Empires of the Plain: Henry Rawlinson and the Lost Languages of Babylon

Empires of the Plain: Henry Rawlinson and the Lost Languages of Babylon

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By (author) Lesley Adkins

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  • Publisher: HarperPerennial
  • Format: Paperback | 464 pages
  • Dimensions: 130mm x 197mm x 32mm | 334g
  • Publication date: 4 October 2004
  • Publication City/Country: London
  • ISBN 10: 0007129009
  • ISBN 13: 9780007129003
  • Illustrations note: 16 b/w plates (16pp), (2 x 8pp black & white plate sections), With index
  • Sales rank: 620,128

Product description

How 19th-century soldier, adventurer and scholar Henry Rawlinson deciphered cuneiform, the world's earliest writing, and rediscovered Iraq's ancient civilisations. This is the exciting, true adventure story of Henry Rawlinson, a fearless soldier, sportsman and explorer. From 1827 he spent twenty-five years in India, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. A brilliant linguist, fascinated by history, he became obsessed with cuneiform, the world's earliest writing. An immense inscription on a sheer rock face at Bisitun in Iran was the key to understanding the many cuneiform scripts and languages, and only Rawlinson had the skills to achieve the perilous ascent and copy the monument. In her gripping account, Lesley Adkins relates how Rawlinson triumphed in deciphering the lost languages of Persia and Babylonia, overcoming his bitter rival, Edward Hincks. While Rawlinson was based at Baghdad, incredible palaces with whole libraries of cuneiform clay tablets were unearthed in the ancient mounds of Mesopotamia, from Nineveh to Babylon - the great flood plain of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers that had been fought over by so many powerful empires. His decipherment of the inscriptions resurrected these lost civilisations, revealing fascinating details of everyday life and forgotten historical events. By proving to the astonished Victorian public that people and places in the Old Testament really existed, Rawlinson assured his own place in history.

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Author information

Lesley Adkins, an archaeologist and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, is the author of several reference books on archaelogy and ancient history, as well as The Keys of Egypt: The Race to Read the Hieroglyphs, the account of the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Jean-Francois Champollion, which was published to great acclaim in 2000. She lives in Devon, and is married to Roy Adkins, also an archaeologist and writer.

Review quote

Praise for 'Empires of the Plain': 'A colourful account of a fascinating and little-known story. It combines scholarship with high adventure, and is enlivened by the larger-than-life character of Henry Rawlinson.' Sunday Times 'A welcome addition to history writing on the archaeological exploration of the Near East.' The Times Praise for 'The Keys of Egypt': 'A fascinating and elegantly written biography of Champollion, doing justice to one of the great stories of academic heroism.' Simon Singh, Sunday Telegraph 'A first-rate blend of high scholarship and great narrative pace, this is one of those rare, wondrous books which turns an intellectual adventure into high drama. It deserves a huge audience.' Douglas Kennedy, The Times 'A fascinating account of the race to unlock the cryptic language of the pharaohs.' Giles Milton, Daily Mail

Editorial reviews

Brave, intelligent and lucky, Henry Rawlinson went to India as a cadet in the East India Company in 1827, and it was not until 1849 that he returned to England. During those 22 years he narrowly escaped death in Afghanistan (where he was one of the few officers to emerge with any credit from the disastrous campaigns of the First Anglo-Afghan War), and, in Persia, made the discovery which was to become a lifelong passion. Chosen for his proficiency in Persian, he worked there as a diplomat but also found time to explore. At Bisitun, at great risk to life and limb, he was able to copy an inscription using cuneiform signs, the earliest form of writing in the world, carved into the side of a mountain. The inscription proclaims Darius as the true King of Persia and is written three times, in three different languages and three types of cuneiform script. A major breakthrough in the decipherment of various types of cuneiform writing, it was more significant for the understanding of ancient languages than the Rosetta Stone. This was a time of extensive excavations in Mesopotamia - much of what was found is now in the British Museum - and many more cuneiform texts were unearthed for study. Rivalries and disputes over the historical significance and interpretation of the discoveries do not detract from the accuracy and depth of Rawlinson's work and the extent of his contribution to linguistic and historical research. Lesley Adkins's detailed and scholarly book focuses particularly on these achievements and what led to them; it is an account of the life of one outstanding man and a fascinating insight into a period during which people's view of the world and what shaped them changed radically. There are extensive extracts from archives, journals and letters, maps, illustrations, a bibliography and recommended reading. (Kirkus UK)