspondence—were, to an extent, a counteragent. Beyond a means of connecting with peers and exchanging ideas, it supported the endeavours of our pioneers and embedded them within the budding community of Tibetologists in Europe and further afield. Marek Mejor recalls being cut off from Western academia in 1970s Poland, as no scholarly contacts to or publications from the West were available. Fortunately, in the 1970s and early 1980s, Hungary was the stronghold of Tibetology. With the likes of József Terjék, András Róna-Tas, Lajos Ligeti and Géza Bethlenfalvy, there were several scholars working on a variety of subjects and equipped with a solid library. Barış Yılmaz’s excellent conference presentation on Hungarian Turkology and Altaic Studies reiterated this appraisal. Mejor also recalls the kindness of scholars such as Michael Hahn, who provided a few copies of his classical Tibetan textbook for Mejor to use when he began teaching Classical Tibetan at the University of Warsaw in 1985.
The value and potential of transnational interaction and collaboration were on display at the conference itself. The warmth shown and the range of discussions we had with other panellists have encouraged further thoughts and ideas for the project, reinforced the importance of interdisciplinary discourse, and led us in unexpected directions. We look forward to contributing to the proceedings and to future collaborations!