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History professor receives MacArthur fellowship
Scholar, philologist, and translator Maria Mavroudi studies the ‘permeability’ of medieval Greek, Latin, and Arabic cultures

| 30 September 2004


Maria Mavroudi (Photo courtesy the MacArthur Foundation)
Maria Mavroudi, an assistant professor of history who is an expert on Greek and Arabic cultural interaction in the Middle Ages, has been awarded a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, announced on Tuesday, Sept. 28. Mavroudi is among 23 recipients nationwide who will receive the prestigious award, which provides fellows with $500,000 over a five-year period for their unrestricted use.

Mavroudi has not yet decided exactly how she will use the money — though she is certain it will be used to aid her research in some way. For the time being she is simply processing the fact that she won.

When the 37-year-old academic received a call from a representative of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, she did not dare think that it was to tell her she had won. “I thought that maybe he wanted my opinion on someone else,” Mavroudi recalls. “I just couldn’t believe he would be calling to announce I was a winner. To this day I can’t believe it.”

Mavroudi is the author of A Byzantine Book on Dream Interpretation: The Oneirocriticon of Achmet and Its Arabic Sources (2002). She was a fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, Harvard ’s Byzantine research library in Washington, D.C., and a Hanna Seeger Davis Post-doctoral Teaching Fellow in Hellenic Studies at Princeton before joining Berkeley’s history faculty in the College of Letters and Science in 2002.

Said Martin Jay, chair of the history department: “In a very short time, Maria Mavroudi has established herself as a pathbreaking, internationally acclaimed scholar in the history of Byzantine-Arabic cultural relations in the l0th century, as well as a brilliant philologist and translator of earlier texts from the ancient world.

“Commanding all the relevant languages — modern and ancient Greek, Arabic, Latin, Coptic, and Syriac — as well as a deep knowledge of the history of medieval science, she has been able to demonstrate the crucial role of Arabic culture in stimulating Byzantine intellectual development. The implications of her work for the more general issue of cultural contact between the great civilizations of the world are profound.”

Mavroudi hopes that the prestigious award will pay off not only financially but as an argument in favor of expanding the university’s library collections in Byzantine studies.

Mavroudi’s research interests date back to her youth in Greece. She took the standard history courses but wondered why they focused on the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., the period of classical antiquity, and largely ignored the Byzantine period (the fourth through 15th centuries B.C.).

“That got me wondering why we are so enamored with a couple of centuries and pay disproportionately little attention to a whole millennium,” says Mavroudi. “Compared with other periods of Greek history, Byzantium [the medieval Greek empire] is generally understood as representing an era of decline, and therefore as being of secondary significance. Yet it has to be important for world history, if not for any other reason, at least because, for a while, it was a world empire and a political and military superpower. The prestige of its culture radiated throughout the Mediterranean and beyond.”

Mavroudi received a bachelor’s degree in classics from the University of Thessaloniki, Greece. She then earned a master’s degree in Byzantine literature and a doctorate in Byzantine studies from Harvard. In the course of her doctoral research she became aware of an intricate web of cultural exchange among medieval Greek, Latin, and Arabic cultures. The influences ranged from the sharing of scientific knowledge, to architectural design, to the creation of luxury objects, including the production of glass and alabaster vessels and silk textiles.

Her research shows that empires create an intercultural permeability, and that cultural traditions persist even after the end of the political entities in which they flourished.

“It is a lesson from history that gives one hope,” she says.