The End of Oriental Studies: The Rise and Fall of an Oxford Faculty

In late September 2022, Oxford University’s Faculty of Oriental Studies changed its name to the ...

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19th Century20th CenturyOxfordRace & EmpireResearch & Opinion

The End of Oriental Studies: The Rise and Fall of an Oxford Faculty

In late September 2022, Oxford University’s Faculty of Oriental Studies changed its name to the ...

return to all posts

19th Century20th CenturyOxfordRace & EmpireResearch & Opinion

In late September 2022, Oxford University’s Faculty of Oriental Studies changed its name to the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. After conducting extensive consultations and surveys with the faculty’s students and staff since 2019, these inquiries found that “the term ‘Oriental Studies’ was felt by many to be outdated and to have unfortunate connotations of colonialism and imperialism.”[1] The Oriental Institute and various undergraduate and graduate courses’ names were changed as well. This name change is only the last in a long history of name changing and internal transformations of the faculty, and, arguably, of the discipline as a whole. This article is not meant to be an additional opinion piece on whether the university’s decision was wise or not. Rather, I thought I would briefly reconstruct the history of the faculty, from its origins, to the ‘imperial century’ and, finally, the onset of decolonisation and the scaling down of imperial administration. Learn more about the history of colonialism in Oxford on our Curiosity & Colonialism Tour.

Entrance to the Oriental Studies building via stairs, with the name of the building on a yellow sign above.
The entry to the former Oriental Institute (author’s photo).

The Origins: “A field of learned study”

First, what do we mean when we talk about Oriental Studies? Orientalists studied and taught the languages, literatures, cultures, histories and laws of that vast space known as the ‘Orient’. It is unusual for an academic discipline to draw its confines based on geography and exclusion, a delimitation that corresponds to non-Western countries.[2] It is important to note the asymmetry intrinsic in the idea of ‘Orientalism,’ since we do not have a corresponding term to indicate ‘Occidentalism’, as Edward Said explains. What was once considered purely as a “field of learned study” came to be regarded as a discourse which occupied a central role in the system of imperial domination, “as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”[3] Yet, as Said himself recognised, the history of Oriental Studies is incredibly varied, showing the discipline’s shape-shifting nature.

Although Oriental Studies peaked in the nineteenth century, the origins of the discipline date much further back in time. At its origins, academic Orientalism was situated mostly within the realm of Biblical and religious studies. The University of Oxford was one of the academic birthplaces of Oriental Studies, as in 1312 it was planned to establish chairs in various Eastern languages at Paris, Oxford, Bologna, Salamanca and Avignon. The majority of the academic work in Oriental Studies at Oxford was concentrated on the languages and philologies of Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, and, occasionally, Sinology. This manifested as a constellation of individual academic posts, such as that in Hebrew instituted in 1546, rather than as a formally organised faculty.[4]

White stone statue of a man in St Paul's Cathedral in roman style robe.
Monument to philologist Sir William Jones in St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

One of the most important developments in the early history of Oriental Studies at Oxford was the expansion of the teachings and research in Sanskrit. Already before the establishment of the first permanent professorships in the language, Oxford was a crucial centre for the translation and teaching of Sanskrit. From Oxford came Sir William Jones, a British philologist who lived in the second half of the 18th century, who was probably the most famous early Orientalist and is credited with the discovery of the Indo-European language family.[5] The formalisation of Sanskrit’s place within Oriental Studies became complete with the establishment of the Boden professorship of Sanskrit in 1832. Colonel Joseph Boden, formerly a soldier serving in the East India Company, made a generous donation to the university in order for it to institute a professorship in Sanskrit, with the chief objective to participate in the mission to Christianise the people of India. Despite this rising interest, the academic institutionalisation of Sanskrit was mostly due to the philanthropy of former members and officers of the East India Company.[6] Oriental teachings remained confined to individual lecturerships and professorships, until the imperial administration grew large enough to put further demands onto the discipline.

The Imperial Century and Oriental Studies: “The East is a Career”

A dinner conversation at a round table, filled with sparkling silver and golden plates and cutlery, refined porcelain and dishes. In this fictional setting in the novel Tancred by Benjamin Disraeli, the phrase “The East is a career” is spoken.[7] This quote is telling of the great nineteenth-century transformation within the discipline of Oriental Studies, which occurred at Oxford more than in any other place in Britain.

The period comprised between 1815 and 1914 has been referred to by historians such as Ronald Hyam as ‘Britain’s imperial century’.[8] This century witnessed an enormous expansion of both formal and informal British imperial power; about 26 million square kilometres of territory was annexed to the Empire in those decades.[9] Most of the newly annexed land stood on African and Asian soil. Egypt became the most important informal colony of the British empire, as Britain gradually took control over the country’s politics in the later nineteenth century. During Britain’s imperial century, and especially during its second half, Oriental Studies received a new impetus. The need for translators and speakers of ‘Oriental’ languages grew urgent with imperial expansion, as did the necessity to understand and to create narratives concerning the cultures of the annexed peoples. This produced a double push for, on the one hand the scholarly expansion of the discipline of Oriental Studies, and on the other, the professionalisation of the discipline itself.

