Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Rassam, Hormuzd
RASSAM, HORMUZD (1826–1910), Assyrian explorer, born at Mosul in Asiatic Turkey in 1826, was youngest son and eighth child of Anton Rassam, arch-deacon in the Chaldean Christian community at Mosul, by his wife Theresa, granddaughter of Ishaak Halabee (of Aleppo). His father was a Nestorian or Chaldean Christian, and claimed to be of Chaldean race, but he was probably of Assyrian descent. The word 'Rassam' is Arabic for designer or engraver, and the family were originally designers of patterns for muslins, the staple product of Mosul. An elder brother. Christian, married Matilda, sister of George Percy Badger [q. v. Suppl. I], the Arabic scholar, and became the first English consul at Mosul.
As an infant Hormuzd narrowly escaped death by the plague. In childhood he learned to write and speak both the Chaldean and Syrian language, which the native Christians used, and Arabic, the speech of health compelling his withdrawal. He the country. As a boy he was induced to serve as an acolyte in the Roman catholic church of St. Miskinta, but a project to send him to Rome to study the catholic faith came to nothing owing to his doubts of Roman doctrine. A brother Georges was excommunicated by the Roman church on that ground. Mrs. Badger, his brother's mother-in-law, finally converted him to protestantism and helped him in the study of English. In 1841 he accompanied an Austrian traveller on a scientific expedition to study the flora and fauna of the Assyrrian and Kurdish mountains. Next year he became clerk to his brother Christian. In the summer Sir Austen Henry Layard [q. v. Suppl. I], who passed through Mosul on his way from Persia to Constantinople, lodged at Christian's house and made Hormvizd's acquaintance, with crucial effect on his career.
With Christian's permission Layard took Hormuzd with him in 1845, to make excavations in the moimds of Nimroud, the site of the Biblical Calah. Hormuzd won Layard's fullest confidence, and when Layard went to Bagdad to arrange for the transport of the antiquities to England, Hormuzd was left in charge, and all the accounts of the excavations passed through his hands. His services, however, were unpaid. After the discovery at Nimroud of the palaces of Azur-nasir-apli, Shalmaneser II, Tiglath-pileser IV, Sennacherib, and Esarhaddon, work was pursued from May 1847 with equal success at Kouyunjik (Nineveh).
In 1848 by Layard's advice Rassam came to England with a view to finishing his education at Magdalen College, Oxford. He came to know Pusey and the leaders of the Oxford Movement, but his sympathy with them was small. His stay in Oxford was short. While Charles Marriott [q. v.] was preparing him for matriculation, Layard recalled him to Assyria to assist in excavations at the expense of the trustees of the British Museum. He subsequently presented to Magdalen College a sculptured slab from Nineveh. Rassam had now a fixed salary, with an allowance for travelling. Arriving late in 1849 he pushed on vigorously with the work at Kouyunjik, and the excavations at Nimroud were reopened. Rassam accompanied his patron to the ruins in Babylonia and returned to England in 1851, when Layard brought back his discoveries.
Next year the trustees of the British Museum sent Rassam out alone — Layard's worked at Nimroud, Kouyunjik, and tried again the mounds representing Assur, the old capital of Assyria, now called Qala'a-Shergat. In all these places antiquities were found, many of them of considerable importance. His great discovery on this occasion, however, was the palace of Assurbani-apli at Kouyunjik — the North Palace — with a beautiful series of bas-reliefs, including the celebrated hunting-scenes. Among the numerous tablets were some supplying accounts of the Creation and Flood legends. A few of the slabs found in this edifice are now in the Louvre at Paris, but most of them are in the British Museum.
On returning to England, Rassam in 1854 accepted from the Indian government the post of political interpreter at Aden, leaving further excavating work to William Kennett Loftus [q. v.]. At Aden, where Rassam remained eight years, he soon served as postmaster as well as political interpreter. Later he became judge and magistrate without salary, and was given the rank of political resident and justice of the peace. Rassam's chief duty was to qualify the hostility of the neighbouring tribes to the British authorities and to one another. Forming a friendship with Seyyid Alaidrous, whose ancestor he described as the patron saint of Arabia Felix, he got into touch with the tribes of the interior with the best results. In 1861 he was sent by the Indian government to Zanzibar to represent British interests while the claim of the Sultan of Muscat to suzerainty over his brother, the Sultan of Zanzibar, was under investigation by the Indian government.
