Family background

On the life of Alexander Kégl there are very few original sources available. In his lifetime and after his death only some short appreciations and remembrances were published, 1 which already at that time contained conflicting data. Recently two major publications focused on the life and work of the Orientalist Kégl. The one is a comprehensive study on him as a disciple of Ármin Vámbéry, 2 while the other reveals the relationship between Kégl and the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. 3 The sole relatively long and authentic remembrance on his life was written by his brother János from 1924. However, as the author also admits, it contains a number of uncertainties.

Alexander Kégl was born in a Catholic landowner family 4 on the Szunyogh farmstead laying between the towns of Kiskunlacháza and Bugyi in Pest-Pilis-Solt-Kiskun county. 5 He was the second among five children. According to the remembrance of his younger brother János, his favorite childhood entertainment was playing soldiers. His surviving drawings also show this attraction.


He began his studies in the Protestant elementary school of the town Áporka near the family estate, where his teacher was Imre Pólya, while he sat for an exam in divinity before the vicar of Pereg István Szabó. Already at that time he loved to read. His favorite readings included the works of Franz Hoffmann (1814-1882).

With a few exceptions he did his high school studies as a private student in some renowned institutions of Budapest. Beginning with 1873, he went for exams throughout three academic years to the building of the Protestant High School of Pest (the predecessor of the present-day Lónyai Street Calvinist High School) in Kálvin Square, opened on 3 November 1859.

For the following four academic years he was a student of the Piarist High School in Budapest. For one and half year he also visited the school, then for two and a half years he sat exams as a private student. 6 His name is included in the bulletins of the school between 1876 and 1880. 7

It is remarkable that he never got excellent grades in language subjects (Latin, Greek, German), and his fourth grade head of class Vilmos Rappensberger even noted to his father that Alexander “has no susceptibility to languages”. 8

He sat the final examination in the Markó Street High School in 1881. 9

His inclination to the collection of books manifested itself already in the lower classes of high school. At the time of the final examination he already had the works of the more renowned German, English, French and Italian authors in his private library. It is no coincidence that during the examination the high school’s professor of literature stated that he had not met any other student of a similar preparation, as Alexander Kégl by that time already translated with precision the works of the most significant German, French, Italian and English authors from the original languages.

After the final examination he was engaged for four years in learning foreign languages. During this period he mastered Russian, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Spanish and Portuguese. Then his interest turned to Oriental languages. Under the influence of Rückert’s translations and the works of Ármin Vámbéry, he began to learn Arabic, Persian and Turkish. To improve his knowledge of these languages, in 1884 (or according to other sources in 1885) he enrolled at the university of Budapest, where his intellectual leaders were Ármin Vámbéry, Ignaz Goldziher 10 and Péter Hatala. On 20 May 1889 he had his Ph.D. examination summa cum laude. His thesis was the analysis of the most famous work of a 14th-century Egyptian author, Damiri’s The life of animals. The main topic of his examination before Péter Hatala were Semitic languages, while the secondary topic was Turkish-Tatar language as well as Persian language and literature, interrogated by Ármin Vámbéry. 11

Study trip and the beginnings of his scientific career

Encouraged by Vámbéry, after graduating, on 1 October 1889 he went on a study trip to Tehran to enhance his practical Persian knowledge and thus prepare for the teaching career of his choice. During the several months of absence he regularly kept in touch with his family. They sent money to him and, what was perhaps even more important for a member of a very solidary family, they shared with him the news at home. His father also informed him in a letter of 5 November 1889 that he had visited in Pest Vámbéry – who was not only Kégl’s professor, but also remained his supporter in the following years – who “spoke kind-heartedly about your journey, the advantages of your language skills and the perspectives of your teaching career… Vámbéry told that he believed it the most appropriate for you to give news about yourself with the publication of a study that he could then submit to the Academy…”

After his return from Tehran he published a series of articles intended for the great public, but bearing witness to his in-depth knowledge and excellent observations in the magazines Egyetértés, Magyar Salon and Vasárnapi Ujság. At the same time he started working on one of his most important scientific works (Tanulmányok az újabbkori persa irodalom történetéből,Studies on the history of modern Persian literature”), whose abbreviated version was soon also published in one of the most prestigious German journals (Zur Geschichte der persischen Litteratur des 19. Jahrhunderts. ZDMG 47 (1893) 130-142). The first half of the 1890s was an extremely productive period for him. He published a large number of articles in journals both in Hungary and abroad, and he started to write the lexicon entries published in the Great Pallas Lexicon between 1893 and 1897.

The university professor

In the academic year of 1893-1894 he became a privat-docent of Persian language and literature at the Hungarian Royal University of Sciences in Budapest. 12 In this endeavor he was supported by Ármin Vámbéry.

