Unburying an Archaeologist: the Forgotten Story of Hormuzd Rassam

Hormuzd Rassam is not a name which will be familiar to most Oxford residents and ...

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19th CenturyMuseums & ExhibitionsOxfordRace & EmpireResearch & Opinion

Unburying an Archaeologist: the Forgotten Story of Hormuzd Rassam

Hormuzd Rassam is not a name which will be familiar to most Oxford residents and ...

return to all posts

19th CenturyMuseums & ExhibitionsOxfordRace & EmpireResearch & Opinion

Hormuzd Rassam is not a name which will be familiar to most Oxford residents and students. Yet twenty-five years before Christian Cole became the first Black African to matriculate at Oxford, the Mosul-born Hormuzd Rassam was testing the limits of inclusion in the early-Victorian university. His experiences attest to certain challenges facing a person of colour living and studying in Oxford in this period, while also encouraging consideration of the university’s function in an imperial economy of learning. Finally, the limited recognition of the material marks Rassam left on the university through his archaeological work and personal donations calls attention to the selective manner in which institutions choose to remember, and, in Rassam’s case, forget.

Biographical background

Hormuzd Rassam was born in 1826 in Mosul, in what is now Iraq, then a relative backwater in the Ottoman Empire.[1] His family were wealthy members of the Chaldean community, a Christian minority group, and their prominent status and faith made them attractive partners for a British government attempting to gain a strategic foothold in the region. Rassam’s older brother Christian was chosen as Britain’s first vice consul at Mosul in 1839, and it was this family connection which brought the young Hormuzd into the British imperial orbit.[2] In 1835 Christian had married Matilda Badger, sister of a British missionary in the region, and her mother Maria taught English to Hormuzd while also influencing his conversion to evangelical Protestantism before 1845.[3] When the English gentleman-archaeologist Henry Layard stopped at the Rassam household in Mosul before starting excavations in nearby Nimrud, Hormuzd’s language skills and family background rendered him a natural choice to be hired as Layard’s right-hand man for the project.

Hormuzd Rassam played a key role in Layard’s celebrated excavations at Nimrud between 1845 and 1847, the fruits of which are visible around Oxford; the monumental relief which dominates the foyer of the Ashmolean Museum was excavated by the pair in this first expedition.[4] Rassam was indispensable as paymaster, translator and overseer of excavations, managing an often-sectarian workforce thanks to what Layard termed “his complete knowledge of the Arab character”.[5] At a time when the excavation and removal of valuable antiquities represented a cultural frontier in the inter-imperial competition between Britain and France, the co-operation and expertise of local figures like Rassam was vital in securing prized treasures for the imperial powers and their state museums.[6] In this sense, Hormuzd Rassam’s archaeological work with Layard established him as an ‘imperial intermediary’, enhancing British power through his knowledge of local culture.[7] While Layard fully acknowledged Rassam’s vital role, recognising that “without him it would have been impossible to accomplish half of what has been done”, it is worth noting that the Ashmolean fails to acknowledge his significant contribution to these excavations.[8]


Layard was so pleased with Hormuzd Rassam’s work and companionship that, on his return to England in late 1847, Rassam was invited to accompany him and study at Oxford. Layard’s intentions were plain in a June 1847 letter to his mother, in which he specified that he wanted Rassam to acquire “a good English education… & most important of all the inculcation of English principles and feelings”.[9] Oxford was conceptualised by Layard as a space in which the ‘Oriental’ Rassam could be moulded into a devoted servant of the nation and empire, assimilating him into an Anglicised identity. Rassam studied at Magdalen College for over a year under the fellow William Palmer, which was likely a consequence of his older brother Christian’s earlier acquaintance with Palmer when visiting England in 1837.[10]

Although Hormuzd Rassam never formally matriculated, traces of the time he spent studying in Oxford remain. Rassam seems to have been something of a celebrity in Magdalen, and a letter from fellow James Mozley in April 1848 suggests his popularity in the college community:

