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Denis Sinor :: Faculty

Picture of Denis Sinor

Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Central Eurasian Studies

Office: Goodbody Hall 101

Short Profile

Born in 1916, Sinor was privately educated in his native Hungary and in (French) Switzerland. In 1934-1938 he did his undergraduate work at the University of Budapest in Altaistics studying with the famous scholars Nemeth and Ligeti. As a student, he received several fellowships in Hungary, including one given to the best student of the university. In 1937 and 1938 he received summer fellowships to work in Berlin on the Old Turkic manuscripts there held, and in the summer of 1939 he received a modest fellowship to work in Paris with Paul Pelliot, the Grand Master of Inner Asian Studies.

The French connection.
The outbreak of World War II disrupted the teaching of Hungarian at the Ecole Nationale des Langues Orientales and Sinor was asked to assume the teaching of that language. At the same institution he also offered some topical courses on Inner Asian history. Labelled “politically unreliable” by the German occupants in September 1942, freshly married, he had to go into hiding and crossed illegally into what was called the Free Zone of France. Finding shelter in a Roman Catholic Convent near Toulouse he gave a series of lectures in the Catholic University (Institut Catholique) of that city. The subsequent German occupation of the “Free Zone” forced him to leave the convent. In the following long period of clandestine existence  Sinor earned his living by selling fur-coats.  In Toulouse, Paris and later in Normandy he rendered some modest services to the French Resistance. Arrested several times, he could talk himself out of difficult situations. He joined, the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) and his unit was later incorporated into the Gaullist “Army of the Rhine and Danube” Until his demobilization in November 1945, he served in the French occupation of Germany. On the basis of his military record he was granted French citizenship.

Following his demobilization  he was appointed to the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and held various teaching and research assignments in Paris. His subsequent  move to Great Britain did not spell the end of his links with the French scholarly world. He was elected to an Honorary Membership of the Societe Asiatique, and in 1996    became a Corresponding Member of the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres.

The British connection.
In the Summer of 1948, at the age of 32 he accepted a tenured position at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Cambridge University, England, where he introduced the teaching of Classical Mongol, Altaic Studies and, somewhat later, Hungarian studies. He became  a member of Magdalene College. Between 1955 and 1962 he was Honorary Secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.   In 1992 the Society  created a "Denis Sinor Medal for Inner Asian Studies".

The American connection.
In 1962 Sinor was invited by Indiana University to introduce  Altaic studies. He created the Department of Uralic and Altaic Studies (now: Central Eurasian Studies) of which he was the Chairman from 1963 to 1981. From 1965 to 1967 he was Chairman of the Asian Studies Program, and in 1967 he founded and directed the Asian Studies Research Institute,  renamed Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies in 1979 and Denis Sinor Institute for Inner Asian Studies in 2006  He retired from teaching in 1986.  At Indiana University from 1963 to 1988 he was Director of the National Defense Education Uralic and Inner Asian Language and Area Center, renamed in 1981 Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center.  He received the "Distinguished Professor" rank in 1975.  Indiana University honored him with the Thomas Hart Benton Mural Medallion (1986), inclusion into the “President’s Circle” (2005) and the John W. Ryan Award (2006). In the US he has been a holder of many research and travel grants (e.g., from the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Philosophical Society, the U.S. Office of Education, the National Endowment for the Humanities, etc.).  In 1975 he was scholar-in-residence at the Rockefeller Fund Study Center, Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio.  In 1968 and, again in 1981, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Sinor was President of the Mid-West Branch of the American Oriental Society (1968-70) the Tibet Society (1969-74), the Mongolia Society (1987-94) and of the American Oriental Society (1975-76) which, in 1999, awarded him its Medal of Honor.

The Hungarian connection.
Throughout his long life Sinor has remained in touch with his native land and particularly with his Altaist colleagues. But his activities went far beyond this scholarly field. While in Cambridge, he introduced the teaching of the Hungarian language at the University of Cambridge and the teaching of Hungarian history and literature at Indiana University. In the gloomy period of the Cold War he convinced the Hungarian Academy of Sciences to endow a Visiting Professorship of Hungarian Studies at Indiana University and convinced the University to accept and match “communist” funds (1970), surely an unparalleled event in the history of American academe.  In 1986 the then “communist” government of Hungary bestowed on him the "Order of the Star," and, twenty years later the “new” regime recognized his services with the award  the Commander’s Cross Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary (2006).  He has been a vice-president of the International Association for Hungarian Studies (1975-1991).

