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The Sassoon family, known as “Rothschilds of the East” due to the supreme wealth it possessed, is a family of Iraqi Jewish descent and international renown. It was based in Baghdad, Iraq, before moving to Bombay, India and then spreading to China, England, and other countries. It is said that the family descended from the famous Ibn Shoshans, one of the richest families of medieval Al-Andalus, although the origins are ambiguous (see section below). From the 18th century, the Sassoons were one of the wealthiest families in the world, with a merchant empire spanning the continent of Asia.
The name of the family strongly implies a local, Mesopotamian origin for the family. The family name of Sassoon is also commonly shared by many Armenian and Kurdish families and tribes who all originate from the mountainous district of Sason (whence the family and tribal names), west of Lake Van, in upper Mesopotamia in modern Turkey. It is, however, possible that some Sephardi Spanish blood was mixed with the primarily Mesopotamian Jewish Sasoons. Sassoon ben Salih (1750–1830) and his family were the chief treasurers to the pashas of Baghdad and Southern Iraq. His son David (1792–1864) fled from a new and unfriendly wāli, going first to the Persian Gulf port of Bushehr in 1828 and then to Bombay, India, in 1832, with his large family. In Bombay, he built the international business called David S. Sassoon, with the policy of staffing it with people brought from Baghdad. They filled the functions of the various branches of his business in India, Burma, Malaya, and east Asia. His business extended to China – where Sassoon House (now the north wing of the Peace Hotel) on the Bund in Shanghai became a noted landmark – and then to England. In each branch, he maintained a rabbi. His wealth and munificence were proverbial; his philanthropy across Asia included the building of schools, orphanages, hospitals, and museums. On his death, tributes to him were made from across the continent by Muslims, Christians, Parsees, Jews, and Hindus.
Sasoon’s eight sons also branched out in many directions. The Sassoon family was heavily involved in the shipping and opium production industry in China and India. Elias David (1820–1880), his son by his first wife, had been the first of the sons to go to China, in 1844. He later returned to Bombay, before leaving the firm to establish E. D. Sassoon in 1867, with offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Another son, Albert Abdullah David Sassoon (1818–1896) took on the running of the firm on his father’s death, and notably constructed the Sassoon Docks, the first wet dock built in western India. With two of his brothers he later became prominent in England, and the family were friends of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII.
Of those who settled in England, Sir Edward Albert Sassoon (1856–1912), the son of Albert, married Aline Caroline de Rothschild, and was a Conservative member of Parliament from 1899 until his death. The seat was then inherited by his son Sir Philip Sassoon (1888–1939) from 1912 until his death. Philip served in the First World War as military secretary to Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and, during the 1920s and 1930s, as Britain’s undersecretary of state for air. The twentieth-century English poet, one of the best known World War I poets, Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967) was David’s great-grandson. Another descendant of Sassoon David Sassoon[clarification needed] is the British banker and government minister James, Lord Sassoon. In the 19th century, one daughter of the family, Rachel Sassoon Beer bought a number of newspapers in England, including The Sunday Times (1893–1904) and The Observer, which she also edited.
The branch that carried on the ancestral tradition has been represented by Rabbi Solomon David Sassoon (1915–1985), who moved from Letchworth to London and then to Jerusalem in 1970. He was the son of one David Sassoon who collected Jewish books and manuscripts and who catalogued them in two volumes, at Ohel David Eastern Synagogue, Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York. This David was the son of Flora Abraham, who had moved from India to England in 1901 and established a famous salon in her London home. Solomon Sassoon had two sons, Isaac S. D. Sassoon and David Solomon Sassoon, who are both rabbis.
David Sassoon, Baghdad’s treasurer in the nineteenth century, began and cemented the family’s dominant position in the Sino-Indian opium trade. (See First Opium War.) The family’s businesses in China, and Hong Kong especially, were built to capitalize on the trade.