Prof. Richard Frye, Armenian Studies Pioneer, Dies

BOSTON — Prof. Richard Nelson Frye, who helped establish the field of Armenian studies and the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), died on March 27. He was 94.

Frye was the seminal figure in the establishment of Iranian Studies in the United States. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1948, was the founder of the university’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and served as the Aga Khan Professor of Iranian Studies from 1957 until 1990.  He published countless important articles, chapters, and books on Iranian history and culture.

Frye, who studied under the pioneering Armenologist Robert P. Blake at Harvard, was also an early and lifelong advocate of Armenian Studies, and it was he who was the catalyst for the establishment of NAASR and the creation of permanent programs in Armenian Studies in the US.

NAASR’s Board Chairman Raffi P. Yeghiayan said, “Professor Frye was a force majeur in promoting Armenian Studies and urging the Armenian community to establish it in academia by endowing a chair at a world-recognized institution of higher learning.  The Armenian community owes a large debt of gratitude for his vision and continuing support for the establishment of Armenian Studies as a recognized discipline nationwide.”

NAASR’s Director of Academic Affairs Marc A. Mamigonian added, “Richard Frye provided the necessary impetus to the group who became NAASR’s founders to take action.  It is no exaggeration to say that there is not a more important figure in the creation of the field of Armenian Studies in the US than Richard Frye, and he remained a passionate and eloquent advocate of the importance and the inherent value of Armenian Studies for the rest of his life, and continued his close ties with NAASR, serving as a key advisor until his death.  We are all in his debt.  He was a giant in every sense, and we will miss him as a person and as a repository of knowledge and wisdom.”

In April 1954, future NAASR Founding Chairman Manoog S. Young, then a graduate student, invited Frye to address the Armenian Students’ Association in Boston.  Frye’s talk was titled “The Study of Armenian History, Language, and Culture — Its Need and Importance,” and in it he famously declared: “The Armenians have a long and rich heritage that is deserving of world recognition…yet this is unknown to most of the world…Armenian needs to be an established and respected discipline in the universities and should receive the same status and recognition as Arabic and Persian …Armenia and the Armenians are a part of world history, not separate from it, and Armenian literature, history, and culture is worthy of study.”

He remained a passionate and eloquent advocate of the importance and the inherent value of Armenian Studies for the rest of his life, and continued his close ties with NAASR, serving as a key advisor until his death.

Since the age of 12, Frye had pursued his fascination with subjects related to the world area he called “Greater Iran:” Persianate and Iranian languages. Ever since seeing a book in his hometown Danville, Ill. store about Tamerlane, he collected objects and books from the region ranging from Turkey to western China. A prolific traveler, he resided for long periods abroad, knew ancient languages, spoke contemporary languages of Turks, Iranians, Afghans, Tajiks, Uzbeks as well as Russian, German, French. He learned his parents’ tongue, Swedish, later in life since they as immigrants during the early part of the 20th century, followed the pattern of discouraging native language usage in American-born generations.

Frye’s last book, Greater Iran: A 20th Century Odyssey, a memoir documenting his long academic career to 2005, maps the course of modern Middle Eastern studies’ evolution at US campuses, his initiatives to create endowed university chairs at Columbia, Harvard, and through NAASR, at many other universities. His graduate students range from academics such as Richard Bulliet at Columbia University, Jamsheed Choksey at Indiana University, and others in the foreign service or federal administration.

Graduating secondary school at 14, college at 19, and starting his graduate work at Harvard in the pre-WWI period, he joined the war effort, spent two years in Kabul, then Istanbul, with the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA), then returned to Harvard to complete his PhD in 1949. By 1957, he was established in the position he held until his retirement in 1990. Since then he published two books to add to 13 earlier titles, one of which, served as the basis of Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead (film The Thirteenth Warrior). Nearly all his books have appeared in other language translations and many have gained the status of classics in their field, been reprinted many times and continue to be in print. His personal library of some 25,000 items is housed at Boston University as part of their special collection. His archives are at Harvard and BU.

Of Frye’s many media interviews, the most recent came in 2008 on CNN when he voiced his wish for burial in Iran at a time when Iran-US relations were particularly rocky. But his devotion to Iran’s rich ancient and medieval culture endured political turmoil and he accepted honors from Reza Shah Pahlavi as well as former President Ahmadinejad. His dedication to the enduring values of culture and civilization trumped political vicissitudes that have torn the Middle East and particularly the Iranian world.

NAASR will present further tributes and remembrances of Frye in the days ahead.

Frye is survived by three of his four children, Nels Mishael Naby Frye, his son with his second wife, Eden Naby, and Gurprasad Khalsa, and Robert G. Frye from a previous marriage, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

The funeral service was on Tuesday April 1, at Memorial Church at Harvard University. Arrangements were made by the Giragosian Funeral Home in Watertown.