Still in Cambridge, in cooperation with scholars in Hungary, he completely reorganized  the entries pertaining to Hungarian literature in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1955/1956), and was one of the two  American co-ordinators of the Britannica-Hungarica (18 volumes) a Hungarian version of selected entries of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Sinor has received an honorary doctorate from the University of Szeged (1971), was elected an Honorary Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (1979) and in 2002,  in recognition of his “imperishable services” rendered to the university of Szeged, he received a medal from that institution.. In the same year he was Elected Honorary Member of the Institute of Linguistics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He is an Honorary Member of the Körösi Csoma Society (Budapest), which, in 1983, bestowed on him the Arminius Vambery Medal of that Society.

The Unesco connection.
From his days in Cambridge to 2005 Sinor served at various committees of this organization. For many years he served on the Bureau of the International Association for the Cultures of Central Asia, anchored in Dushanbe, 1990-1997 he served on the Consultative Committee of the Silk Road Project and various ad-hoc committees. 1981-2005 he was a vice-chairman of the UNESCO Commission for the preparation of a History of the Civilizations of Central Asia." Unesco awarded him in 1998  the Avicenna Medal and in 2005 the organization’s  60th Anniversary Medal.

The Soviet/Russian connection.
Ever since his Cambridge days Sinor did much to integrate Soviet/Russian scholars into the mainstream of Altaic Studies. In 1954 as  Secretary-General of the XXIII International Congress of Orientalists (Cambridge, England) he brought to the “West” (Cambridge)  the first ever Soviet delegation participating in an international congress focused on the humanities.  His merits were recognized, among others by the Oriental Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences which appointed him an Honorary Professor (2005) and by the University of Pedagogy and the Humanities of Kazan which conferred upon him a Doctorate h.c. (2007).

Other international activities.
From 1960 to 2007 Sinor was Secretary-General of the Permanent International Altaistic Conference (PIAC) which during this period had annual meetings in altogether twenty-one countries. In recognition of his services he received twice the PIAC’s Gold Medal (Indiana University Prize for Altaic Studies), in Uppsala (1982) and Szeged (1996). In 1993 he was elected a Vice-President of the International Union for Oriental and Asian Studies.

Without any doubt  Sinor’s main activity has been  research focused on the early and medieval history and civilization of Central Eurasia which he helped to define. His method has rested partly on comparative Altaic linguistics partly on the use of primary sources ranging from Greek and Latin to Chinese. The results were published in more than 160 articles written in Hungarian, French, English and German. Some of his articles were translated into several languages He authored 8 and edited 13 books. He reviewed  more than 125 books.

He has been an active contributor to various encyclopedias, including the Encyclopaedia Britannica, for which he prepared several major articles.  He has been and still is associated with the editing of several periodicals, such as the Journal of Asian History (since 1967), the Indiana University Uralic and Altaic Series (over 150 volumes) and the Indiana University Oriental Series.

Festschriften and various honors.
For his 60th birthday he was honored with Tractata Altaica. Denis Sinor sexagenario optime de rebus altaicis merito dedicata, edited by Walther Heissig et al. (Wiesbaden 1976), for his 70th birthday Ruth Meserve compiled his bibliography which was published accompanied by a short biography and some personal memoirs (Bloomington 1986). At his 90th birthday he was presented with Florilegia Altaistica. Studies in Honour of Denis Sinor on the Occasion of his 90th Birthday edited by Elena V. Boikova and Giovanni Stary (Wiesbaden 2006).
Honors received - beside those mentioned above - include  a corresponding membership of the Suomalais-ugrilaisen Seura (Helsinki)and an Honorary Membership of the of the Societas Uralo-Altaica (Germany). In 1994 he was elected a Foreign Member of the Academia Europaea.

Sinor is a member of the Cosmos Club (Washington, D.C.), of the Explorers Club (N.Y.C.), and of the United Oxford and Cambridge University Club (London) For many years he has been listed listed in Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in America, Who's Who in American Education, The Writers Directory, Dictionary of International Biography, Contemporary Authors, Directory of American Scholars, International Authors' and Writers' Who's Who, and other reference works.

Most of Sinor's life was spent in Europe and the United States, but he has also traveled extensively and repeatedly in various parts of Asia, including Afghanistan, Chinese Turkestan, Soviet Central Asia, Northern Pakistan, Siberia, Inner and Outer Mongolia. In 1983 he traveled all along the Karakorum Highway, possibly the firt American to do so. In 2004 on a Russian icebreaker he made it to the North Pole.