Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, the Mongols, the Silk Road and Samarkand are all part of a day’s work for Prof. Michal Biran. A member of the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and the Department of East Asian Studies in the Faculty of Humanities, Biran’s field is the much neglected history of Inner Asia, the area stretching from northeast China via Mongolia and up to the gates of Europe. “There is a fascinating interchange of cultures in Inner Asia,” she says. “Yet, while all the world’s cultures have passed through this area, Inner Asian studies is a black hole in world history. Since the peoples of Inner Asia were nomads — nomads don’t haul around written archives — you can only elucidate their history from their neighbors. Chinese or Muslim sources provide the pieces of a puzzle that I am trying to put together to form a whole picture.”
Jerusalem-born Biran is eminently qualified to study this region. In addition to Hebrew, she speaks English, Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Russian, French and German. She has studied at Harvard and in China and Russia, received Fulbright scholarships for her graduate and postdoctoral studies, and did a fellowship at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. In 2005, she was awarded the University’s Yoram Ben-Porat Presidential Prize for Excellent Young Researcher, in 2006 the Rothschild Foundation’s Michael Bruno Memorial Award for Israeli scholars of truly exceptional promise and in 2007, the Landau Prize in East Asian history and cultures. Prof. Biran currently heads the Faculty of Humanities’ President Fellows program for doctoral students.
Prof. Biran’s interest in Central Asia began during her undergraduate years at the Hebrew University. “I was taking Middle Eastern studies and started to study Chinese. I decided to combine the two in Central Asian studies.” She is pleased to have done all her degrees at the Hebrew University which, she says, “offers more opportunities in Islamic studies than institutions in the US, and has a dynamic and challenging East Asian studies department.”
With her work focusing on the cross-cultural contacts between China, the Muslim world and Europe, and the Mongol empire, Biran’s most recent book is Chinggis Khan (2007, One World Publications, ‘Makers of the Muslim World’ series). “He is perceived as either a hero or a villain,” she says. “In parts of the Muslim world, his descendants continued to rule until the 19th century, making this ‘infidel’ the revered father of many Muslim dynasties. His heirs shaped Eurasian borders and Inner Asia’s ethnic composition. But in the Arab world, and in most of the modern, post-dynastic Muslim world, he is seen as a destroyer.”
In a long-term study funded by the Israel Science Foundation, Biran is researching the Khitans in the wake of the Mongol conquest. “The Khitans, an Inner-Asian steppe people from Manchuria, displayed a unique ability to retain their distinct identity from the 10th-13th centuries, but by the late 14th century they had ceased to exist as an ethnic group. I am looking at what caused their identity to fade away.”
She is also exploring the Chaghadaids, descendants of Chinggis Khan’s son Chaghadai and the Mongol branch that ruled Central Asia and the least known Mongol state, as well as looking at the social and intellectual history of Baghdad during the Ilkhanid period.
In the summer of 2010, together with Faculty of Humanities Dean Prof. Reuven Amitai who is a scholar of the Mongols in Islamic lands, Biran led a study tour of Mongolia in which the Hebrew University students and faculty traced the footsteps of Chinggis Khan and convened an Israeli-Mongolian conference.