Charles Allen

It’s All Cuneiform to Me

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


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THE WORD ‘BEHEMOTH’ may well have been coined by some Israelite scribe as he and his companions wept by the waters of Babylon, unwilling guest workers at the court of King Nebuchadnezzar. The ancient Hebrews used the word to describe the hippopotamus, a beast graceful in water but clumsy and dangerous out of it. As a modern behemoth stomps across the Iraqi landscape in pursuit of a latter-day Nebuchadnezzar this is a good time to be reminded of how the lost languages of ancient Mesopotamia were rediscovered – and with them the civilisations of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians and ancient Persians.

Whatever Edward Said and the anti-Orientalists may have to say on the matter, it is a story very much to the credit of European scholarship, with the key role being played by a soldier-political, Henry Rawlinson, whose name today is rarely heard beyond the portals of such institutions as the Royal Asiatic Society. Empires of the Plain tells how this ordinary soldier of the East India Company, whose only talents Rawlinson appeared to be his athleticism and proficiency in Persian, transformed himself into the leading cuneiform scholar of the age.

In 1833, at the age of twenty-three, Rawlinson secured an appointment in Persia as part of a small military detachment sent from Bombay to train the Shah’s army. Over the next few years his duties led him to criss-cross the Zagros mountain range separating the Iranian plateau from the great alluvial plains of what is now Iraq. As every ambitious young gentleman in foreign parts was expected to do, he visited the local antiquities. Out of this grew a hobby that developed into an obsession with what Rawlinson liked to refer to as ‘my old friends the cuneiforms’, much of it focused on the giant bas-relief and accompanying panels of inscriptions carved two hundred feet up a cliff face at Bisitun by Darius the Great. The inscriptions extended over seventy feet across the rock and were carved entirely in cuneiform – a script made up of combinations of wedge-shaped strokes, used by scribes for almost three millennia to record the spoken languages of the Mesopotamian region.

The site was well known to European scholars but it was Rawlinson who had the physical ability and courage required to scale the rock face at Bisitun and the perseverance needed to stick to his self-appointed task of copying every line. He correctly deduced that there were three different types of cuneiform carved into the rock, representing the same message written in three different languages – make it quite as important as the Rosetta Stone deciphered by the Frenchman Charnpollion a decade earlier. ‘I aspire to do for the cuneiform’, declared Rawlinson in 1836, ‘what Champollion has done for the hieroglyphics.’ However, his military and political duties, to say nothing of the First Afghan War (out of which Rawlinson was one of the very few to emerge with any moral credit), meant that it was more than eight years before his task was completed. Other scholars may have initiated the process that led to the deciphering of cuneiform in its many variants, but it was Rawlinson’s work on the ground, combined with Henry Layard’s archaeology under it at Nimrud, Ashur and Babylon, that led to the reading of the three languages present in the Bisitun inscriptions – Old Persian, Elarnite and Babylonian – and to the opening up of several thousand years of ancient history.

The process by which Mesopotamia’s many civilisations were rediscovered and the parts at Bisitun played in that recovery by Rawlinson, Layard and others is as exciting a topic as any to be found in the history of archaeology. Lesley Adluns has a good grasp of her subject and she conveys a great deal of solid and fascinating information, but Empires of the Plain is nonetheless hard work. Its structure is difficult to follow, it has far too much extraneous material of no conceivable interest either to the general reader or to the scholar, and there are too many sentences that require a second reading before they make sense. In sum, the author has been poorly served by her editor. But for those unable to get hold of that monumental classic, Pallis’s Antiquity of Iraq, written almost half a century ago, Empires of the Plain will do quite nicely.

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