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Hormuzd Rassam


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Hormuzd Rassam (1826 – 16 September 1910) (Syriac: ܗܪܡܙܕ ܪܣܐܡ), was an Assyrian archeologist who made a number of important discoveries from 1877 to 1882, including the clay tablets that contained the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world's oldest literature. He is accepted as the first-known Assyrian, Ottoman and Middle Eastern archaeologist. He was known to be Christian. Later in life, he emigrated to the British, where he was naturalized as a British citizen, settling in Brighton. He represented the government as a diplomat, helping to free British diplomats from captivity in Ethiopia.



Early life

Hormuzd Rassam was an indigenous ethnic Assyrian born in Mosul in Upper Mesopotamia (now modern northern Iraq), then part of the Ottoman Empire. His parents were Christians, members of the Assyrian Church of the East and Chaldean Catholic Church. His father, Anton Rassam, was from Mosul, and was archdeacon in the Assyrian Church of the East; his mother Theresa was a daughter of Isaak Halabee of Aleppo, also then within the Ottoman Empire.

The indigenous Assyrian people of northern Mesopotamia and south eastern Anatolia were aware that the impressive ruins in their lands had been built by their ancestors, but until the archaeological discoveries of the 19th century, details of the rich histories of ancient Assyria and Babylonia were scarce, and found only in local legend, and Syriac, Greek and Biblical literature.


Early archaeological career

At the age of 20 in 1846, Rassam was hired by British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard as a pay master at a nearby Assyrian excavation site. Layard, who was in Mosul on his first expedition (1845–1847), was impressed by the hard-working Rassam and took him under his wing; they would remain friends for life. Layard provided an opportunity for Rassam to travel to England and study at Magdalen College, Oxford. He studied there for 18 months before accompanying Layard on his second expedition to Iraq (1849–1851).


Layard left archeology to begin a political career. Rassam continued field work (1852–1854) at Nimrud and Nineveh, where he made a number of important and independent discoveries. These included the clay tablets that would later be deciphered by George Smith as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world's oldest written narrative poem. The tablets' description of a flood myth written 1000 years prior to the earliest record of the Biblical story of Noah, caused much debate at the time about the Biblical narrative of ancient history.


Diplomatic career

Rassam returned to England. With the help of Layard, he began a new career in government with a posting to the British Consulate in Aden, quickly rising to the post of First Political Resident and facilitating a number of agreements between the British and formerly hostile local community leaders. In 1866, an international crisis arose in Ethiopia when British missionaries were taken hostage by Emperor Tewodros II. England decided to send Rassam as an ambassador with a message from Queen Victoria in the hope of resolving the situation peacefully. After being delayed for about a year in Massawa, Rassam at last received permission from the Emperor to enter his realm. Due to rebellions in Tigray Province, Rassam was forced to follow a circuitous route taking him to Kassala, then to Metemma along the western shore of Lake Tana before finally meeting with Emperor Tewodros in northern Gojjam. At first his effort seemed promising, as the Emperor established him at Qorata, a village on the south-eastern shores of Lake Tana, and sent him numerous gifts. The emperor sent the British consul Charles Duncan Cameron, the missionary Henry Aaron Stern, and the other hostages to his encampment.

However, about this time Charles Tilstone Beke, arrived at Massawa, and forwarded letters from the hostages' families to Tewodros asking for their release. At the least Beke's actions only made Tewodros suspicious. Rassam, writing in his memoirs of the incident, is more direct: "I date the change in the King's conduct towards me, and the misfortunes which eventually befell the members of the Mission and the old captives, from this day." The monarch suddenly changed his mind, and made Rassam a prisoner as well. The British hostages were held for two years until English and Indian troops under Robert Napier, 1st Baron Napier of Magdala in the 1868 British Expedition to Abyssinia resolved the standoff by defeating the warlord and his army. Rassam's reputation was damaged in newspaper accounts because he was unfairly portrayed as ineffectual in dealing with the emperor. This reflected Victorian prejudices of the time against "Orientals". However, Rassam did have supporters, both in the press and especially in Government amongst both Liberal and Tory ministers. In 1869, the London Quarterly Review received Rassam's memoir of the Abyssinian crisis positively, acknowledged Rassam's qualifications for the mission and defended his actions under difficult circumstances:


It will remove any doubts that may still exist as to the origin of his mission, the wisdom of the selection of its chief, and the manner in which a task of extraordinary difficulty, delicacy, and danger was performed...it [is] shown by Mr. Rassam that two successive Governments should have expressed their entire approval of his conduct Lord Stanley has done, that he is above party of a public officer who has been unjustly attacked and condemned; and in a letter to Mr. Rassam, laid before Parliament, he expressed the high sense entertained by Her Majesty's Government of his conduct during the difficult and arduous period of his employment under the Foreign Office, and declared that he had acted throughout for the best, and that his prudence, discretion, and good management seem to have tended greatly to preserve the peace. [and secured] prisoners in the most serious risk... This ample recognition of his services, coming from so high and impartial a quarter, ought to afford ample compensation to Ram for the injustice and cruelty - we might almost say malignity - of the attacks made upon his personal character and his public conduct, both in Parliament and the press, when he was in captivity and unable to reply or to defend himself.

