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Building Bridges between Orient and Occident: Max von Oppenheim (1860–1946)

Disparate facets and careers are hallmarks of Max von Oppenheim’s extraordinary life. He was a travelling scholar and adventurer, ethnologist and archaeologist, academic administrator and museum founder, active in politics and an engaged intermediary between the Orient and the West.

Photo: Max von Oppenheim in the courtyard of the excavation house, Tell Halaf 1912/13

Childhood and youth

Max von Oppenheim was born on 15 July 1860 in Cologne. His father Albert was the head of Sal. Oppenheim jr. & Cie., a respected private banking institution founded in 1789. The family played a leading role as a generous donor and patron; its professional ethos, cosmopolitanism, and love of art and culture played a decisive role in the development of Max’s character and world view.
As a matter of course, Oppenheim’s upbringing pursued the aim of succeeding his father at the bank. But Max imagined a different future. Having read “Thousand and One Nights” as a boy and devoured the popular travel accounts of German scholars’ journeys, he, too, wanted to explore the Islamic world. What Oppenheim’s parents considered a youth’s enthusiasm matured into a serious preoccupation. A year-long tug-of-war between parents and son ended in compromise when Max consented to study law, first in Strasbourg and then Berlin. In 1883, he passed the first state examination and earned a doctorate in jurisprudence. A doggedly endured year as a judicial clerk was followed by another uneventful year in the Prussian civil service. Finally, Albert von Oppenheim came to understand his son’s predilection – not only did he abstain from imposing his will on Max, but in a generous and prescient move, he also promised his son unconditional support.

Albert von Oppenheim (1834-1912) in his office, c. 1880

First journeys

When Max’s plans for an expedition to Lake Chad in Central Africa had to be abandoned, he set off instead on a trip to the Near East. He spent some months in Cairo, immersing himself in the world of the city’s inhabitants, making friends, and improving his command of Arabic. In summer 1893 the actual expedition could begin in Damascus, continuing for more than 1200 km southwards to Basra and the Persian Gulf. He traversed stretches of land, not previously trod by any European, and for the first time in his life, he encountered Bedouin to whom he felt drawn at once, marveling above all at their pride and sense of freedom. He began to record genealogies which served as the core of a Bedouin’s identity. Previously such information had been transmitted only orally. Ethnological studies of desert nomads were a part of Oppenheim’s life from this moment onward, culminating in four-volumes which comprise a standard reference work for research on the Bedouin.
In 1899 and 1900, long before the completion of that seminal undertaking, Oppenheim’s two volume travel account about the Near Eastern expedition won him international renown. By then, he had undertaken yet another journey through the Orient. The high point of it occurred when Sultan Abdul Hamid II, ruler of the Ottoman Empire, granted him an audience. Their conversation primarily concerned “pan-Islamism,” an idea taking shape at the time. The Sultan, who as Caliph was the spiritual head of Muslims as well as Ottoman sovereign, hoped to create a decisive movement to counter the growing dominance of the West.

Sojourn in the Imperial General Consulate, Cairo

At home again in the mid-1890s, Max von Oppenheim found himself assessing his professional future. His dream was to serve the German empire in the Orient as a diplomat. Certainly he possessed the excellent capabilities and knowledge essential for a diplomatic post. From the perspective of the Foreign office, however, his Jewish heritage and the wealth of his family presented liabilities. Sons of banking families in particular were unwelcome, due to their financial independence. Moreover, the majority of banking dynasties were either Jewish or had roots in Jewish tradition. This was true of Max’s family. His father had converted to Catholicism only at the time of his marriage to a Catholic bride. As one of Max’s later superiors commented, “the accident of his birth” was the crucial obstacle, since by the end of the 19th century, anti-Semitism had become acceptable in the personnel politics of the Foreign Office.

Nonetheless, Max did not give up. Thanks to influential friends, the thirty-six-year old acquired a lower level posting as attaché with the German General Consulate in Cairo where he intended to prove himself indispensible. This would lead, he hoped, to advancement to a post in the diplomatic corps. Oppenheim spent a total of thirteen years, from1896 until 1909, in the Egyptian capital.
Achieving his goal turned out to be more difficult than he imagined. His official assignment “to monitor the movements in Islam in all their ramifications” was imprecisely formulated and completely exaggerated. Furthermore, his posting at the consulate was only for one year at a time, requiring annual renewal. Even though the extensions became increasingly a mere formality, his uncertain status labeled him an outsider.

