UCL Hebrew & Jewish Studies


Prof. Mark Geller was honored with the Honorary Doctor Honoris Causa of Sofia University

9 January 2020

At a ceremony in Aulata, Professor Mark Geller was honored with the honorary title of Doctor Honoris Causa by the Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski ".

Mark Geller being handed honorary doctorate

The following is from the Sofia University press release

The proposal for awarding the honorary title of the oldest Bulgarian higher school is to the Faculty of Slavic Philology and the Faculty of History.

The ceremony was opened by the Dean of the Faculty of Slavic Philology Assoc. Prof. Boyko Penchev, who introduced Prof. Geller, his academic career and scientific interests.

Prof. Mark Geller is one of the renowned leading experts in the field of asyrology and ancient hebraistics, whose contributions to the fields of ancient linguistics, ancient medicine and ancient magic and spells have the role of a standard in contemporary research.

Prof. Geller was born in 1949 in Corpus Christi, Texas, to a Jewish family of immigrants from Europe. In 1970, Mark Geller received his bachelor's degree in classical languages ​​at Princeton, and two years later completed a master's degree in Semitic languages, which he developed into a doctorate, defended in 1974 at Brandeis University, MA.

However, Mark Heller's entire professional career is linked to Europe, where he falls shortly after receiving his doctorate - first with a scholarship and then as a full-time lecturer at the University of London's Department of Hebraistics. In 1983, he was already director of the Institute for Hebraic Studies he founded, and from 1983 to 1994 he served as director of the Department of Hebraistics. In 1991, Heller received the title of Professor, and from 2000 to 2018, he was a visiting professor at the Free University of Berlin.

Prof. Geller has won a number of grants for specialization in the largest research and university centers in Europe. Most durable, however, is his professional and creative fate with Berlin. He was a Humboldt Fellow and a visiting professor at the Max Planck Institute. In 2008, he became a member of the Exelence Cluster TOPOI team created under the joint project of the Free University of Berlin and the Max Planck Academy to explore human knowledge from ancient times to the late Middle Ages. The cluster brings together humanities researchers with different backgrounds and expertise, including visiting professors, post-graduate students and PhD students from Bulgaria.

Exactly as a leading researcher in the TOPOI team for the past six years, Prof. Geller has developed and managed his latest major project, BabMed - Fragments of Cuneiform Medicine in the Babylonian Talmud: Knowledge Transfer in Late Antiquity, funded by the European Research Council. The project is dedicated to the study of ancient medicine, its theorizing in the light of ancient texts with an emphasis on Mesopotamian data. The project, carried out by Prof. Geller's team, achieved high results, and the center he established in Berlin, with the participation of scientists from different countries, established himself as a leader in research on Babylonian and Assyrian medical texts, as reflected in numerous scientific publications. One of the participants in this project is Dr. Strahil Panayotov.

Prof. Geller is one of the largest specialists in cuneiform art and culture of Assyria and Babylon, as evidenced by his numerous publications with read cuneiform tablets and inscriptions. His scientific interests and achievements are definitely related to the development of knowledge in the Ancient World, the connection between magic and science, the transfer of knowledge from the Middle East to Ancient Greece and Rome, and from there to the Slavic world. He is the author of nine monographs and 131 scientific articles or book chapters. The number of reviews he wrote is also impressive - 56, which also shows his high scientific activity.

There are many contributions from Prof. Heller in the field of research on spellbinding literature in the Two Rivers, among which the new, corrected, supplemented and published on the scientific level of the Evil Demons spell-book series holds a special place. In his practice, Prof. Heller has the well-known name of a professional, equally well versed in various ancient texts composed in Akkadian, Sumerian, Hebrew, Latin and Ancient Greek, as evidenced by his numerous publications in the most prestigious scientific publications and published books.

