The Circassians In The Memlük Kingdom, by David Ayalon (Neustadt)

Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 69, No. 3. (Jul. - Sep., 1949), pp. 135-147.  
Born David Neustadt in Haifa in 1914 and raised in Zikhron Ya‘akov and Rosh Pinah, Professor Ayalon came into extensive contact with local Arabs and was first exposed to the Arabic language. In 1933, Ayalon began his studies in Arabic language and literature, Islamic culture, and Jewish history in the recently founded Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He initially devoted his studies to the Jewish aspect of the medieval Islamic world, but subsequently turned toward Islamic history, specifically the study of the Mamluk institution.

His work was disrupted by service in the British army during World War II; nevertheless, he was able to pursue his research and was awarded his doctorate in 1946. In 1947, he compiled his Arabic-Hebrew Dictionary of Modern Arabic with Pessah Shinar, and it has remained a mainstay for the study of Arabic in Israel for over fifty years. In the years prior to Israel’s independence, Ayalon worked in the Political Department of the Jewish Agency, which in 1948 became the nucleus of the new Foreign Ministry. At this time he was appointed head of research in the Middle East section.

In 1950, Professors Goitein and Baneth invited Ayalon to establish the Department of Modern Middle Eastern History at the Hebrew University. Together with Turkologist Uriel Heyd, they formed what is known today as the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. Ayalon headed the Department until 1956, and from 1963–67 was appointed chairman of the Institute of Asian and African Studies. During this period, Ayalon published some of his most important studies: L’esclavage du mamelouk (1951), “Studies on the Structure of the Mamlük Army” (1953–54), and Gunpowder and Firearms in the Mamlük Kingdom (1956). Around 1970, Ayalon embarked on a completely new area of research—the Mongol Yasa (law) and its role in the Mamluk Sultanate.

Aside from his academic interests, Ayalon maintained an avid interest in sports, serving for many years as the head of the Hebrew University’s Committee for Sports. He himself was a sprinter of no mean distinction, and up to the mid-sixties was faculty champion in short-distant running at the University. In 1966 he married Miriam Rosen, currently professor of Islamic art and archaeology at the Hebrew University.

Ayalon had a profound impact on two generations of Israeli students of Islamic studies. Many of his students have become pillars of  various university departments of Middle Eastern studies and Arabic language and literature, and scores of his students, who saw him as their ust?dh, have served in public service, journalism, and education in Israel.

In 1972, Ayalon was awarded the Israel Prize, the highest civilian recognition by the State of Israel. He was a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, an honorary member of the Middle East Medievalists from its inception in 1990, and, in 1997, an honorary foreign member of the American Historical Association. Ayalon continued his research after his retirement, which resulted in the writing of Eunuchs, Caliphs and Sultans: A Study of Power Relationships (to be published posthumously by Magnes Press).

Ayalon’s scholarship demonstrates his keen ability to see not only the particulars, but beyond them. His superb knowledge of Arabic and his historical insight blended well with wit, down-to-earth demeanor, and devotion to students and colleagues. David Ayalon passed away on June 25, 1998. He will be greatly missed by the Israeli Arabist and historical community and by a wide circle of scholars and friends around the world.

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