With the passing of Isrun Engelhardt (née Schwartz) colleagues in Tibetan studies have lost a devoted historian and independent researcher of more than thirty years’ standing. She will be remembered for her articles on the Capuchin missions to Tibet, the 1938-1939 Schäfer expedition to Lhasa, the Tibetan Melong newspaper and “the Buddha from Space”. Equally, colleagues and friends will greatly miss Isrun’s kindness and constant readiness to share information, and to assist colleagues with her great investigative skills.
Isrun was born in Arnsdorf in the foothills of the Riesengebirge Mountains. In the 1950s she moved with her parents and siblings to Icking, south of Munich, and continued to be based there for the rest of her life. She passed away at her beloved home in Icking on 2 March 2022 after a long struggle with cancer.
Isrun came from a scholarly family and was a distant relative of the German sociologist Max Weber. From her youth onwards she struggled with severe health problems but never allowed these to restrict her in following her passions: historical research and mountaineering.
In 1974 Isrun earned her doctorate at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. Her thesis carries the title Mission und Politik in Byzanz. Ein Beitrag zur Strukturanalyse byzantinischer Mission zur Zeit Justins und Justinians, and discusses the politics of the Byzantine missionary enterprise in the sixth century AD. In the course of her studies, she met her future husband Hans Dietrich Engelhardt who later became Professor of Sociology and Social Work at the Hochschule München. Their son Emanuel was born in 1979.
Since there were few employment opportunities for Byzantine scholars, Isrun at first worked as a career advisor for high school and university graduates. After Emanuel’s birth she worked at a children’s library as a volunteer. In 1986/1987 she undertook professional librarianship training in Frankfurt.
Meanwhile, her research interests began to shift towards the Himalayan region. With her husband, also an enthusiastic mountaineer, she went on her first trekking tour to Nepal in 1973. They were impressed by the kindness and religious devotion of the Tibetan refugees whom they met and, as a result, became interested in Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. They therefore seized the opportunity to visit Ladakh when it was opened to foreign tourism after 1974. Several more visits and trekking tours followed, and in 1994 Isrun went on her first trip to central Tibet. These personal encounters with the peoples of the Himalayan borderlands and the Tibetan diaspora led Isrun to resume her academic career with some four years studying Tibetan at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Bonn in the early 1990s.
Since Isrun had already established her academic credentials with her doctorate, she never felt the need to register for a further degree in Tibetan Studies. However, she received a research grant from the prestigious Gerda Henkel Foundation for a project on the 1938-1939 German expedition to Tibet led by Ernst Schäfer, showing how it was caught in the crossfire between politics and scientific research. The fruits of her work include the beautifully produced edited publication Tibet in 1938-1939 (2007), which highlights the photographs taken by expedition members in Sikkim and Lhasa.
Isrun was often called to distinguish between “fact and fiction” regarding the expedition’s links with the Nazi administration as well as the alleged esoteric aspects of its work. In this regard, one of her most notable contributions was her 2017 article on the provenance of the “Buddha from Space”, a statue which had apparently been fashioned out of metal deriving from a meteorite. Numerous press articles and blogposts suggested that the statue had been taken from Tibet by the Schäfer expedition in 1939. Isrun convincingly argued that the statue had most probably been designed and made for the eccentric Russian orientalist and artist Nikolai Roerich (1874-1947).
Alongside her work on the Schäfer expedition, Isrun took particular pleasure in the history of the Melong (Yul phyogs so so’i gsar ‘gyur me long), the monthly newspaper published from Kalimpong between 1925 and 1963 by Gegen Dorje Tharchin (1890-1976). In a series of articles, she drew out the distinctive characteristics of the paper and its editor, including its reporting of international news, its innovative use of cartoons and Tharchin’s “one-man war against Mao”. The Melong provides valuable insights on a range of topics linked to 20th century Tibet and Isrun readily shared these with other researchers.