In the academic year of 1907-1908 he was appointed a public extraordinary titular professor. 13 On 20 March 1914 several prominent scholars – Ignaz Goldziher, Jakab Bleyer, József Schmidt, Artur Yolland, Henrik Marczali, Dávid Angyal and Antal Áldásy – proposed that he should receive the title of public extraordinary professor. 14 Two further sessions – presided by Zsolt Beöthy 15 and József Szinnyei 16 – proposed that the committee “should supportively submit the motion to the Faculty, and they should also ask the Faculty to take the necessary steps for the organization of the Persian language and literature, and even before these steps – in regard to the emerging needs within the Faculty – to bestow Dr. Alexander Kégl with all the rights of public extraordinary professors.” Despite the fact that Kégl enjoyed the support of the prominent representatives of his field, we have no document that the Department would have accepted this motion, and the name of Alexander Kégl never figures on the lists of the ordinary and public extraordinary professors of the Faculty of Letters. 17

Kégl’s academic career was probably influenced by the fact that historical events (the war, the dictatorship of the proletariat, etc.) adversely affected the university education. Nevertheless, the efforts to improve the situation of Oriental studies continued in these years, and the related documents always mention Alexander Kégl as the only authentic representative of Hungarian Iranology. We must not forget either that in this period – as we read it in the submission of Ignaz Goldziher – only seven scholars had a habilitation in Oriental studies, that is, Kégl was the member of the first great generation following János Repiczky and Gyula Dallos, who was a professor for a short period only.

We find the name of Alexander Kégl in the university curricula from 1896 until his death in 1920. As his brother wrote, he always taught titulo sine vitulo, i.e. he did not receive any fee for his work, but “he always fulfilled his duty… and his students loved him.” This good relationship is shown by the few letters written by his former students, and this atmosphere is conveyed by the only surviving photograph representing him among his students. 18

Besides Persian grammar that he taught until his death, he also regularly read from the most significant works of Persian literature, such as the poetry of Hafiz and Omar Khayyam, Sa‘adi’s Bustan, Firdowsi’s Shahnameh, etc. Between 1900 and 1906 he also read indology as well as a comparative course on Persian and Sanskrit epic poetry. 19

From his letter written in December 1905 to Ignaz Goldziher we know that for a while he also taught – probably at the request of Goldziher – Arabic grammar, but due to administrative difficulties, we see no trace of it in the university curricula.

He was an enthusiastic instructor, as it is shown by the fact that in the academic year of 1915-1916 he intended to surpass the limitation on the number of lessons introduced by the Faculty for private-docents, so he was urged to submit a new curriculum. In the next year his enthusiasm was probably sensitively affected by the decision of June 20 by the Faculty, in terms of which “the lectures of Persian language and literature included in the curriculum of the Faculty are taken into account in the exemption of tuition fee only up to 2 hours”. 20

Not only was he a dedicated instructor at the university, but also a grateful student of his great masters. As “the first one by age, status and scientific authority” among the former students of Ignaz Goldziher, he took a lion’s share in the organization of the ceremony on his 60th birthday as well as in the composition of the festschrift published for the occasion.

Academic membership

Alexander Kégl was elected on the General Assembly of 1906 of the Academy a corresponding member of the 1st Class, subclass A, which included Oriental studies, basically considered as philological studies. 21 This event had been long awaited by his scholarly friends who, beginning with 1899, yearly proposed him to be elected a member of the Academy. His first and most persistent supporter was his former master Ármin Vámbéry, the honorary member of the Academy, who proposed him for five consequent years, always referring to the same reasons, complemented with the hitherto most important publications by Kégl: “I propose Dr. Alexander Kégl, who has been particularly studied Persian language and literature for several years and has made significant achievements in this field, a corresponding member of the Academy.” 22 As these nominations by Vámbéry were not successful in these years, in 1904 Kégl was already proposed by two members, with a detailed justification: by honorary member Count Géza Kuun and ordinary member Ignaz Goldziher. However, the first breakthrough only occurred in 1905 when Kégl’s name was officially included, on the proposal of honorary member Ármin Vámbéry, ordinary member Ignaz Goldziher and corresponding member Ignác Kúnos – who joined the proposal submitted by Count Géza Kuun in the previous year – on the second place of the list of those proposed for a membership.  As, however, in that year there were only two vacant places for corresponding members, and even on the first place there were two names, there was not much hope for his election. 23

After these precedents it was the proposal submitted on 20 January 1906 by Ármin Vámbéry and Ignác Kúnos, including all the bibliography of Kégl, which brought him the academic membership. The two scholars pointed out that “Kégl, both by his skills and his persistent and unrelenting diligence, surely deserved to be finally elected a member of our Academy. In our scientific life he is almost the only cultivator of Persian language and literature, and his theses are of a high scientific value. … Besides Persian studies, Alexander Kégl is also engaged in Sanskrit and Hindi language and literature, and it will be an additional incentive to him if he were accepted among the members of the Academy.” 24

Alexander Kégl read out his inaugural thesis Dselâl ed-Dîn Rûmî négysoros versei (Quatrains of Rumi) on 3 December 1906, and at the same he was released his diploma of membership. 255

Academic activity

Although his academic membership was preceded by several years of unsuccessful attempts, this does not mean that he had not had guest readings long before his election at the meetings of the 1st Class. His first academic appearance was realized on the intercession of Ármin Vámbéry, who in his letter dated on 2 December 1890 recommended probably to the attention of the president or secretary of the 1st class, Pál Hunfalvy or Pál Gyulai the thesis of his former student, based on new sources. Of course these studies were also published in the volumes of the Theses of the Academy. He received his first permission of reading in 1891. 26 The thesis, as usual, was given for criticism to Ignaz Goldziher. Unfortunately, Goldziher’s criticism has not survived, but Kégl used his comments in the final version. This was also followed by other readings. For example, on 20 March 1902 he was informed in a warm letter by Gusztáv Heinrich (President of the 1st Class between 1901 and 1905 that “by the permission of all the meeting” he can read his thesis on 7 April.