In the course of his professional experience, Prof. Geller works with a number of well-established and young Bulgarian scholars in the fields of comparative linguistics, Semitic linguistics, assyrology, ancient hebraistics, arabistics and medicine, among which Prof. Pavel Pavlovich, Prof. Anna-Maria Toto Vladimir Gradev, Dr. Strahil Panayotov, Dr. Kabalan Mukarzel, Dr. K. Mladenov and a number of others whose activities he supports are driven by sincere respect for Bulgaria and its people.

Thanks to the efforts of Prof. Geller and his wife Florentina Badalanova-Geller, the Slavic and Bulgarian issues were also included in the scope of the research cluster and unexpected connections were discovered between our Middle Ages and the Ancient East. Late last year, at the invitation of the Faculty of History and the Department of Ancient History, Thracology and Medieval History, Prof. Mark Geller delivered a public lecture on the collapse of polytheism, which was met with great interest by the professors and students of Sofia University.

Prof. Mark Geller was honored with the title of Doctor Honoris Causa of Sofia University by Rector of Sofia University Prof. Anastas Gerdzhikov.

The eminent scientist said he was honored to be in Aula today and thanked his many colleagues and friends at Sofia University. He delivered an academic word on the subject: "Noncanonical Reflections: The Babylonian Writers at the Dawn of Natural Science ."

In his speech, Prof. Geller drew attention to the fact that in the ancient world, natural phenomena such as solar eclipse were interpreted as bad omens, especially for the king and the ruling circles. Prof. Geller presented the story of the Assyrian king Assarhadon and the eclipse of the moon in 671 BC. To prevent potential danger, the king took a preventative measure and initiated the ritual of the Deputy King, according to which the real king had to withdraw from the throne for a period of time, left the palace and live in a private home. In its place, his ritual substitute, the King-Deputy and his wife, bearing the symbols of power, temporarily ascend. Since, according to the eclipse, the king would be overcome by misery, at the end of the sign period the Deputy King and his wife were executed.

"But as far as we can tell from historical evidence, Asarhadon was the last Assyrian and Babylonian king to organize the drastic ritual of the Deputy King. What was the reason for that? The advancement of science, " noted Professor Geller. He added that during his reign, Asarhadon had a whole army of hard-working scientists, including astronomers, who watched the movement of the stars and made assumptions about the chronological framework of the upcoming eclipses.

Although accurate predictions appeared only a few centuries later, by the middle of the first millennium BC, Babylonian scientists made great advances in mathematical calculations in predicting astronomical phenomena. Prof. Geller added that as a result, when scientists were able to predict an eclipse, it became far less "malicious": "If you can mathematically calculate when another eclipse will occur, the moment of surprise disappears. And when the eclipse is considered a normal celestial event, it largely ceases to be perceived as a threat."

According to Prof. Geller, this progress in astronomy is also changing the view of the universe, which deeply affects religion as well. When the Assyrian and Babylonian scholars began to perceive the heavens as a clockwork, moving in their own rules and laws that could be predicted mathematically, it changed everything. Now theology had to adapt to a new view of the heavens, which were no longer subject to the gods, but to science, emphasized Prof. Geller. The interest in the heavens has replaced that of the Underworld, so far perceived as a source of higher knowledge: “This significant epistemological change is documented, therefore, in the Slavic version of the Book of the Righteous Enoch. And this apocryphal text is a key testament to Babylonian astronomy from the third century BC. ".

Prof. Geller pointed out that, despite new knowledge in astronomy, scientists who studied the universe firmly believed that it was the gods who created the complex mechanism of the heavens and the stars. They still believed that the stars could be "read out," similar to the "heavenly scriptures"; accordingly, if the motion of the stars is monitored and documented, this would give reason to look for similar patterns on earth, which could also be predicted. According to him, about 450 BC, astronomers discovered the Zodiac, a very accurate tool for mapping the heavens. In his lecture, Prof. Heller explained how these changes affected other scientific fields, which also rivaled religion - medicine and other points of science.

