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From 1827 Henry Rawlinson, fearless soldier, sportsman and imperial adventurer of the first rank, spent twenty-five years in India, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan in the service of the East India Company. During this time he survived the dangers of disease and warfare, including the disastrous First Anglo-Afghan War. A gifted linguist, fascinated by history and exploration, he became obsessed with cuneiform, the world's earliest writing. An immense inscription high on a sheer rock face at Bisitun in the mountains of western Iran, carved on the orders of King Darius the Great of Persia over 2,000 years ago, was the key to understanding the many cuneiform scripts and languages. Only Rawlinson had the physical and intellectual skills, courage, self-motivation and opportunity to make the perilous ascent and copy the monument.
Here, Lesley Adkins relates the story of Rawlinson's life and how he triumphed in deciphering the lost languages of Persia and Babylonia, overcoming his brilliant but bitter rival, Edward Hincks. While based in Baghdad, Rawlinson became involved in the very first excavations of the ancient mounds of Mesopotamia, from Nineveh to Babylon, an area that had been fought over by so many powerful empires. His decipherment of the inscriptions resurrected unsuspected civilizations, revealing intriguing 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 (and, furthermore, that documents and chronicles had survived from well before the writing of the Bible), Rawlinson became a celebrity and assured his own place in history.
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Lesley Adkins, an archaeologist and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, is the author of several reference books as well as The Keys of Egypt: The Race to Read the Hieroglyphs, the account of the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs. She lives in Devon, England, and is married to Roy Adkins, also an archaeologist and writer.
What François Champollion was to Egyptian hieroglyphics, Henry Rawlinson was to Babylonian cuneiform. In 1833 Rawlinson was a brash, courageous and talented young British military officer and amateur philologist posted in Persia. He eagerly—and at great personal risk—devoted himself to the first comprehensive study of the famed cuneiform inscriptions at Bisitun, which covered a remote cliff face as large as a football field, having been commissioned circa 515 B.C. by Darius I of Persia as a personal monument. Over the course of 30 years, punctuated by a breathless succession of military campaigns, political intrigue and instability during which he earned honor and fame, Rawlinson pursued with dogged serenity the deciphering of the cuneiform pictographs. He benefited from the similarly dedicated efforts of a small fraternity of like-minded scholars(though competitive rivalries would embitter the fraternity). Adkins, a British author of several books on archeology and antiquity, admits this biography is limited. Rawlinson the man never comes to life. What must have been a fascinating and even passionate pursuit is only dimly illuminated. Dedicated philologists may rejoice, but for readers seeking a more human story, the man who solved the enigma of cuneiform remains undeciphered. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW, 3 maps.
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