“Palmer has a Chaldean visiting him here, quite a young man, and I should think quite a beau in his own country. He wears ordinarily our common dress, but will put on his Asiatic one if you want him. He dined with us in Hall yesterday in it, and really looked exceedingly handsome”.[11]

Side-by-side black and white pictures of the same man in black tie costume (left) and wearing Ottoman or middle-eastern syle dress (left)
Rassam photographed in western and ‘Oriental’ dress

The suggestion that Rassam was encouraged by the college community to don ‘Asiatic’ dress is confirmed by a June 1849 letter from Mozley, which recounted that “one singular addition to the party was Mr. Ormuzd Rassam, in full Chaldean costume, at Mrs Routh’s particular desire”. Mozley highlighted the warm social relationship between Rassam and the aged President Routh and his wife Eliza, stating that “Mrs Routh laments his approaching departure: ‘We shall go into mourning when he is gone! Oh, he is such a good man, such a very good man, I am so fond of him’”.[12] While these letters indicate Rassam’s friendly reception in Magdalen, they also suggest that he was partly valued as an ‘exotic’ diversion at college dinners, particularly when asked to wear ‘full Chaldean costume’. Persistent requests to appear in ‘Asiatic’ clothes may well have irked Rassam, given that in 1849 he declared such clothes “fit only for servants”.[13]

Nevertheless, Hormuzd Rassam appears to have enjoyed his time at Magdalen, and won many friends at the university. When his studies were cut short by Layard’s request that he return to excavations in Mosul, Rassam wrote an effusive letter to the Rouths thanking them for his reception in the college. He expressed “sincere thanks for the kindness I have received from you first, and also for the indulgence with which the college generally has treated me”, asserting that he had enjoyed “hospitality I hope never to forget”.[14] As a sign of gratitude for his time at Magdalen, he presented the college with a relief from Nimrud, which featured a winged genie and still hangs in the President’s Lodgings today.

Hormuzd Rassam’s relationship with Magdalen College continued after his return to Mosul with Layard in 1849. An account of Rassam’s presence at a ‘Gaudy’ reunion dinner in 1854, from the former choirboy Lewis Tuckwell, may point to an aspect of his Oxford experience which he was unlikely to disclose in letters to President Routh: racial harassment. Tuckwell recounted that during the dinner:

“a scuffle was heard outside the door, accompanied by abusive language [and two watchmen entered] dragging in after them a man, whom they described as ‘a very suspicious looking foreigner’… he was not a burglar, but one of the Vice-President’s guests. This man had been the distinguished guest of the evening, and in order to please his hosts he had consented to appear in the full court dress of his native country”.[15]

While the fond experiences Hormuzd Rassam referenced in his letter to the Rouths shouldn’t be discounted, Tuckwell’s account suggests that the early-Victorian university could be a difficult environment for students of colour: an environment in which difference was regularly exoticized and could easily serve as a pretext for harassment.

Life After Oxford

The trajectory of Hormuzd Rassam’s career after leaving Oxford in 1849 suggests that the university had fully met Layard’s hopes for the “inculcation of English principles and feelings”. Rassam’s letter to the Rouths on his departure revealed a fervent Anglophilia and sense of identification with the English nation: “I trust through the mercies of our Heavenly Father to return again to this blessed land (my adopted country)”.[16] A letter sent to Layard at the same time expressed an even deeper sense of devotion to Britain, inflected by his evangelical Protestant faith: “I will sacrifice myself for England and worship forever the pure religion of Great Britain… I would rather be a chimney sweeper in England than a Pasha [governor] in Turkey”.[17]

Rassam’s time in Oxford appears to have succeeded in turning the ‘Oriental’ Rassam into a willing ‘imperial intermediary’ and devoted servant of the British state. After assisting Layard with further excavations at Nimrud between 1849 and 1851, Rassam was contracted by the British Museum to carry out excavations alone at Kuyunjik between 1852 and 1854. In this period Rassam discovered numerous celebrated works of Assyrian art, including the lion-hunting reliefs commissioned by King Ashurbanipal.[18] However, many of these finds were attributed to his distant superior in Baghdad, Colonel Henry Rawlinson; this lack of recognition was to become a source of pain and confusion in Rassam’s later life.[19]

