Hormuzd Rassam

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Hormuzd Rassam in Mosul c. 1854.

Hormuzd Rassam (1826 – 16 September 1910) (Syriac: ܗܪܡܙܕ ܪܣܐܡ), was a native Assyrian and Christian Assyriologist 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. Later in life, he became a British citizen, settling in Brighton, and represented its government as a diplomat.


Rassam, an ethnic Assyrian, was born in Mosul, (now modern Iraq), then part of the Ottoman Empire, into a Christian family that were members of the Assyrian Church of the East and Chaldean Catholic Church.[1] His father Anton Rassam was from Mosul and was archdeacon in the Assyrian Church of the East; his mother Theresa was a daughter of Ishaak Halabee of Aleppo, Syria, also then within the Ottoman Empire.[2]

At the age of 20 in 1846, Rassam was hired by British archaeologist A.H. Layard as a pay master at a nearby 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 Oxford (Magdalen College). 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 Kuyunjik, 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-known example of written literature.

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. In 1866, an international crisis arose in Ethiopia when British missionaries were taken hostage by Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia. 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, 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.

But, the monarch suddenly changed and made Rassam a prisoner as well. The British hostages were held for two years until English and Indian troops under Robert Napier in the 1868 Expedition to Abyssinia resolved the standoff by defeating the warlord and his army.[3] Rassam's reputation was damaged because he was unfairly portrayed as ineffectual in dealing with the emperor. This reflected Victorian prejudices of the time against "Orientals".[4]

With his diplomatic career in ruins, Rassam resumed his archaeological work. He was sent by the British Museum to Assyria, where he conducted important investigations, especially at Nineveh. During the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878), he undertook a mission of inquiry to report on the condition of the Assyrian, Armenian and Greek Christian communities of Asia Minor and Armenia. His archaeological work resulted in many important discoveries and the collection of valuable epigraphical evidence.[citation needed]

Archeological discoveries[edit]

From 1877 to 1882, Rassam made some important discoveries. In Assyria his chief finds were the Ashurnaçirpal temple in Nimrud, the cylinder of Ashurbanipal at Kouyunjik, and the unique and historically important bronze doors of the temple of Shalmaneser III. He identified the famous Hanging Gardens with the mound known as Babil. He excavated a palace of Nebuchadrezzar II at Birs Nimrud (Borsippa).[5]

At Abu Habba in 1881, Rassam discovered the temple of the sun at Sippar. There he found a clay cylinder of Nabonidus, and the stone tablet of Nabu-apal-iddin of Babylon with its ritual bas-relief and inscription. Besides these, he discovered some 50,000 clay tablets containing the temple accounts.[5]

After 1882, Rassam lived mainly at Brighton, England. He wrote about Assyro-Babylonian exploration, the Christian peoples of the Near East, and current religious controversies in England. He was elected as a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, the Society of Biblical Archaeology, and the Victoria Institute.

One of his greatest discoveries were the clay tablets found to contain the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world's oldest surviving literature. In addition, he found the Cyrus cylinder, the famous declaration of Cyrus the Great that was issued in 539 BC to commemorate the Persian Empire's conquest of Babylon. 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.

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.[2] Later archaeological evidence found in relation to artefacts such as the Balawat Gates support Rassam's account of the dispute.

Published works[edit]

  • The British Mission to Theodore, King of Abyssinia (1869), memoir
  • Asshur and the Land of Nimrod (1897).

Personal life[edit]

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.[6]

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, who was delegated by 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.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Julian Reade, "Hormuzd Rassam and His Discoveries", Iraq, Vol. 55, (1993), pp. 39-62, Published by: British Institute for the Study of Iraq
  2. ^ a b "Hormuzd Rassam Assyrian Archaeologist 1826-1910", Edessa
  3. ^ Rassam described his experiences in Ethiopia in his memoir, Hormuz Rassam, Narrative of the British Mission to Theodore, King of Abyssinia. London, 1869. In two volumes.
  4. ^ Damrosch, David (2006). The Buried Book.
  5. ^ a b Goodspeed, George Stephen (1902). Chapter 2, "The Excavations in Babylonia and Assyria", A History of the Babylonians and Assyrians, New York. Charles Scribner's Sons, Accessed April 4, 2011.
  6. ^ Profile of Theresa Rassam's career with D'Oyly Carte



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