In order to fulfil their new role within the imperial machine, institutions producing research and education on the ‘Orient’ needed restructuring. And so it was that nineteenth-century Oxford saw an increase in resource allocation and autonomy to the teachings of Oriental Studies. In 1871 there was the establishment of the Board of Studies for the Honour School of Oriental Studies. Yet, more change was quick to come, as the Board was replaced 23 years later by the Board of the Faculty of Oriental Languages, initially part of the Faculty of Arts. As the importance of the study of the ‘Orient’ and the training of imperial officers grew, the Board of the Faculty of Oriental Languages was to become an independent faculty in 1913, changing its name the following year to Faculty of Oriental Studies.[10]

Old fashioned map of the world with illustrated decorations illustrating the colonial possessions of the British Empire.
Map of the British Empire in 1886.

The newly-found interest and sense of urgency in the expansion of Oriental Studies within universities was also motivated by the Empire’s need to create a class of imperial administrators and officers. This necessity becomes self-evident, if one considers the vastness of British territories in the later decades of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. As historian Caroline Elkins eloquently explains: “Given the sheer size of Britain’s far-flung empire, it was impossible to micromanage day-to-day rule in these areas. Instead, the prevailing ethos was to “trust the man on the ground”, which officials in London did with great regularity. In practice, this meant a very small cadre of recruits joined the empire’s civil service, coming from mostly schools such as Oxford and Cambridge.”[11]

Indeed, Oxford was not only considered an essential part of this process. It held a quasi-monopoly over it. Oxford and Cambridge were the most important centres for training future colonial officers and administrators. However, Oxford, because of its known concentration on the humanities, was the British fulcrum of the production of human capital for the imperial project. As historian Laurence Brockliss argues, “It was considered to be Oxford’s primary function to take callow youths and turn them into intelligent, upright, and dedicated servants of a British civilising mission.”[12] About one third of the Indian Civil Service was trained at Oxford’s Balliol College alone, and among its alumni, Balliol could also boast three viceroys of India, including Lord Curzon of Kedleston.[13] Another example is the recruitment process for the Sudan Political Service, which was informal and highly privileging of Oxford graduates.[14] The East had become effectively ‘a career’ and Oxford was the most popular, if not near-exclusive, route to such a career.

The Faculty at the Ends of Empire

After the two World Wars, the later 1940s gave way to the period of decolonisation. In a few years, Britain left India (and newly-created Pakistan), Palestine, Burma and many other territories. Its influence in Egypt also faded gradually, a process which reached its most critical point with the Suez crisis in 1956. As the empire scaled down and less knowledge and expertise was required for its functioning, resource flows decreased accordingly. The gradual decay of the British Empire was felt particularly at Oxford’s Faculty of Oriental Studies, as teachings of languages such as Hindi and Urdu was abolished. Yet, this period of reassessment of academic Orientalism also brought to some expansion of the discipline, especially following the recommendations of the Scarborough Commission in 1946. One of these recommendations was the creation of an Oriental Institute in Oxford, which was realised between 1959 and 1960.[15]

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As we have seen from this article, the Faculty of Middle Eastern and Asian Studies has had a long, fluid history, tightly connected with the waxing and waning of the power of Britain’s empire. It changed name, shape, prestige and degree of autonomy according to how important imperial possessions were to British interests at the time. From its scholarly beginnings within the realm of Bible studies, to the peak of its influence and resources in the nineteenth century, when the empire required administrators and translators, to its gradual decline in the age of decolonisation, one question arises naturally: what is the role of the faculty today and how does it connect to its name? The Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies is a vibrant and diverse faculty. Its research and approaches include a vast array of disciplines, as the course offering shows with its wide variety of modules, ranging from biblical studies to art and architecture. The faculty pays attention to studies founded on sources in the original languages of the subjects it teaches and researches, which is the unifying thread encompassing the multi-disciplinary landscape within it. Today, rather than a vestige of Orientalism, the faculty represents an attempt at challenging Eurocentric perspectives and researching cultures “from within, treating them as independent agents and studying what they have to say about themselves, as documented in their own oral and written literatures and material cultures”[16] This all shows that this latest name change is reflective of changes within the faculty and discipline that have been going on since decolonisation.

Written by Anna Gregoletto Bettin


[1] Roesler, U., 2022. History of the Faculty, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies,

[2] Kolluoglu-Kirli, B., 2003. From Orientalism to Area Studies, The New Centennial Review, 3(3), pp. 93-111.

[3] Said, E.W., 1977. Orientalism, The Georgia Review, 31 (1), pp. 162, stable/41397448; Said, E.W., 1978. Orientalism, p. 2.

[4] Roesler 2022.

[5] Devji, F., n.d. Memorial to Sir William Jones, University College Chapel: A complicated legacy, Oxford and Empire. Available at:

[6] Rocher, Rosane. 2002. “Sanskrit for Civil Servants, 1806–1818.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 122: 381–90.

[7] Disraeli, B., 1847. Tancred, Project Gutenberg (September 6, 2016).

[8] Hyam, R., 2002. Britain’s Imperial Century, 1815-1914: A Study of Empire and Expansion (Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies), Palgrave Macmillan.

[9] Parsons, T., 1999. The British Imperial Century, 1815-1914: A World History Perspective, Rowman & Littlefield.

[10] Roesler 2022.

[11] Elkins, C., 2022. Legacy of Violence, London, p. 99.

[12] Quoted in Meg Lintern and Matus Lazar, ‘Oxford and Empire: an ‘Uncomfortable History’, Cherwell, 16 January 2023

[13] Oxford and India, n.d., Oxford and Empire,

[14] Mangan, J.A., 1982. The Education of an Elite Imperial Administration: The Sudan Political Service and the British and the British Public School System, The International Journal of African Historical Studies , 15 (4), pp. 671-699.

[15] Roesler 2022.

[16] Roesler 2022.