Jan Assmann, the prominent Egyptologist whose work bridged various theoretical disciplines, passed away on the 19th of February, 2024.

Assmann was born in Langelsheim in the Harz Mountains in 1938 and grew up in Lübeck during the war years. Educated in Egyptology but also Classical archaeology, he worked as an independent scholar before being assigned the position of professor of Egyptology in Heidelberg, where he taught from 1976 to 2003. He has taught as a visiting professor in Germany and abroad, in Paris and Jerusalem, and in several American universities including Rice, Yale, and Chicago. From 2005 he was an Honorary Professor of Cultural and Religious Studies at Constance University. He also held honorary degrees from Muenster, Yale, and the Hebrew University Jerusalem.

His academic legacy lies in the way his work has been groundbreaking and interdisciplinary. His point of interest was to explore ancient Egyptian religion, literature, and history, through the prism of Cultural Theory and Memory, Reception Studies, Historical Anthropology, and even Theology. In his 1988 essay ‘Collective Memory and Cultural Identity’, Assmann separated collective memory (which he calls communicative memory) and its social basis from cultural memory and its cultural basis. Works such as Religion and Cultural Memory (2000), The Search for God in Ancient Egypt (2002), The Mind of Egypt (2002), Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt (2006), and Cultural Memory and Early Civilization (2011) have been pivotal in our understanding of how Egyptians thought and the way their worldview formed part of the human quest for universal truths. Assmann also held a particular interest in the emergence and evolution of monotheism in its Judeo-Christian form, a topic analyzed in his unique way through works such as Moses the Egyptian (1997), The Price of Monotheism (2009), From Akhenaten to Moses (2014), and The Invention of Religion: Faith and Covenant in the Book of Exodus (2018).

Assmann is survived by his wife, Aleida (nee Bornkamm), whom he met while he was an assistant, and she was a student of English and Egyptology. The couple married in 1968, undertook joint excavation trips to Egypt, and had five children. With Aleida, later a professor of English and general literature in Constance, Jan founded the interdisciplinary working group “Archaeology of Literary Communication”. Soon the Assmanns became the power couple of the humanities in Germany, bringing seemingly strictly academic discourses to the public sphere, despite the distinctively inventive language style Jan often used in his works. Together, they were awarded the Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels in 2018 and have been members of the order Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Arts since 2020.

Jan Assmann’s spirit will be deeply missed, yet he will live on through his immense contribution to the exploration of human thought.