Room for maneuver cleverly exploited

Confident nevertheless, Oppenheim ignored the demeaning implications of his appointment to focus instead on the advantages of his assignment which included the privilege of reporting directly to the Imperial Chancellor. During the years which Oppenheim spent in Cairo he submitted 467 political reports, all told, to Berlin. These included detailed appraisals of the complex political situation in the Ottoman Empire as well as information about the pan-Islamic Movement, the Bedouin, and various questions concerning religion and culture. But his observations were mostly simply filed away; only occasionally were transcriptions forwarded to outposts of the Foreign Office.
Oppenheim received discretionary permission to undertake journeys to gather information and was encouraged to nurture contacts with the inhabitants of the regions he visited. His linguist skills, aided by canny networking, opened doors and broadened his perspective on the Orient. Unlike most of his European contemporaries, Oppenheim combined patriotism with tolerance and respect for the cultures surrounding him. The excellent ties he was able to establish stoked mistrust, especially among the British who had occupied Egypt since 1882 with the intent of protecting the Suez Canal. (Opened thirteen years earlier, it served the British as the lifeline to their colony India.) Oppenheim was singularly unpopular among the British who were constantly concerned with the security of their empire and what they perceived as threats to it. Consequently, a press campaign targeting Oppenheim was initiated.

Excursion into the desert, Max v Oppenheim (in the center)
Excursion into the desert, Max v Oppenheim (in the center)

Beyond official duties

Oppenheim’s life in Cairo was not completely hampered by such problems. The location of his villa in Cairo, on the border between the European and the older Arab quarters, was symbolic. His socially vibrant life included parties at the villa which soon became legendary. And he could indulge his collector’s passion which had originated in Germany. He furnished the villa with objects of everyday life typical of the Orient, acquired in the bazaar, to give his home the atmosphere of a distinguished Arab household from the time before the influence of Europe had made itself felt. And he used every opportunity to encourage craftsmen not to abandon their highly developed techniques and traditions to satisfy European taste which had begun to exercise enormous influence.
In 1899 Oppenheim left for northern Syria where he planned to conduct research. This was just a temporary solution following on the Foreign Office’s decision, for political reasons, to prohibit the expedition to the Arabian Peninsula which he had proposed. Essentially for the same reasons, the Foreign Office objected to Oppenheim being a consultant for Deutsche Bank. The bank’s executive spokesman Georg von Siemens had approached Oppenheim as a recognized expert on the Orient to help identify prospective routes for the planned Baghdad Railway which the bank, Germany’s largest credit institution, was expected to finance.

A serendipitous discovery

These seemingly disappointing changes of plan proved a fortunate twist of fate. In southeastern Anatolia, Oppenheim met Ibrahim Pasha, the head of the Milli Bedouin, who reported that impressive stone sculptures depicting human-headed animals had been discovered when a grave was being dug near the village of Ras al-Ain. A four-day journey brought Oppenheim to the village, but only after his energetically expressed insistence could the superstitious villagers be persuaded to show him the place where the sculptures had been spotted – a mound known as Tell Halaf, which represented the remains of a settlement. Oppenheim immediately sensed that the statues, which he was able to uncover with little effort, were something extraordinary. But in lieu of a permit to excavate, he ceased work after only half a day.

View of the eastern part of the mound in 1899, before excavations began, 1899

Oppenheim as Excavator

Thirteen years elapsed until Oppenheim, worn down by hopes disappointed and the British press campaign, bid the Foreign Office adieu in 1910. Tell Halaf would become his life’s work. The self-taught archaeologist was able to win some of the very best experts in the field for his team, among them Felix Langenegger in particular, who had worked under Robert Koldewey (1855–1925), the excavator of Babylon. Oppenheim’s family bore the costs of the excavation which amounted to a total of ca. 750,000 marks, or about 700 times the annual wages of an average German at the time (1100 marks).
Between 1911 and 1913, Oppenheim’s team laid bare the remains of the Aramaic city of Gūzāna, which had experienced its heyday at the turn of the 2nd to 1st millennia BC. The showpieces were impressive statuary and stone reliefs from a palace façade and monumental funerary sculptures. Also significant was unusual painted pottery dating from the 7th and 6th millennia BC which was named “Halaf pottery” after the site where it came to light. Oppenheim sent reports about the excavation to German Emperor Wilhelm II. The delighted sovereign repeatedly invited Oppenheim to the Royal Palace in Berlin to deliver a report in person. In 1912, Oppenheim visited the excavations of British archaeologist Leonard Woolley at Carchemish in northern Syria (nowadays on the Turkish/Syrian border) where he met Woolley’s assistant T. E. Lawrence, who would go down in history as “Lawrence of Arabia.”Only a few years after meeting Oppenheim, he proved to be a formidable political adversary.

Strategies in the First World War

In 1913, Oppenheim suspended his excavation in order to introduce a system to deal with the accumulated finds. But the beginning of First World War resulted in an unexpected turn in his life, and thwarted his plans to resume the excavations. In the summer of 1914, the political and military leadership of Germany formulated the notion of a German-Islamic alliance, intended to incite the millions of Muslims under English, French, and Russian rule to rebel against their colonial overlords who had feared such a nightmare scenario for years.
In fact, Germany and the Ottoman Empire concluded an agreement of alliance on 2 August 1914. At that moment, the Foreign Office turned to the un-commissioned Orientalist Max von Oppenheim who sought to recommend himself by compiling a list of various strategies Germany might employ to contribute to creating this rebellion. These he summarized in his “Memorandum on revolutionizing the Islamic territories of our enemies” (“Denkschrift betreffend die Revolutionierung der islamischen Gebiete unserer Feinde”). But even before he had completed this memorandum, Mehmet VI, Sultan and Caliph, declared Holy War against the foes of the Ottoman Empire and their allies.

