Benedikt Isserlin Obituary: Scholar of Ancient Near East





Benedikt Isserlin, who has died aged 89, was a philologist, archaeologist and historian with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the cultures and languages of the ancient Near East.

In his popular but scholarly Israelites (2001), Isserlin synthesised the social, historical, geographical and archaeological evidence of ancient Israel from the earliest beginnings to the Babylonian exile. He analysed the culture and society of the nation in the wider context of near eastern civilisations, and was delighted when the book was reviewed in a Saudi archaeological journal.

His involvement in Phoenician archaeology began in 1955, when he directed an Oxford University expedition to Motya (Mozia), a small island off Marsala, in Sicily, whose entire extent is covered with the remains of a Phoenician city destroyed in 397 BC. It took some time to gain the financial support necessary for a full-scale project, but from 1961 to 1972 Isserlin directed annual excavations there, and in 1974 published Motya: A Phoenician and Carthaginian City in Sicily, the first of three volumes.

In the field of Hebrew studies, Isserlin devoted great attention to the study of place names and to the pronunciation of ancient Hebrew. In 1971 he published a Hebrew Work Book for Beginners. At the time of his death he was revising his doctoral thesis on the place names of Palestine for publication.

Isserlin was also involved in Arabic and Islamic studies, and his interest in Arabic dialects led him to the study of Maltese. From 1963 he collaborated with Professor Joseph Aqulina, of Malta University, in carrying out an exhaustive survey of spoken Maltese dialects, eventually published in three volumes.

Benedikt Sigmund Johannes Isserlin was born on February 25 1916 in Munich, Germany. Family tradition has it that the Isserlins were descended from Rabbi Moses Isserles of Cracow, an eminent Talmudic scholar of the 16th century. Benedikt's father, Max, was a professor of psychiatry, an international authority on the effects of brain damage on language and the founder of a hospital for war invalids with brain lesions. He held consultations in his office in the family flat in Munich, and Benedikt recalled that when kleptomaniac patients left the premises the housemaid would relieve them of the items they had pocketed during their visits.

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