The Alexander Csoma de Kőrös Foundation established by Tivadar Duka with a capital of 2 thousand golden crowns created a new forum of Oriental studies with triennial lectures held from 1900. In 1909, introduced by Count Pál Teleki, it was Alexander Kégl to read a scientific lecture on Asian culture with the title Hindusztáni tanulmányok (Hindustani studies).

His participation was expected in the various committees on the countries and culture of the East. This is attested by his election as a corresponding member of the Academy into the Balkan Committee created in 1914, whose other members were Oszkár Asbóth, Ignaz Goldziher, Ignác Kúnos and János Melich. 27 His name also figured among those of the 6th Oriental Committee established in 1919, on the 79th General Assembly, in company of Oszkár Asbóth, Ignaz Goldziher, Gusztáv Heinrich, Ignác Kúnos, Nándor Láng, Vilmos Petz and József Schmidt. 288

His extensive language skills almost predestined him to assume a significant role in the cataloging of the Oriental manuscripts in the collection of the Academy Library. Apart from the news published on this important activity in the volumes 1907-1909 of Akadémiai Értesítő, some letters also survived to bear witness that his skills were desperately needed in the Library.

The urgent letter by Gusztáv Heinrich concerning the description of the manuscripts is well complemented by the Library’s yearly report of 1906, according to which “Mr. Alexander Kégl has… already complemented [the description of] 45 Persian, 42 Arabic and 59 Turkish manuscripts.” 29 In the next year they reported about the description of 250 Turkish manuscripts, while the report of 1908 gives news on the completion of the work. 30

Professional contacts and correspondence

Alexander Kégl was willingly accepted as a member not only in the academic committees, but also in other professional bodies, such as the Turkish Society or the Hungarian Oriental Cultural Center.

Although he was constantly present on Hungarian scientific forums as a lecturer, he did not participate in international scientific life. He published only a few writings in foreign languages, mostly in the 1890s. Nevertheless, in 1902 he participated on his own expense at the 13th International Orientalist Congress in Hamburg. 311 There he met the German Iranist Paul Horn (1863-1908) with whom he regularly corresponded until his death. This information was included only in the recollection of Kégl’s brother, as his own correspondence survived only in a fragmentary form.

A polymath

Alexander Kégl enjoyed an exposure and recognition not only at the university, the Academy and among Orientalists. His familiarity with various Eastern cultures and languages as well as the reliability of his opinion led several people to seek,  either officially or privately, his professional advice.

These included for example József Hampel, Director of the Coins and Antiquities Department of the Hungarian National Museum, Vidor Kassai, a renowned former actor of the People’s Theater and many others who expected of him the solution of various etymological issues.

A significant portion of his publications were not written on Oriental themes. Among this group stand out his writings on English literature, which are still considered as important by modern resesarch. 32

A major area of his literary activity were the reviews, published initially (between 1891 and 1893) in Budapesti Szemle, then between 1895 and 1911 in Egyetemes Philológiai Közlöny. These mainly focused on recently published works on Oriental literature and linguistics, usually immediately ordered by him. Given that he easily read in all European languages, he had a complete overview on contemporary Oriental studies in any country and language.

As his brother John recalled, “he fulfilled his official duties with the highest accuracy, and he took great care of self-education so he could provide for them as required by his professor’s status.”

Near the end of his life he started to learn Chuvash and Mordvin language from Russian prisoners of war, 33 and he also recorded a number of their folk narratives.


Alexander Kégl found his death on the night from 28 to 29 December 1920, while keeping vigil by his seriously ill brother’s bedside. 34 His death left a large gap behind. At the university the attempts to establish an Iranian Department definitely collapsed. Iranian studies as a separate department started only much later, in 1958 at the Faculty of Humanities of the ELTE, within the frames of the Department of General Linguistics.

His sudden death also prevented him from writing a scientific treatise on Chuvash and Mordvin language and folklore, just as many other themes remained unfinished in his oeuvre.

His funeral took place on 31 December in the cemetery of Pereg. Due to the late notification, the Academy could express condolences only by telegram. 35 The 1st Class invited Ignaz Goldziher to an obituary, but due to his death in 1921 this was not realized. 36

The loss of the profession was summarized in a warm obituary by Gyula Nagy, who writes: “Kégl loved Persian literature with the love of a born Persian and cultivated it with the knowledge of a born Persian, too.” 36