Isrun was the most encouraging of colleagues, taking as much pleasure in other people’s discoveries as her own. Perhaps her most outstanding characteristic was her generosity in sharing source materials, often going far out of her way to make them available to individual researchers as well as the wider scholarly community. Among many other examples, she contributed to the Tharchin Collection at Columbia University’s Starr Library, using her own funds to purchase photograph albums from the Tharchin family and delivering them to New York in person. Similarly, she worked hard to collect copies of the Himalayan Times, which was published in Kalimpong, for the period 1947 and 1963: these are now available online through the University of Heidelberg.
Isrun kept in touch with her colleagues and friends through an extensive e-mail correspondence and – above all – through her participation in conferences and workshops. She took part in all the IATS conferences from the Seventh Seminar in Schloss Seggau (Austria) in 1995 until the 14th Seminar conference in Bergen (Norway) in 2016. In addition, she participated in many colloquia organised by the International Association for Ladakh Studies (IALS) as well as other more specialist workshops. Her final visit to India was in 2015 for a conference in Kalimpong on “Transcultural Encounters in the Himalayan Borderlands”. On the same occasion, she took the opportunity to make a side visit to Bhutan.
Isrun was always excellent company, and her conference contributions were unfailingly insightful, often drawing out fresh angles from previously neglected or undiscovered materials. However, many of us will remember her most fondly from her presence at some evening gathering – glass of wine at hand – following a long day’s academic discussion in Gangtok, Ulaanbaatar, Kalimpong, Oxford or Pistoia.
Isrun’s academic legacy includes a long list of high-quality scholarly publications. More than that, her colleagues and friends will remember her personal qualities with warmth and gratitude.
Bianca Horlemann and John Bray
- (1974). Mission und Politik in Byzanz. Ein Beitrag zur Strukcturanalyse byzantischer Mission zur Zeit Justins und Justinians (Miscellanea Byzantian Monacensia 19). Munich: Institut für Bynzantinistik und Neugriechische Philologie der Universität München.
- (2007) (ed.), Tibet in 1938-1939. Photographs from the Ernst Schäfer Expedition to Tibet. Chicago: Serindia.
- (2017). Un mythe occultiste démasqué – les prétendus liens entre le Tibet et le National-socialisme. Saint-Genis-Laval: Akbrieia.
Articles and book chapters
- (1999) “Zur Ent-fremdung des Europäers: Gastfreundschaft und Abbau von Fremdheit in den Beziehungen von Tibetern und Europäern im 18. Jahrhundert.” In Aneignung und Selbstbehauptung: Antworten auf die europäische Expansion, ed. byDietmar Rothermund. München: Oldenbourg, 183-202.
- (2001) “Perlen, Pelze und Pistolen: Facetten des Geschenkaustausches zwischen Tibetern und Europäern vorwiegend im 18. Jahrhundert.” In Tractata Tibetica et Mongolica. Festschrift für Klaus Sagaster zum 65. Geburtstag, ed. by Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz and Christian Peter. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 85-102.
- (2002) “The Closing of the Gates: Tibetan-European Relations at the End of the Eighteenth Century.” In Tibet, Past and Present: Tibetan studies 1: PIATS 2000: Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the Ninth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Leiden 2000, ed. by Henk Blezer and Abel Zadoks. Leiden: Brill, 229-45.
- (2003) “The Ernst-Schaefer-Tibet-Expedition (1938-1939): New Light on the Political History of Tibet in the First Half of the 20th Century.”In Tibet and Her Neighbours: A History, ed. by Alex McKay, London: Edition Hansjörg Mayer, 187-230.
- (2004) “Tibetan Triangle: German, Tibetan and British Relations in the Context of Ernst Schäfer’s Expedition, 1938-1939.” Asiatische Studien 58/1, 57-114.
- (2005) “Between Tolerance and Dogmatism: Tibetan Reactions to the Capuchin Missionaries in Lhasa, 1707-1745.” Zentralasiatische Studien (ZAS) 34, 55-97.
- (2005) “Schäfer, Ernst.” In Neue Deutsche Biographie (NDB) Band 22, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 2005, S. 503-504. [Online-Version]; URL: https://www.deutsche-biographie.de/pnd123991420.html#ndbcontent
- (2007) “Tibet in 1938–1939: The Ernst Schäfer Expedition to Tibet.”In Tibet in 1938-1939: Photographs from the Ernst Schäfer Expedition to Tibet, ed. by Isrun Engelhardt, Chicago: Serindia, 11-61.