"Medicine is the most socially significant science, as each of us needs it. In fact, magic had a significant presence in medicine. Surely this is true of Assyrian and Babylonian medicine, as well as medicine in Ancient Egypt, which contained many ritual prayers and spells, along with medical prescriptions. But by 400 BCE, a number of dramatic changes in Babylonian medicine were occurring that actually reflected the advances in mathematical astronomy. "said Prof. Geller. A new science is emerging, astral medicine, which combines medicine and astrology. In their work with patients, doctors are beginning to make use of the new discoveries in astronomy and astrology. They turned their attention to the zodiacal signs: medications prescribed for the zodiac sign favorably were expected to have a better outcome than the medicines favored for those zodiac signs. According to Professor Geller, we can call it applied science, which adapts theory to practice. For the importance of the approach in question and its evaluation as a "scientific" Prof. Geller, the assertion that we should not judge according to our current standard understandings of science, but according to the ancient criteria for observing and registering empirical data and extracting certain models from that data.

Prof. Geller emphasized that one of the controversial problems in modern-day research on ancient Babylonian medicine is related to the diagnosis of diseases, as they have often been referred to as the "hand" of a particular god or demon, as well as other similar terms. By the middle of the first millennium BC, the notions were changing. The term "hand" of a god and / or demon takes on a new meaning - the definition of "the hand of a god" is identified with the technical name of a disease, since in this period the traditional medical vocabulary already needs refinement within a specific medical terminology :"But probably the same expression meant different things to different people. Doctors could tell the patient that his symptoms were caused by the "hand of God Marduk", given that the patient was suffering from a certain type of skin disease; but the patient could conclude that he was personally punished by Marduk for his illness. The problem for contemporary researchers is how they can determine what is the true meaning of late Babylonian medical diagnosis and whether these definitions of the "hand" of a god or evil spirit, or demon, reflect science, religion, or both . "

In his lecture, Prof. Heller also traced the development of ancient Greek medicine and the tensions between science and religion that were encountered there. According to him, at first glance, Greek medicine looks like "exact science" - the Hippocratic Corps prides itself on distinguishing medicine from magic, including the actions of sorcerers and diviners who begin to consider themselves scammers and charlatans. Hippocrates' famous treatise "On Sacred Diseases" very clearly rejects the idea that health problems should be associated with certain deities, which is a clear allusion to the view formulated in Babylonian medicine for the "hand" of the disease-causing god.

The Hippocratic Corps, unlike Egyptian or Babylonian medicine, does not contain any spells or magic rituals. "But there is another, somewhat disturbing, side of Greek medicine that is often ignored by historians. Galen, certainly the greatest Roman physician, was extremely religious and believed that he himself had been healed by the god Asclepius. From time to time, he prescribed magical amulets to his patients and even claimed afterwards that it was these amulets that returned their good health. "said Prof. Geller. He pointed out that for most of his life, Galen lived in the city of Pergamum, where he also located one of the largest healing religious temples of the ancient world - the Asclepius; there, the patients were allowed to sleep in order to have the god Asclepius sleep and tell them what medical regimen they needed to heal. Moreover, in Asclepius, archaeologists have discovered a large number of votive tiles that testify to faith in miraculous healings through Asclepius.

Prof. Geller emphasized that the best evidence we have of this type of treatment is from the autobiography of Elius Aristides, a famous Roman orator who lived almost at the same time as Galen; Eliy Aristide is known to be chronically ill and a proven hypochondriac; he firmly believed in Asclepius and constantly visited his sanctuary. Aristide may have had the great fortune of surviving such advice, but his detailed records of his illnesses and their treatment are impressive testimony to religious beliefs beyond scientific theory in the medical field ," Prof. Geller said.

In conclusion, Prof. Geller noted that advances in mathematical astronomy, as well as academic interest in the discipline, had become the engine for profound changes in the perceptions of space: "Although the gods still ruled the universe, humanity sought other ways of explaining different from divine intervention, about how the world worked, and these quests are what we now call science."