Hayim Tadmor

Historian of the Bible and Ancient Near East who established an international centre of Assyriology

Hayim Tadmor was until his retirement in 1993 Professor of Assyriology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the first holder of the post, in a department which he created. A man of enormously wide learning in bible and Ancient Near Eastern history, he stood in the first rank of Assyriologists of his day. Among his many publications, The Inscriptions of Tiglath-pileser III King of Assyria (1994) stands as a fitting memorial.

He was born Hayim Frumstein in Harbin, Manchuria, in 1923. His father, David, born in the Crimea and having spent some years in Canada, returned to Russia, where he married, but then left to settle in Harbin, a prosperous trading centre on an extension of the trans-Siberian railway with a lively Russian-Jewish community. David Frumstein traded in furs and travelled widely in Siberia, Manchuria and northern China. Hayim's mother, who had remained in Russia during the First World War, rejoined her husband in 1919-20 after an epic nine-month journey.

The Russian and Jewish communities in Harbin spoke a Russian severed from that of the home country and "purer". This was Hayim's mother tongue and the language of the literature in which he was immersed from childhood, the love and knowledge of which stayed with him for life.

In 1934 Hayim's elder sister, Luba, married and left to settle as a Zionist pioneer in Palestine. Shortly thereafter Hayim's father died; Hayim and his mother followed Luba and Palestine (later Israel) was to be his permanent home. Having already begun the study of Hebrew in Harbin, he completed his education in Palestine and learned to speak a Hebrew recognised as exceptionally rich and correct. He also acquired a deep love and knowledge of 20th-century Hebrew poetry. He returned to Harbin only once, 70 years after his departure, to attend a conference convened by the Chinese Academy of Manchuria on the Jews of Harbin, and he was able to set a stone on his father's grave.

In 1943 Hayim Frumstein entered the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to study Ancient History, especially that of Greece and Rome (for which he learnt Greek and Latin), Jewish history of the First and Second Temple periods, and bible history. He studied under Benjamin Mazar. During these years he was also a member of the Haganah (the Jewish defence force). He took his MA in 1950. To extend his range in the Assyriological background to the Bible, he obtained a British Council Fellowship to study Akkadian (Assyriology) at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, under Sidney Smith, in 1951-52.

This decisive step of combining bible and Ancient Near Eastern studies established the course of his future academic career for teaching, research and publication. He completed his doctoral thesis in 1954 on problems of chronology of the biblical historical record in relation to the Assyrian sources.

In 1953 he had married Miriam Skura, who had been a fellow student under Benjamin Mazar. She was herself to pursue a distinguished academic career, first as an archaeologist, then in museum service. At this time, as was then customary, Hayim and Miriam took a Hebrew surname, Tadmor - "a random choice: we just liked its sound, the site was set in the Ancient Near East, firmly rooted in the history of the region" (Tadmor is the Hebrew form of Palmyra).

To deepen his command of Akkadian, Hayim Tadmor spent nearly three years, 1955-57, at the Oriental Institute, Chicago, studying principally with Benno Landsberger but forming also close links and friendships with the other denizens of that Assyriological powerhouse. (Miriam followed the courses on Mesopotamian and Egyptian archaeology.) He returned to Israel in 1958 to lecture at the Hebrew University, in biblical and Ancient Near Eastern history, expertly synthesising the two sources.

His steady stream of publications began at this time, in Hebrew and English, in Israeli and international journals. A definitive early marker was "The Campaigns of Sargon II of Assur: a chronological-historical study" (in the Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 1958), a treatment of the royal inscriptions of Sargon still indispensable for any scholar needing to use this important historical source. He thus early signalled his fascination with and mastery of this remarkable material.

In these years he was working towards the establishment in the Hebrew University of a department of Assyriology, which was inaugurated in 1965, with himself as the first head. Thanks to his inspirational teaching, it became an international centre and students came to him both from within Israel and outside wherever he had contacts (that is, almost everywhere). For example, he had Japanese students who, in addition to mastering the European languages necessary for study would write their papers, even dissertations, in Hebrew. He enjoyed excellent relations with his students, treating them as intellectual equals and retaining their lifelong friendships as their own distinguished careers unfolded. Many fruitful collaborative projects and joint publications resulted. Tadmor was appointed Professor in 1971 and retired in 1993.

