Professor H.W.F. Saggs

Assyriologist who greatly influenced his students
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The Independent Online

Henry William Frederick Saggs, Assyriologist: born 2 December 1920; Lecturer in Akkadian, School of Oriental and African Studies, London University 1953-62, Reader 1962-66; Professor of Semitic Languages, University College, Cardiff 1966-83 (Emeritus); married 1946 Joan Butterworth (four daughters); died Long Melford, Suffolk 31 August 2005.

H. W. F. Saggs was one of the great British Orientalists who were, in a sense, the product of the Second World War and the flourishing of Middle and Far Eastern Studies following the report of the 1945-46 Scarbrough Commission. He was to become one of the outstanding Assyriologists of his generation.

Henry William Frederick Saggs was born in East Anglia in 1920. When the war began he had just commenced his theological studies at King's College London. Having graduated in 1942 he joined the Fleet Air Arm and in 1944 suffered a catastrophic air accident that left him with a broken back. He recovered, but always bore the physical signs of that injury.

Continuing his biblical and linguistic studies after the war at King's College, he began to study Akkadian cuneiform. He was awarded his PhD degree by the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in London in 1953 and became Lecturer in Akkadian.

Soon, there began what seemed to be a lifelong love affair with Iraq and its people. He worked under the archaeological direction of Sir Max Mallowan at Nimrud and David Oates at Tell al-Rimah and returned many times for further research and to teach in Baghdad and Mosul universities.

By the mid-1960s, Saggs's many publications on Akkadian texts, combined with his skill in other Semitic languages (especially Hebrew, but his Arabic was good too), made him one of the leading international scholars in the field. Already a Reader at Soas, he was asked in 1966 to take the Chair of Semitic Languages in University College, Cardiff (now Cardiff University). While Assyriology had not previously had a major role in Cardiff, the college had had a series of most distinguished occupants of the chair, his immediate predecessor being Professor A.R. Johnson.

Harry Saggs made an important impact on the academic life of the college during his period as Professor from 1966 to 1983, bringing to the Department of Semitic Languages and Religious Studies a succession of young researchers, including many from Iraq who later returned to occupy important positions in that country's then excellent university system. He knew Iraq and Iraqis and he was trusted by the Iraqi university system to train (and if necessary keep firmly in order) those students sent to sit at his feet. A kind of "Saggs School" developed.

Among those who obtained doctorates under his supervision was Farouk N.H. al-Rawi, who went on to become Professor of Assyriology in Baghdad University, a post of great importance in the context of Iraqi academia. The addition to the staff of the then youthful author of this obituary led to the widening of the range of supervision provided in Cardiff to include Ugaritic and Aramaic studies and another Iraqi, Adil H. al-Jadir, later Professor of Semitic Languages in Baghdad University, gained his doctorate for a thesis on Syriac inscriptions.

The period in Cardiff appeared to be one of great fulfilment, though occasionally troubled by the politics of an institution which was even more political than most. It was a joy to work with Saggs as his junior colleague. In those days (the 1970s) there was just one permanent head of department who made the decisions and called departmental meetings whenever there was something important to report (which was not often); a new member of lecturing staff was trusted to get on with his own teaching and research without the intrusions of Quality Enhancement Officers or worry about Research Assessment criteria.

Saggs and his wife Joan lived in Llantrisant, maintaining a warm and welcoming household. He drove back and forth to Cardiff in the Rover car which had also on at least one occasion taken him and the family all the way to Baghdad. I think there was the dare-devil spirit of a frustrated fighter pilot in him: I recall him driving me along a motorway at great speed while testing his driving skill by trying to weave between the cat's-eyes.

These were, however, difficult times for Oriental Studies, with rapid expansions of student numbers leading to complaints over the paucity of students studying minority languages. There was a move towards a non-linguistic type of Religious Studies. Saggs had little sympathy with this in the university context, although he was, in fact, adept at the communication of his great learning to a non-specialist audience. He wrote a series of books designed for the layman which were enormously successful and which continue in print and in wide use. The Greatness That Was Babylon (1962, revised 1988) is a scholarly classic of the 20th century.

John F. Healey