Legitimizing Ancient Lineages through Orientalism in the 19th Century: Hormuz Rassam's Assyrian/Chaldean National History

By Joseph Hermiz
Submitted to Session P4253 (Constructing Memory: Archives, Antiquity, and Archaelogy, 2015 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper examines the historical commentaries of Hormuzd Rassam, a nineteenth century Assyrian Christian archeologist and diplomat from Mosul in the context of current scholarly literature on the uses and sometimes abuses of archaeology in legitimating histories of communities, tribes and modern nation-states in the Middle East. While largely neglected by historians of the Modern Middle East, Rassam was arguably the first Middle Easterner whose engagement with Orientalism allowed for the construction of a “national” history for the Aramaic speaking Christians of Upper Mesopotamia.
From 1846 to 1855 and 1877 to 1882 Rassam assisted with and later led a series of archaeological digs in the ancient city of Nineveh outside Mosul on behalf of the British Museum. Furthermore, Rassam provided diplomatic reports and recommendations to the British government regarding the condition of the minority Christian and non-Christian groups in Ottoman Iraq, and also maintained correspondences with Ottoman officials in Mosul and Istanbul regarding his work. The talks Rassam gave to the Victoria Institute in London, alongside his 1897 memoir/travelogue linked the Aramaic speaking Christian community in Upper Mesopotamia to the heritage of the ancient empires of the Assyrians and Chaldeans. Rassam’s writings also include a commentary on the condition and beliefs of religious minorities such as Assyrian and Armenian Christians, Kurds, Yezidis, who are still an integral part of the region's tapestry of ethno-religious communities.
Rassam provides a unique case study of an individual bridging two worlds (Victorian England and Ottoman Mosul), and struggling to find acceptance in the face of xenophobic and suspicious attitudes from both sides. This paper draws on two of Rassam’s talks to the Victoria Institute in London, Recent Assyrian and Babylonian Research in 1880, and The Garden of Eden and Biblical Sages in 1881, alongside Rassam’s own memoir and travelogue Asshur and the Land of Nimrod published in the United States in 1897.