Propaganda chief

The Foreign Office charged Max von Oppenheim with the implementation of the planned strategy. To that end, he founded the “Intelligence Bureau for the East” (Nachrichtenstelle für den Orient), with the intention of producing and disseminating propaganda for Muslim target groups in the Middle East and India. After roughly six months, Oppenheim gave up the leadership role, in favor of travelling in the Ottoman Empire to promote personally the idea of a Muslim rebellion. One of his contacts was Sharif Hussein, who as ruler of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, enjoyed particular prestige within the Muslim-Arab world. Oppenheim did not suspect that the Sharif was negotiating almost simultaneously with the British who offered the Arab tribes independence from Turkish rule in return for engaging in combat on their side.
While nothing came of the German plan, T. E. Lawrence (whom Oppenheim had met in Carchemish) incited the Arabs to revolt against the Turks. But the Arab victors were unaware of the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Great Britain, drawing the borders of their respective spheres of influence should the Ottoman Empire be defeated. The promise of Arab independence had played no role in these deliberations.

Reorientation as a Scholar

The German defeat of 1918 and the demise of Imperial Germany with which Oppenheim felt closely linked were hard blows. He was forbidden to travel to Tell Halaf, which now fell under the French Mandate, until 1926 when Germany was admitted to the League of Nations. And so he reinvented himself following the conclusion of the war, settling down as a private scholar in Berlin and working up the results of his research and earlier travels. To provide an organizational framework, he founded the Institute for Oriental Research (Orient-Forschungs-Institut). Under its auspices, young scholars from various disciplines should get together and study the history and culture of the Orient from the most disparate of perspectives. In order to preserve his legacy, he also established his eponymous ‘Max von Oppenheim Foundation’ in 1929.

Financial difficulties increasingly overshadowed Max von Oppenheim’s life from 1923 onwards. Inflation had rendered his entire cash assets all but worthless. Until his death, he remained dependent on bank loans and the support of his prosperous relatives in Cologne. That it proved possible for him to organize a journey to Tell Halaf in 1927 speaks for his resiliency. Although there were no excavations, he could conclude an eminently crucial accord with the authorities of the French Mandate. The finds he had discovered were to be divided with the major part, promised to him, transported to Berlin. The remaining objects would go to Aleppo, where Oppenheim had established a small museum to house them. (It formed the core of what became today’s National Museum in Aleppo.) In 1929, Oppenheim, then 69 years old, returned to Tell Halaf in order to conduct a second campaign of excavation, as successful as the first.

His wish to find a home for the objects excavated at Tell Halaf in the newly erected Pergamon Museum on Berlin’s Museum Island went unfulfilled, primarily due to irreconcilable differences about the compensation the excavator was to receive from the State Museums. Nonetheless, he did not concede to circumstances, but resolved to open a museum himself. And so, on 15 July 1930, Oppenheim’s 70th birthday, the Tell Halaf Museum in Berlin-Charlottenburg opened its doors.

Destruction of a lifetime’s work?

Persons of Jewish heritage were declared outcasts, together with Jews per se, soon after the National Socialists seized power in 1933. This led to the increasing marginalization of families like Max von Oppenheim’s. But the renowned Orientalist was able to continue his academic activities largely unimpeded. Probably his old friends in the Foreign Office protected him. There is no evidence whatsoever supporting the rumor that the regime bestowed upon him the status of “honorary Aryan.” Although Oppenheim could conduct research, his final years can be described as bordering on a tragedy. In the autumn of 1943, bombs fell on the Tell Halaf Museum. Oppenheim’s apartment on Savigny Platz, housing the greater part of his collection of Orientalia and his specialized library of some 42,000 volumes, was also heavily damaged.
Taking with him what little remained, Oppenheim moved to Dresden where he survived the air raid of February 1945. In the end, he found shelter with relatives in Bavaria. Yet, even after these fateful setbacks, he continued to display an unflagging optimism. True to his motto “Head up high! Spirits higher still! And take it with a grin!” (Kopf hoch! Mut hoch! Und Humor hoch!), he encouraged friends and colleagues by letter to search for the remains of his collection, and he began to acquire books again and continued to pursue research. After a brief illness, Marx von Oppenheim died on the 15 November 1946 in the Bavarian town of Landshut. An Arab delegation attended Oppenheim’s funeral to pay respects to this old friend of the Orient.

Oppenheim's grave, Hauptfriedhof, Landshut. The inscription reads: "Here rests in God a man who loved science, the Orient, the desert and Tell Halaf, which he discovered and excavated.