Empires of the Plain: Henry Rawlinson and the Lost Languages of Babylon by Lesley Adkins - review by Charles Allen

Charles Allen

It’s All Cuneiform to Me

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


HarperCollins 378pp £20 order from our bookshop

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

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