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

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


By (author) Lesley Adkins

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  • Publisher: HarperPerennial
  • Format: Paperback | 464 pages
  • Dimensions: 149mm x 214mm x 19mm | 358g
  • 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: 581,178

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

A surprisingly action-packed biography of the soldier, adventurer, athlete, scholar, and diplomat whose exploits in deciphering cuneiform scripts literally forced a revelation of the originality and depth of ancient Mesopotamian cultures onto a skeptical Western world. Never mind that Sir Henry Rawlinson (1810-95) was essentially James Bond in the flesh a century before Ian Fleming was born. His ultimate impact, British reference-book author Adkins reminds us, was to finally wither the precept universally held in mid-19th-century that if Adam spoke to Eve it was in Hebrew, "the language that was spoken in Paradise." An English schoolboy who once fretted that his grasp of Greek and Latin might clutter his mind, Rawlinson signed on in his teens as a subaltern in a regiment of native troops in colonial India, where he learned the required fluent Hindustani, then studied Persian. Posted with troops under his command to offer military aid and curry favor for the Empire with the Persian Shah, Rawlinson was eventually able in his spare time to range from Baghdad (then under Turkish rule) to indulge in what became his obsession: inspecting antiquities. His focus narrowed to the cuneiform inscriptions often carved into monuments of apparent great age, as well as pressed into clay tablets littered in mounds of ancient habitation all over the Middle East. At great personal risk, he climbed a sheer rock wall at Bisitun in Persia and, balanced on a rickety ladder, meticulously copied a cuneiform inscription ordained by King Darius in 520 b.c. proclaiming his greatness in three different languages. Adkins posits this, rather than Egypt's Rosetta Stone, as ultimately the most significant cipher in finally unlocking ancient Sumerian languages (Assyrian and Babylonian), including original parables, law codes, and legends traceable thousands of years later in the Judeo-Christian Bible, including stories of Genesis and the Flood. Well-told story of a life dedicated to scholarship, with great adventures and derring-do an unexpected bonus. (Kirkus Reviews)