In 1864 an exciting episode in Rassam's career opened. Two years earlier Theodore, King of Abyssinia, had cast into prison at Magdala, Consul Charles Duncan Cameron [q. v.], Henry Aaron Stern [q. v.], and other British missionaries of the London Jews' Society. In 1864 Rassam was chosen for the perilous duty of delivering a friendly letter of protest to Theodore. Arriving at Massowah, he and two companions. Lieutenant Prideaux and Dr. Blanc, of the Indian army, were kept waiting there nearly a year before receiving permission to enter the country, which even then was only granted in response to Rassam's threat to return to Aden. Rassam met Theodore at Damot on 28 Jan. 1866. At first the mission was well treated; the captives were set at liberty and reached Rassam's camp, while a letter of apology from the king was drafted (12 March 1866). Suddenly the king's conduct changed; he imposed fresh conditions (12 April) and claimed an indemnity for the liberation of the captives. Having re-arrested the prisoners, Theodore now seized the three members of the British mission and threw all, loaded with chains, into the rock-fortress of Magdala.
Rassam, whose personal relations with Theodore were not unamiable, succeeded in communicating with the frontier, and a military expedition was despatched to Abyssinia to effect the release of the captives, under Sir Robert Napier (afterwards Lord Napier of Magdala). On 2 Dec. 1867 Theodore heard of its landing. An ultimatum from the commander-in-chief destined for the king was intercepted by Rassam, who believed its receipt would lead to the massacre of himself and of his fellow-captives. Recognising his peril, Theodore ordered Rassam's chains to be taken off on 18 March 1868, and he and the three captives were released on the arrival of the British force before Magdala on 11 April 1868. Until his death Rassam suffered physically from his long confinement. On the 14th the fortress was taken by storm, and Theodore died by his own hand next day. Rassam narrated his strange experiences in his 'British Mission to Theodore, King of Abyssinia, with Notices of the Country traversed from Massowah through the Soudan and the Amhara and back to Annesley Bay from Magdala (2 vols. 1869).
Returning to England, Rassam during a year's leave of absence married an English wife, and resigning his appointment at Aden travelled widely in the United Kingdom and the Near East. He then settled first at Twickenham and afterwards at Isleworth. In 1877 he was again employed by the British government in Asiatic Turkey, where he inquired into the condition of the Christian communities and sects in Asia Minor, Armenia, and Kurdistan. He revisited his native town of Mosul on 16 Nov. 1877. He gave a detailed account of his observations on the journey in his 'Asshur and the Land of Nimrod' (Cincinnati and New York, 1897).
Meanwhile, in 1876, with the help of Layard, then British ambassador in Turkey, Rassam had obtained a firman from the Turkish government, on behalf of the trustees of the British Museum, for the continuation of the excavations in Assyria and Babylonia. He at once organised the work of exploration, and every year from 1876 until the end of 1882 he carried on excavations, not only at Kouyunjik (Nineveh) and Nimroud (Calah) but also at Balawat. In Babylonia the sites explored included the ruins of Babylon, Tel-Ibrahim (Cuthah), Dailem, and Abu-Habbah (Sippar). Among the more important finds were the bronze gates of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser II (Balawat), the beautiful Sungod-stone, the cylinder of Nabonidus giving his date for the early Babylonian kings Sargon of Agade and his son Naram-Sin, and a valuable mace-head with the name of king Sargani. The inscriptions included additions to the Creation and Flood legends, the first tablet of a bilingual series prefaced by a new and important version of the Creation story in Sumerian and Semitic Babylonian, and numerous other documents; the fragments, large and small, amounted, it was estimated, to close upon 100,000, though many of these were small, and consequently of little value. Among the imperfect documents was the cylinder of Cyrus the Great, in which he refers to the capture of Babylon. Rassam's important discoveries attracted world-wide attention, and the Royal Academy of Sciences at Turin awarded him the Brazza prize of 12,000 fr. for the four years 1879-82. His discovery of the site of the city Sippara is especially noticed among the grounds of the award. An allegation that Rassam's kinsmen had withheld from the British Museum the best of Rassam's finds was successfully refuted in 1893 in an action at law in which Rassam was awarded 50l. damages for libel.
After 1882 Rassam lived mainly at Brighton, writing on Assyro-Babylonian exploration, on the Christian sects of the Nearer East, or on current religious controversy in England. Like most Oriental Christians, he was a man of strong religious convictions, and having adopted evangelical views became a bitter foe of the high church movement. He was fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, the Society of Biblical Archaeology, and the Victoria Institute.
An autobiography which he compiled before his death remains in manuscript. He died at his residence at Hove, Brighton, on 16 Sept. 1910, and was buried in the cemetery there. By his wife Anne Eliza, daughter of Captain Spender Cosby Price, formerly of the 77th Highlanders, whom he married on 8 June 1869, he had issue a son and six daughters. The son, Anthony Hormuzd, born on 31 Dec. 1883, joined the British army, and is now captain in the New Zealand staff corps at Wellington.
[Rassam's published books and MS. autobiography; Clements Markham's Hist. of the Abyssinian Expedition, 1869; H. A. Stern's The Captive Missionary, 1868; Parliamentary Papers (Abyssinian), 1867–9; Lord A. Loftus's Reminiscences (2nd edit.), i. 206; Men of Mark, 1881 (with portrait); The Times, 17 Sept. 1910.]