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Born in Munich in 1916, Isserlin left Germany in the early 1930s, completing his secondary schooling in Switzerland and then briefly studying history at university there before entering the University of Edinburgh in 1935, where he read History and Archaeology. In the course of an illustrious undergraduate career, he was awarded five medals, prizes in both political science and history, and a scholarship.
Graduating with first class Honours in 1939, he moved to Magdalen College, Oxford, to read Oriental Languages, specialising in Hebrew and Arabic; he had begun the study of the first of these whilst at Edinburgh. He proved an equally brilliant student at Oxford, achieving another First in 1943. Dr Isserlin then taught German at the King Alfred School in Wantage for several years, returning to Oxford in 1947 as Kennicott Hebrew Fellow, a post he was to hold for the next three years. During the latter stages of his tenure of this appointment, he was awarded a Scarborough Grant, enabling him to visit a number of Mediterranean countries to pursue his nascent archaeological interests. During this period, he was trained in archaeological methods by Dame Kathleen Kenyon, an experience which he always gratefully acknowledged as having greatly influenced his approach to the excavations he went on to direct himself.
Dr Isserlin was awarded a BLitt by Oxford in 1951 and in October of that year took up an appointment in the Department of Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Leeds, as Assistant Lecturer in Hebrew. He was promoted to Lecturer in the following year. Dr Isserlin was a remarkably proficient linguist, fluent in more than ten languages. His textbook Hebrew Work Book for Beginners proved to be a very successful introduction for those new to that language. Embracing archaeological, linguistic and historical scholarship, his research interests encompassed an unusually wide range, including Biblical and Phoenician archaeology; Arabic dialects; Ancient Semitic history; and the origins of the alphabet.
One of his many interests was in the study of Semitic place names as a historical and philological source, and in 1954 he was awarded his DPhil by Oxford for a thesis on place names in ancient Palestine and the evidence these offered for the study of the movements and settlements of peoples.
Dr Isserlin took part in a number of excavations of importance for Old Testament research, including those at Hazor in Israel. He himself directed fieldwork on this University's expedition to Jaffa in 1952 and, in 1955, on the Oxford expedition to Motya, a small island off western Sicily. Motya was to become one of the most significant sites for Dr Isserlins's scholarship. He developed a special interest in Phoenician archaeology and in 1960 conducted excavations of the harbour site of Mikhmoret in Israel; and then, from 1961 until 1972, directed a series of archaeological excavations and investigations at Motya, in collaboration with colleagues from a number of other academic institutions in this country, the USA and Australia. Motya: a Phoenician and Carthaginian city in Sicily, the first volume, by Dr Isserlin and his co-director, Joan du Plat Taylor, of the final report of the excavations, was published in 1974. It found a very favourable reception both here and overseas. The book and a series of articles produced by Dr Isserlin were widely praised as a most important contribution to the study of the Phoenicians in the western Mediterranean. His interest in the Phoenicians led him to pursue the traces of their enterprise in other areas, including Spain (Malaga) and Portugal (the Azores).
A variety of other research interests claimed Dr Isserlin’s attention. Building on the work carried out for his doctoral thesis, he made highly original and important contributions to the study of Semitic place names and onomastics. He also collaborated with Professor Joseph Aquilina of the University of Malta in carrying out a full descriptive and analytical survey of contemporary spoken Maltese, a language which is a complex derivative of mainly Arabic and some Romance languages; the first volume of A Survey of Contemporary Dialectal Maltese came out in 1981. He then contributed a section on the origin of the alphabet to the Cambridge Ancient History.
Apart from his own numerous, diverse and highly respected scholarly publications, Dr Isserlin, erudite and courteous in equal measure, provided much inspiration, stimulus and encouragement to colleagues and students alike. In April 1960, he was appointed Senior Lecturer and Head of the Department of Semitic Studies. He devoted much of his time to nurturing the development of the Department, which continued to grow in prestige and reputation; research flourished, with graduates under his supervision – many of whom have gone on to hold senior appointments in their home countries – producing important work in fields including Arabic dialects and folk-lore, and Semitic philology and archaeology.
In honour of his sixtieth birthday, and reflecting the esteem and affection felt for him, a Festschrift under the title A Volume of Oriental Studies presented to Benedikt S J Isserlin was compiled for him by a distinguished range of international scholars. The University conferred a Readership on Dr Isserlin in 1977 and he served as President of the British Association for Jewish Studies in 1982. He was also a founding member, and later President, of the Leeds Oriental Society.
Dr Isserlin retired from his University appointment in 1981. The Senate resolution adopted at the time paid tribute to Dr Isserlin's outstanding gift for inspiring collaborators; to the dedication and humility with which he had guided his Department for more than two decades; to his friendliness and self-deprecating humour; and to his insatiable curiosity – which, in the words of the author, 'could face one on Red Route with unnerving questions of scholarship'. In retirement, Dr Isserlin continued to pursue his scholarly interests and enthusiasms with unflagging zeal, and to be a regular and welcome visitor to the University to which he had contributed so much for thirty years.
Together with Dr John Uren of the School of Civil Engineering, as well as colleagues at the Universities of Glasgow and Thessaloniki, he became involved in lengthy geophysical and geoarchaeological investigations aimed at locating the canal reputedly built by King Xerxes in 500 BC across the narrowest part of the Mount Atlas peninsula in Northern Greece. 1998 saw the publication of what proved to be Dr Isserlin's last major work, his book The Israelites, a wide-ranging and comprehensive survey of ancient Israel from the late 13th century BC to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC, which, in the words of one reviewer, 'seems to encompass almost effortlessly the latest and best scholarship'. The book is dedicated to the memory of Dr Isserlin's wife, Hilda, who provided great encouragement and support for his work over the years, and played an active rôle on many of his excavations.
Dr Isserlin is survived by his son, Raphael, a Leeds graduate and himself an archaeologist, who produced many of the line drawings for his father's last book.