Friday, May 22, 2015

Michael C. Astour: A Biographical Essay

Michael C. Astour: A Biographical Essay
James J. Weingartner, Southern Illinois University EdwardsvilleFollow


Michael Astour's scholarly productivity was prodigious and was recognized and respected by the international community of historians of the ancient Near East. His accomplishments would have been impressive in anyone, but were especially so given the tumultuous and tragic events of his personal life, which were part and parcel of the tragic and tumultuous century in which he lived. The Festschrift that grew out of a celebratory conference in his honor begins with a paraphrase of an ancient Sumerian proverb: “A scribe who does not know Sumerian, what kind of a scribe is he?” It reads, “Scholars of Mediterranean, Biblical and Near Eastern Studies who do not know the work of Michael Astour, what kind of scholars are they?”[1] Obviously, that’s a rhetorical and somewhat hyperbolic question, and I lack the knowledge to pass judgment with any confidence on his work. Ignorance is easily impressed. Nevertheless, the story of Michael Astour’s life deserves to be told, if only by someone who is definitely not a scholar of the ancient Near East, but who knew him as a colleague. Many of his friends and colleagues urged him over the years to write a memoir, something he adamantly refused to do. This may have been due in part to the pain that such an effort would have caused him, although he argued that others had told similar stories better than he could. But, finally, he may have regarded such an undertaking simply as an unwelcome distraction from the scholarship that he loved and that he pursued almost to his dying day.[2]
This essay is based largely on Astour’s voluminous correspondence spanning a half- century. He meticulously saved letters he received, as well as copies of those he sent. His papers fill dozens of boxes in SIUE’s archives. Many of his letters are multi-paged and are uniformly thoughtful and frequently witty. They stand in stark contrast to the brief and often superficial electronic communications that pass for inter-personal correspondence today which is, in most cases and, perhaps appropriately, transitory. They exemplify a category of historical source material that, sadly, is no longer being generated.
[1] Gordon Young, Mark Chavalas, Richard Averbeck, eds., Crossing Boundaries and Linking Horizons: Studies in Honor of Michael C. Astour on His 80th Birthday [Bethesda, MD., 1997], xi.
[2] Astour to Chavalas, March 2, 1992, Box 25.

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