Queen Victoria presented him with a purse of £5,000 for services rendered as her envoy in the crisis.

Rassam resumed his archaeological work, but did undertake other tasks for the British government in later years. During the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78), he undertook a mission of inquiry to report on the condition of the Assyrian, Armenian and Greek Christian communities of Anatolia and Armenia.


Later archaeological career

From 1877 to 1882, while undertaking four expeditions on behalf of the British Museum, Rassam made some important discoveries. Numerous finds of significance were transported to the Museum, thanks to an agreement made with the Ottoman Sultan by Rassam's old colleague Austen Henry Layard, now Ambassador at Constantinople, allowing Rassam to return and continue their earlier excavations and to "pack and dispatch to England any antiquities [he] found … provided, however, there were no duplicates." A representative of the Sultan was instructed to be present at the dig to examine the objects as they were uncovered.


In Assyria his chief finds were the Ashurnasirpal temple in Nimrud (Calah), the cylinder of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, and the unique and historically important bronze doors of the temple of Shalmaneser III. He identified the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon with the mound known as Babil. He excavated a palace of Nebuchadnezzar II at Borsippa.


In March 1879 at the site of the Esagila in Babylon, Rassam found the Cyrus Cylinder, the famous declaration of Cyrus the Great that was issued in 539 BCE to commemorate the Achaemenid Empire's conquest of Babylonia.


At Abu Habba in 1881, Rassam discovered the temple of the sun at Sippar. There he found a Cylinder of Nabonidus and the stone tablet of Nabu-apla-iddina of Babylon with its ritual bas-relief and inscription. Besides these, he discovered some 50,000 clay tablets containing the temple accounts.


After 1882, Rassam lived mainly at Brighton, England. He wrote about Assyro-Babylonian exploration, the ancient Christian peoples of the Near East, and current religious controversies in England.


Archeaological reputation

Rassam's discoveries attracted worldwide attention. The Italian Royal Academy of Sciences at Turin awarded him the Brazza prize of 12,000 francs for the four years from 1879 to 1882. He was elected as a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, the Society of Biblical Archaeology, and the Victoria Institute.


Sir Henry Rawlinson, one of the trustees of the British Museum at the time of Rassam's later excavations, and who had been British Consul in Baghdad at the time of Rassam's original excavations at Nineveh, alleged that he should receive the credit for the discovery of Ashurbanipal's palace himself. Rassam, he wrote, was just a "digger" who had overseen the work. In Rassam's defence, Layard wrote that he was, "one of the honestest and most straightforward fellows I ever knew, and one whose services have never been acknowledged".


Rassam believed that the credit for some of his other discoveries had been taken by senior British Museum staff. In 1893 Rassam had sued the British Museum keeper E. A. Wallis Budge in the British courts for both slander and libel. Budge had written that Rassam had used "his relatives" to smuggle antiquities out of Nineveh and had only sent "rubbish" to the British Museum. The elderly Rassam was upset by these accusations. When he challenged Budge in court, he received a partial apology that a later court considered "ungentlemanly". Rassam was fully supported by the courts. Later archaeological evidence found in relation to artefacts such as the Balawat Gates at Dur-Sharrukin support Rassam's account of the dispute. By the end of his life, Rassam's reputation and achievements were once again receiving greater recognition, at least amidst his professional colleagues; in their obituary for Rassam, the Royal Geographical Society wrote: "The death of Mr Hormuzd Rassam... deprives the Royal Geographical Society of one of its older and more distinguished Fellows..."


Published works

    The British Mission to Theodore, King of Abyssinia (1869), memoir

    Biblical Nationalities, Past and Present, article in Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, Vol.3, 8, pp. 358–385

    The Garden of Eden and Biblical Sages (1895)

    Asshur and the Land of Nimrod (1897).

Personal life

Rassam married Anne Eliza Price, an Englishwoman. They had seven children together. His eldest daughter, Theresa Rassam, born in 1871, became a professional singer who performed with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. He died on September 8, 1910, and was buried in Hove Cemetery. A number of personal effects relating to his career, including the chains he had worn in captivity in Ethiopia, were donated to Hove Museum, and were on display there until the 1950s, according to the recollections of his great-grandson, Cornelius Cavendish. Other items in the Museum's possession relating to Rassam were at that time requested for the collections of the British Museum.


His daughter Annie Ferida Rassam, born in 1878, later secretly gave birth on September 10, 1914 to an illegitimate daughter in Paris. She named her Jeanne Ferida Rassam. The presumed father was said to be 'Sir Wallinger', a name that might refer to either of two brothers, Sir John Arnold Wallinger or his brother Ernest Wallinger, who were both undertaking work for the British secret services in Paris. Jeanne Ferida Rassam was adopted by a French couple, Sir and Mme. Courthial. Annie Ferida Rassam returned to Brighton few months later.


Hormuzd Rassam in Mosul c. 1854.

Rassam (far left) with the other captives of Tewodros II

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