In 1854, Rassam exchanged his informal imperial service securing cultural treasures in Britain’s name for an official role in the East India Company, acting as political agent at Aden for Sir James Outram. Here, Rassam’s cultural knowledge and language skills were put to use brokering deals with local groups and acting as the British magistrate. The recommendation which Rassam used to gain this posting was drafted by Lord Macaulay, a Trustee of the British Museum who two decades earlier had authored the infamous Minute of Indian Education, which advocated the use of British education to create ‘a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect’.[20] Rassam’s imperial service for Britain in the Middle East was doubtless gratifying for Macaulay, but also for Layard. In an interview with the Illustrated London News in 1856, his faith in Rassam’s value as an ‘imperial intermediary’ as well as an archaeologist was evident: ‘“I believe him to be destined,” Mr Layard says, “to be of very great use in opening up Southern Arabia – a country hitherto but little known to our commerce and our influence”’.[21]

Black and white portrait of an elderly man with a beard.
Rassam as an older man in 1881

Hormuzd Rassam served in the India Office until 1869, working in Aden and Muscat before spending four years acting as Queen Victoria’s personal emissary to Emperor Tewodros II of Abyssinia (now

Ethiopia) during a prolonged hostage crisis.[22] His retirement from diplomatic service in 1869 was accompanied by marriage to Anne Eliza Price, and the couple eventually settled in Brighton on his

India Office pension and a £5000 reward for service in Abyssinia.[23] After becoming a naturalised British citizen in 1870, Rassam was asked by the British Museum to supervise further digs in Assyria and Babylonia between 1876 and 1882.

While these expeditions produced plenty of rich material, they were also a source of extreme bitterness for Rassam. Wallis Budge, a British Museum employee tasked with investigating tablet losses from the Museum’s sites in Iraq, began to circulate rumours of Rassam’s collusion in thefts from the late 1880s, significantly harming his reputation.[24]

In a civil trial brought by Rassam in 1893 to challenge these rumours, his accuser was found guilty of libel, but it was a sorely limited triumph. Despite seeking £1000 in damages, Rassam was awarded only £50 as the jury did not find malice in Budge’s statements; moreover, the British Museum authorities closed ranks around Budge, initiating a fund to meet his legal costs.[25] Budge was promoted to Keeper of the Department of Oriental Antiquities soon after the trial, earning a knighthood in 1920 and beginning an effective campaign to ensure that Hormuzd Rassam’s service to Assyriology and the museum was all but forgotten.[26] Only in recent years has the British Museum started to publicly recognise Rassam’s ‘invaluable’ contribution to Assyrian archaeology.[27]

Hormuzd Rassam’s material contributions to Oxford was similarly disregarded. In a letter to the librarian of Magdalen College, sent only weeks before Rassam’s death in 1910, he tersely noted that “there is no name of the presenter of the sculpture that I had presented to that institution in 1849″.[28] This effort to correct the lack of attribution seems to have gone unnoticed; the relief which hangs in the President’s Lodgings bore no acknowledgement to Rassam for over a century.

What can Hormuzd Rassam’s experience tell us about the Victorian university and wider British society? Firstly, we should recognise the role which Oxford played not just in supplying a steady stream of English ‘gentlemen’ to run the Empire, but also in shaping ‘imperial intermediaries’ like Rassam who would go on to serve British interests abroad. Perhaps more crucially, it is necessary to acknowledge the limits of this assimilation. Rassam’s later-life disappointment and posthumous lack of recognition vividly illustrate the difficulty of fully belonging; no amount of effort to self-fashion as a respectable British gentleman could ever eliminate British perceptions of the ‘Oriental’.

Written by George Goodhart

This research was conducted initially as part of a student research internship in 2021-2, supported by Magdalen College Library and Archives and funded by Annual Grants from Magdalen College Oxford. These internships contributed to an exhibition hosted by Magdalen College Oxford: 'Marginalised Histories: experiences of people of colour within Magdalen's past'.