- (2008). “Mishandled Mail: The Strange Case of the Reting Regent’s Letters to Hitler.” Zentralasiatische Studien (ZAS) 37 (2008), 77-106. https://info-buddhism.com/Mishandled_Mail_Retings_Letters_to_Hitler_Engelhardt.html
- (2009) “Nazis of Tibet: A Twentieth Century Myth.”In Images of Tibet in the 19th and 20th Centuries, ed. by Monica Esposito. Paris: EFEO, 63-96.
- (2009) “Die Ernst Schäfer Tibetexpedition 1938–1939.” In Brennpunkt Tibet März, ed. by Klemens Ludwig. https://web.archive.org/web/20100223053308/http:/info-buddhismus.de/Ernst-Schaefer-Tibetexpedition-Engelhardt.html
- (2009) “Tibet und der Nationalsozialismus: Fakten und Fiktionen.” In Tibet und Buddhismus 3. https://info-buddhismus.de/Tibet_und_Nationalsozialismus-Fakten_Fiktionen-Engelhardt.html
- (2010) “Tharchin’s Melong.” In Hartmut Walravens (ed.), The First Tibetan Serial: August Hermann Francke’s La-dvags-kyi-ag-bâr (1904 – 1907): Facsimile of a Unique Set in the Archives of the Evangelische Brüderunität, Herrnhut. Neuerwerbungen der Ostasienabteilung. Sonderheft 22. Berlin: Staatsbibliothek, 1-22 (separate pagination).
- (2011). “Praise for Sikkim from 1938: Sikkim in Original Quotes by the Ernst Schäfer Expedition.” In Buddhist Himalaya: Studies in Religion, History and Culture. Volume II: The Sikkim Papers, ed by Anna Balicki-Denjongpa & Alex McKay. Gangtok: Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, 191-206.
- (2011) “Reflections in The Tibet Mirror:News of the World, 1937-1946.” In Mapping the Modern in Tibet, ed. by Gray Tuttle. Andiast: IITBS, 205-64.
- (2012) “Tharchin’s One Man War with Mao.”In Studies on the History and Literature of Tibet and the Himalaya, ed. by Robert Vitali. Kathmandu: Vajra Publications, 2012, 183-209.
- (2013) “The Holy City of Lhasa: Dream and Destination for Sven Hedin and Ernst Schäfer.” In Nordic Ideology between Religion and Scholarship, ed. by Horst Junginger and Andreas Åkerlund. Frankfurt/M: Peter Lang, 207-24.
- (2013) “Tharchin’s Tibet Mirror: A Christian Oriented Newspaper?” In Historical and Philological Studies of China’s Western Regions 6, edited by Shen Weirong. Beijing: Science Press, 129-55.
- (2015). “Italian Capuchins as the First Western Healers in Lhasa, 1707-1945.” In In Tibetan and Himalayan Healing. An Anthology for Anthony Aris, ed. by Charles Ramble and Ulrike Roesler. Kathmandu: Vajra Books, 195-210.
- (2017) “The Strange Case of the ‘Buddha from Space’.” In Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines 42, October 2017, 39-67. http://himalaya.socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/journals/ret/pdf/ret_42_02.pdf
- (2018). “The Quip as the Whip: Political Cartoons in the Melong.” In Cahiers du Mirror, ed. Françoise Wang-Toutain and Marie Preziosi. Paris: Collège de France, 41-57.
- (2019) “L’évolution de l’image du Tibet dans la pensée et les écrits de Nicolas Roerich: d’une spiritualité exaltée à un chamanisme dépravé.” In Autour de Nicolas Roerich: art, ésotérisme, orientalisme et politique, ed. by Dany Savelli. Slavica Occitania 48, 201-37.
- (2020) “An Indigenous Tibetan Name for Mount Everest?” In On a Day of a Month of the Fire Bird Year. Festschrift for Peter Schwieger on the occasion of his 65th birthday, ed. by Jeannine Bischoff et al. Bhairahawa: Lumbini International Research Institute, 245-64.