He was a well-known and welcome visitor in American and European university circles and held many guest professorships and visiting senior fellowships, notably at Yale, the City University of New York, Ann Arbor, Pennsylvania and Berkeley. Contacts with Russian scholars were of course of special significance for him, particularly in the difficult days of the Soviet regime. He wrote texts on early Jewish history which were illegally circulated, and edited and contributed extensively to the Russian Jewish Encyclopaedia, now completed.

One part of his numerous publications is in Hebrew, though his most important contributions are available also in English. As a biblical scholar and historian of the Jewish people he wrote much on these themes and he was editor of the Encyclopaedia Miqra'it, volumes 6-8. But the Assyrian royal inscriptions attracted at least as much of his academic attention, specifically the annals of the Assyrian kings.

These extraordinary documents tend to grip the imagination of those who read them, but present a host of varying problems of reconstruction and interpretation. Of all the Assyrian kings, Tiglath-pileser III is one of the most interesting, yet one of the most difficult to deal with. Interesting because he inaugurated the final violent expansionist phase of Assyrian imperialism, leading to an empire of provinces stretching from the Zagros Mountains in the East to the Mediterranean, and also because he is the first Assyrian king to appear in the Old Testament; difficult because of the state in which his annals have come down to us through much ancient and modern vandalism.

A.H. Layard, excavating at Nimrud (Kalhu, on the Tigris south of Mosul) in 1845 and subsequently, found the wall slabs of Tiglath-pileser's palace decorated with reliefs depicting his campaigns and inscribed bands with the text of his annals. These had been dismantled for reuse and were partially scattered and destroyed. Some Layard sent back to the British Museum, along with paper casts ("squeezes") of all the inscriptions and his manuscript drawings of these, unreadable to him because not yet deciphered. Others he left on the site where they were examined by later excavators and further degraded. Scholars gradually cobbled together an unreliable but largely uncheckable text of the annals, supplementing the surviving inscriptions from the steadily disintegrating squeezes and their own imaginations, a process culminating in the unsatisfactory edition of the annals of 1911.

Tadmor resolved to tackle this problem and, in the British Museum in 1964, he was given access to Layard's folios of drawings by Richard Barnett, the then keeper of Western Asiatic Antiquities. These copies of the inscriptions, many of which were now damaged, lost or otherwise unavailable, offered previously unexploited opportunities for reconstructing the text.

In 1967 Tadmor gave a preliminary report on this work to the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, which sponsored the project and its publication. The labour was, however, far more complicated and time-consuming than foreseen and even when the manuscript was handed to the printers in the late 1980s it spent a number of further years in press. This was partly due to problems of typesetting and printing, but also not entirely unconnected with Tadmor's scrupulous perfectionism and tendency to rewrite and add new material in proof. Finally, in 1994, The Inscriptions of Tiglath-pileser III King of Assyria was published, well worth waiting for and a permanent tool for all students of ancient history for whom, as for Tadmor, the past is still very much alive.

Deservedly, he received much recognition and many honours, national and international. He was elected member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in 1985 and served as Vice-President, 1995-2004. He was celebrated with two Festschrifts by his former students: Ah, Assyria . . . ("the rod of mine anger", etc.), in the Scripta Hierosolymitana series, 1991, on his 65th birthday; and, as a joint tribute to him and Miriam, a volume of the journal Eretz Israel, The Hayim and Miriam Tadmor Volume in 2003. Also, in 2005, the Israel Academy held a symposium for him, "Assyrian Royal Inscriptions: history, historiography and ideology". A volume of his collected articles, Assyria, Babylonia and Judah Studies in the History of the Ancient Near East, was published this year. In America he was an honorary member of the American Oriental Society, a fellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research and the recipient of the Rothschild Prize in Humanities (2000).

A small, alert figure, he radiated humour and intelligence. He had no need of small talk since he had so much of importance to say. Intellectual contact with him was immediate, and conversation with him a sought-after privilege, much prized at the time and a treasured memory.

J. David Hawkins

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