Established at Indiana University in 1967 as the Asian Studies Research Institute (ASRI), and renamed the Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies (RIFIAS) in 1979, the Sinor Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies assumed its current name in 2007.
Since its foundation by Denis Sinor, the Institute’s intellectual genealogy has been associated with a tradition of study and exploration that had emerged in Central Europe in the early nineteenth century, when Hungarian explorers and philologists ventured into Inner Asia in search of their presumed national origins. Alexander Csoma de Kőrös, for example, who began his travels in 1820, became the founder of Tibetology. The term “Inner Asian studies” (Hungarian belsőázsiai kutatások; German innerasiatische Studien) first appeared in the masthead of the journal Turán (Bulletin of the Hungarian Center for Oriental Culture, published 1913-1944), brainchild of the Hungarian Count Béla Széchenyi, who had led a scientific expedition to the region in 1877-80. In the first three decades of the 20th century, discoveries of Inner Asian antiquities by the Hungarian-born British explorer Marc Aurel Stein made signal (and later controversial) contributions to knowledge of Inner Asian civilizations, culminating in Stein’s multi-volume reports on “Innermost Asia” (1925-32). In 1940, Louis Ligeti (Ligeti Lajos) founded and became the first occupant of the Inner Asian Chair at the University of Budapest, the first chair of its kind.
Owen Lattimore, an American, began using “Inner Asian Frontiers of China” as his research rubric in the late 1930s. A decade later, one of Lattimore’s followers, George Taylor, built Asian studies at the University of Washington into a set of programs staffed in part by Orientalists who had recently fled the upheavals and war in Europe. In 1948, two of these scholars, the German Sinologists Hellmut Wilhelm and Franz Michael (a student of Lattimore’s from Johns Hopkins), founded the Inner Asia Project for research and teaching, the first of its kind in the United States. They were soon joined in Seattle by the China-born Russian linguist Nicholas Poppe, who brought expertise in Altaic languages, particularly Mongolian.
Bringing Ligeti’s teachings to Indiana in the 1960s, Denis Sinor made similar use of the surge of interest in area studies at American universities to promote awareness and the appreciation of Inner Asia as a distinct world area defined by more than its location “beyond” well-known civilizations such as China and Russia. Sinor nurtured a number of lasting programs and institutions that helped to formalize Inner Asian studies in America, including three at Indiana University: the RIFIAS, the Department of Uralic and Altaic Studies (now the Department of Central Eurasian Studies), and the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center. Professor Sinor served as Director of the RIFIAS for fourteen years (1967-81).
The arrival of Professor Yuri Bregel at Indiana University in the early 1980s marked a shift in the focus of the RIFIAS. In addition to its former concentration on the history, languages, and cultures of primarily Mongolian and Tibetan civilizations, Bregel expanded the RIFIAS research scope to include Central Asian civilizations, with significant new holdings in Turkic, Persian, and Russian, relevant to Inner Asian studies. Bregel brought with him numerous materials from the Soviet Union and the collection grew manifold to include also Soviet scholarship (much of it nonexistent in the U.S. at the time), hundreds of microfilms, and the initiation of new projects (for example, the expansive, 3-volume Bibliography of Islamic Central Asia). Bregel served as Director of the RIFIAS from 1986 to 1997. His work was continued by Devin DeWeese (RIFIAS director from 1997-2007, and in 2019), who developed the collection, gathered microfilms of rare manuscripts, and also initiated the digitization (still ongoing) of the Institute’s microfilms.
For nearly five decades, the Institute was housed at Indiana University’s Goodbody Hall, where it enjoyed a unique space, including a reading room, and offices that handled administration, publications, and microfilm storage. In 2014, following the conversion of the old building into a dorm and the establishment of the School of Global & International Studies in a new building, the SRIFIAS was physically disbanded and its holdings are kept in a temporary facility. Nevertheless, a new reading room in the School enables the usage of much of the collection and also of continued digitization of its microfilm holdings. The Institute continues to be a non-profit institution that forms a part of the Department of Central Eurasian Studies (CEUS) in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University. Its director is appointed by the Dean of the School in agreement with the Department’s recommendation.