Egyptologist and historian Robert Tignor dies at 89

Robert Tignor. Photo by Jacqui Hall-Handelman via Univrsity Office of Communications.

Robert Tignor, a renowned scholar of British colonialism and its aftermath, world history, and the modern histories of Egypt, Nigeria and Kenya, died at his home in Princeton on Dec. 9 due to complications from pneumonia. He was 89.

Tignor spent his entire career at Princeton University and was the Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History, emeritus, at the time of his death. Tignor joined the faculty in 1960 after earning his doctorate degree at Yale University and taught for 46 years. He was also affiliated with the Program in Near Eastern Studies and the Program in African Studies and served as director of the latter from 1970 to 1979.

Born on Nov. 20, 1933, in Philadelphia, he earned his bachelor’s degree from the College of Wooster in 1955. Tignor was hired by Princeton as a historian of Egypt and was seen as a rising figure in Middle East history. Jerome Blum, the department chair at that time, suggested that Tignor offer Princeton’s first courses in African history. So Tignor moved to Nairobi, learned new languages including Arabic, and immersed himself in the history of the continent as he explored new scholarly methods, including ethnographic accounts of the roles of the Kamba, Kikuyu, and Maasai peoples of East Africa in the rise and fall of the British Empire in Kenya.

As chair of the history department for 14 years, Tignor helped to push the intellectual frontiers of the department beyond Europe and North America. He supported the creation of new courses in new fields, with connections and support for interdisciplinary international studies, especially in African, Asian, and Latin American studies, and created new graduate and undergraduate courses in world history.

In the mid-1990s, Tignor began a collaborative project among a group of colleagues, including Peter Brown, Gyan Prakash, Jeremy Adelman, and others. The result was “Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the Modern World: 1300 to the Present,” a two-volume history of the world that is a leading college-level textbook on global history.

“‘Worlds Together, Worlds Apart’ was part of Bob’s effort to write and teach history from a truly global, non-Eurocentric point of view,” said Prakash, who also co-taught with Tignor for 13 years, starting in 1990. “He was singularly important in diversifying the history department, hiring historians of regions other than the U.S. and Europe, myself included, and many others.” 

Tignor taught generations of students in his graduate and undergraduate courses in modern African history and modern world history. Many of his graduate students have gone on to academic careers and remember his no-nonsense mentorship, even outside his academic areas of specialty.

“Bob Tignor has been my role model for professional integrity and scholarly excellence,” said Heather Sharkey, professor and chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, who earned her doctorate from Princeton University in 1998. “Down to earth, enthusiastic, and always open to new lines of inquiry, he was also extremely practical. Need to read a book in Arabic or German? Then learn enough to do the job!  I quote him all the time to my graduate students, especially his injunction to ‘Keep your eye on the prize,’ meaning, finish the dissertation and forge on. He called himself a ‘workaday historian,’ but upon considering all he accomplished, I can say that he was definitely cool.”

In addition to “Worlds Together, Worlds Apart,” Tignor wrote several books. His research required that he live for a year at a time all over the globe. He and his family lived in Sudan, Nigeria, Egypt, England, and Kenya.

At the time of Tignor’s death, his wife, Marian Tignor, was alive, but suffered a stroke on Dec. 15 and died at home that same day. Tignor is predeceased by his son, Jeffrey David Tignor, who died in 2003. He is survived by his brother, Richard Tignor; his sisters, Joan Tiernan and Judy Russo; his daughters, Laura Tignor and Sandra Selby and husband Trevor Selby; and four grandchildren, Sam Cobb, Hilde McKernan, Owen Selby, and Isabel Selby.

A memorial service will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton, 50 Cherry Hill Road, Princeton, at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19. Donations in his memory can be made to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton or Thirteen – New York Public Media (WNET/PBS).