Seminar für Ägyptologie und Koptologie

Professor Wolfhart Westendorf (1924-2018)


A significant number of academic disciplines, although small in terms of the number of academics and students, represent huge subject areas. Among them are Egyptology and Coptic Studies, whose subject area comprises Egypt in antiquity and late antiquity.

Egypt, especially Pharaonic Egypt, appears to the modern eye as a world of spectacular buildings, beautiful artifacts, trailblazing advances in human thought and fictionalised adventures. That Egypt can be presented in this way to the greater public is founded on a knowledge which, as in similar fields, has been accumulated over a long period of time, for a century even, through the painstaking research of hundreds of scholars – often barely noticed by this very public. Among these scholars, Wolfhart Westendorf was one of the giants of our time.

Through its twists and turns, his academic path was paradigmatic for young German scholars of the war and postwar generations, from its beginnings in a divided Berlin and a doctorate at the Humboldt University, via an early but significant stage working on the Egyptian Dictionary at the GDR Academy of Sciences, via a professorship in Munich after the construction of the Berlin wall – which cost him, as a West Berliner, his job in the East – finally to the University of Göttingen, where he was Director of the Institute for Egyptology and Coptic Studies from 1967 to 1989.

On this path Wolfhart Westendorf became one of the most important and influential researchers of the Egyptian language and hieroglyphic writing, both in Germany and internationally. He carried the great tradition of philological rigour developed by the "Berlin School", whose last representative he was, to our present day, by mastering not only the pre-Christian stages of the Egyptian language but also the Coptic stage of Christian-era Egypt. The incorruptible eye of the philologist is manifest in all his countless publications, his work on dictionaries, grammars and the hugely important "Lexikon der Ägyptologie"; in cooperation with other colleagues, he set the standards for researching the vast corpus of the Egyptian medical texts. Subsequently, Egyptian religion became an increasingly more important focus of his scholarly field of vision.

Professor Westendorf was not only a great scholar, but also a great teacher. Being introduced to the Egyptian language by him was an exciting and inspiring experience. Hieroglyphs were for him and his students a living game of fantasy and rationality. Far from any attitude that could have been considered his due as a prince of academia, he was both strict and amiable, demanding and encouraging, and his loyalty to his graduates was unwavering. As a scholar and teacher in Munich and Göttingen, he would go on to become the academic father of many younger Egyptologists in Germany.

Wolfhart Westendorf, Professor of Egyptology, member of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences, died at the age of 93.

Friedrich Junge