[1] Wright, D., ‘Rassam, Hormuzd (1826-1910), archaeologist and civil servant’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)

[2] Parry, J., Promised Lands: The British and the Ottoman Middle East (Princeton, 2022), p. 243.

[3] Reade, ‘Hormuzd Rassam and His Discoveries’, Iraq, 55/1 (1993), p. 40.

[4] https://www.ashmolean.org/protective-spirit

[5] Layard, A. H., Discoveries in the ruins of Nineveh and Babylon: with travels in Armenia, Kurdistan and the desert, being the result of a second expedition undertaken for the Trustees of the British Museum (London, 1853), p. 101.

[6] See Larsen, M. T., The Conquest of Assyria: Excavations in an Antique Land 1840-60, (London, 1996)

[7] Burbank, J., and Cooper, F., Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (2010), p. 14.

[8] Layard, Discoveries, p. 101. See https://www.ashmolean.org/protective-spirit for recognition of Layard alone.

[9] Larsen, The Conquest of Assyria, p. 132.

[10] Williamson, H. G. M., ‘An Assyrian Relief in Christ Church, Oxford’, Transeuphratène, 46/1 (2014), p. 156.

[11] J. B. Mozley to Anne Mozley, 14 April 1848, in J. B. Mozley, Letters of the Rev. J. B. Mozley, D.D., edited by his sister (London, 1885), p. 194.

[12] J. B. Mozley to Maria Mozley, 11 June 1848, in Mozley, Letters of the Rev. J. B. Mozley, p. 200.

[13] Waterfield, G., Layard of Nineveh (London, 1963), p. 197.

[14] Hormuzd Rassam to President Martin Routh, 4 July 1849, Magdalen College Archives: PR30/1/C4/5 Fol. 304.

[15] Tuckwell, L. S., Old Magdalen Days, 1847-1877, by a former Chorister (Oxford, 1913), p. 63.

[16] Hormuzd Rassam to President Martin Routh, 4 July 1849, Magdalen College Archives: PR30/1/C4/5 Fol. 304.

[17] Reade, ‘Hormuzd Rassam and his discoveries’, p. 41.

[18] https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/galleries/assyria-lion-hunts

[19] See Rassam, H., Asshur and the Land of Nimrod, (New York, 1897), p. 40.

[20] British Library, Layard Papers, Vol. CLXIX, Correspondence July 1892-March 1893, MS 39099, F. 84.

[21] “Hormuzd Rassam.” Illustrated London News, 8 Nov. 1856, p. 467.

[22] See Rassam, H., Narrative of the Mission to Theodore, King of Abyssinia, Vols. 1 and 2 (London, 1869)

[23] Wright, ‘Rassam, Hormuzd (1826-1910), archaeologist and civil servant’

[24] Larsen, The Conquest of Assyria, p. 355.

[25] “THE BRITISH MUSEUM SLANDER CASE”, Huddersfield Chronicle, 22 July 1893, p. 3.

[26] See Reade, J., ‘Retrospect: Wallis Budge – for or against?’, in Ismail, M., Wallis Budge: Magic and Mummies in London and Cairo (Kilkerran, 2011), pp. 457-9.

[27] https://www.britishmuseum.org/blog/sparking-imagination-rediscovery-assyrias-great-lost-city

[28] H. Rassam to H. A. Wilson (College Librarian), 12 July 1910, MCA: F23/C5/15

Image credits

F. C. Cooper, Dual portraits of Hormuzd Rassam in ‘Western Dress’ and ‘Ottoman Dress’, 1851

Private collection. Reproduced with kind permission of the owner, Cornelius Cavendish, who is Hormuzd Rassam’s great-grandson and is currently working on his biography. Images reproduced from Julian Reade, ‘Hormuzd Rassam and His Discoveries’, Iraq, 55 (1993): 39-62

Lock and Whitfield, Men of mark, a gallery of contemporary portraits of men distinguished in the senate, the Church, etc. Photographed from life by Lock and Whitfield, with brief biographical notices by T. Cooper (London, 1881), p. 64.