Professor Edward Ullendorff was born on January 25 1920 inBerlinand educated at the city’s Gymnasium Graues Kloster. He taught himself Hebrew and Arabic and, from the age of 15, attended university classes in Arabic.
In 1938 he went toPalestineto study Semitic languages at theHebrewUniversityonMountScopus, living in the North Talpiot neighbourhood ofJerusalem, a city which, as he recalled, was still relatively empty and stunningly beautiful.
He soon, however, became aware of the huge gulf between the Arab and Jewish residents. His own days were filled with studies, visits to bookshops, music and amateur theatre, and evenings spent with neighbours debating everything from Palestinian politics to Henry VIII’s wives and fluid mechanics.
By contrast he recalled seeing an Arab woman giving birth by the side of the road, her husband standing by her side, idle and seemingly unconcerned. Ullendorff, horrified, ran to get medical help, but the doctor just shrugged his shoulders and smiled. When Ullendorff returned to the spot the woman, her husband and new baby were gone.
Ullendorff’s studies covered the full range of Semitic languages – Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic-Syriac, Akkadian and the Ethiopic languages, which he studied under the great Egyptologist and Semitic language expert HJ Polotsky. They got on extremely well and would correspond regularly until Polotsky’s death in 1991. But Ullendorff recalled that when he eventually leftJerusalemin 1948, he was advised to ask the great man for a testimonial, to which Polotsky readily agreed. The finished reference read: “Mr E Ullendorff was my pupil. I have no complaints against him.”
“There were not many occasions when I needed to have recourse to this fulsome assessment of my qualifications,” Ullendorff recalled – though when he showed the document to an old colleague of Polotsky’s “he at once recognised the authentic Polotsky manner and thought no one could wish for a greater tribute, considering its provenance”.
As Ullendorff explained in his memoir The Two Zions (1988), it was the Second World War that cemented his fascination with the culture and languages of Ethiopia (Ethiopians traditionally refer to their country as “the Second Zion”). When war broke out Ullendorff was writing an MA thesis on the use of the definite article in Semitic languages. But he soon volunteered to serve in the British Army under the Mandate and, because of his knowledge of Ethiopic languages, was posted toEritrea andEthiopia.
He served as the chief examiner in the British Censorship in Eritrea, based in Asmara, in 1942-43 and as assistant political secretary in 1945-46. During this time he founded and edited the first Tigrinya-language newspaper, the Eritrean Weekly News, and produced an illustrated magazine in Amharic. In 1943, at the municipal offices inAsmara, he married Dina Noack, who had been a neighbour inJerusalem.
Ullendorff travelled as much as he could, falling in love with the “stark and overpowering” beauty of the Ethiopian highlands and with the people – “a handsome race, elegant, subtle and nervous” but also “exceptionally intelligent, mentally agile and extraordinarily eager to learn”. He was greatly impressed byEthiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie, “whose slight figure was in marked contrast to the overpowering impact of his personality”.
Ullendorff would later translate Selassie’s autobiography, written in Amharic, into English, and in 1972, two years before he was deposed in a revolution, the emperor conferred on him the Haile Selassie International Prize for Ethiopian Studies. In 1988 Ullendorff noted, sadly, that of the 11 people featured in the photograph of the presentation ceremony, at least six had been murdered.
After the war Ullendorff returned toJerusalem, where he worked briefly as an administrator at theHebrewUniversity. There his duties included looking after an influx of foreign students (mainly former American servicemen) and the drafting of letters to referees abroad on the promotion of members of staff.
When one elderly lecturer in history was put forward for promotion, one of the referees was the Oxford Reader in Jewish Studies, Cecil Roth, who sent a cryptic quotation in Hebrew which, in translation, read: “He is like a peg that is not to be removed from its place.” The ensuing debate over the precise provenance and meaning of this text, Ullendorff felt, was excellent training for his later academic career.
But the febrileJerusalemof the postwar years was very different from the relatively peaceful city of the 1930s and was characterised by hostilities between the Irgun movement and the British administration, followed by a renewal of Arab-Jewish hostilities, with barbed wire barriers, body-searches, bombs, machine-gun fire and, at the university, bitter confrontations between supporters and opponents of the fighting.
In 1947 Ullendorff accepted a junior position in the British Mandate administration and worked in an office in theKingDavidHoteldealing with financial compensation for the victims of terrorist attacks until the surrender of the Mandate in 1948. As relationships between Arabs and Jews deteriorated further, it was with some relief that Ullendorff accepted an invitation to join the Oxford Institute of Colonial Studies and moved toBritain.
AtOxford, Ullendorff resumed his interrupted studies with a doctoral thesis on “The Relationship of Modern Ethiopian Languages to Ge’ez” (an ancient Semitic language which is no longer spoken but continues in use as a liturgical language). In 1950 he was appointed lecturer in Semitic Languages atSt AndrewsUniversity, later advanced to Reader.
In 1959 he was appointed to a chair in Semitic Languages and Literatures at Manchester and, five years later, moved to Soas, which created a chair of Ethiopian Studies especially for him (the chair was renamed Semitic Languages in 1979). In 1982 he retired toOxfordto concentrate on his researches.
The Semitic Languages of Ethiopia (1955), based on his doctoral thesis, was followed by works on the various Ethiopian languages and on the history and culture of Ethiopia, such as The Ethiopians: An Introduction to Country and People (1960), Ethiopia and the Bible (1968) and The Ethiopic Book of Enoch (1978, with MA Knibb). He edited catalogues of Ethiopian manuscript collections in the Bodleian and Cambridge University Libraries and published widely on other Semitic languages.
One of his more popular publications was an essay entitled The Bawdy Bible (1977), in which he explored the Hebrew Bible’s “unabashed outspokenness” on sexual matters.
Ullendorff played an active role in many academic bodies, serving as chairman of the Association of British Orientalists (1963-64), president of the Society for Old Testament Study (1971) and vice-president of the Royal Asiatic Society (1975-79 and 1981-85). From 1975 to 1983 he sat on the Advisory Board of the British Library.
During his time at Manchesterhe was joint editor of the Journal of Semitic Studies, and in London he was chairman of the editorial board of the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies between 1968 and 1978.
Among other honours, he was awarded the Imperial Ethiopian Gold Medallion in 1960 and elected a fellow of 1965, serving as its vice-president from 1980 to 1982.
His wife survives him.