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on 14 January 2004
I was given this book for Christmas and was surprised not to have come across it earlier, especially given the book's topicality, set in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and India. It should really be read by anyone interested in the current conflicts, as so much background is explained here. The author's writing style is deceptively straightforward, without the irritating baggage of flowery adjectives, and presents in a highly accessible way an absolute mass of information - not to mention a fascinating story about the hero of the book, Henry Rawlinson, his adventures, and his great part in the decipherment of ancient cuneiform writing (also his rivalry with Edward Hincks, which is pretty sad really). The bit about Noah's Ark (a touchy subject for many) is actually neatly done, as Rawlinson is posted to the area of Mt Ararat. We then get a short digression on Noah's Ark, and this is then picked up a bit later, when cuneiform is gradually introduced, with Noah, Tower of Babel, clay tablets, and so on. All skilfully done. I came away knowing a great deal more about many topics, such as East India Company, cuneiform, ancient Mesopotamia, Baghdad, and a whole lot more - and I enjoyed the story of Rawlinson's life, largely self-taught, rising through the ranks. What a man, even if he did have a few flaws, which the author doesn't hide. Much recommended book.
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on 12 January 2005
I always look at the illustrations before starting a book. To my eyes the paintings of Henry Rawlinson showed such a mild mannered, bookish kind of person he hardly seemed to fit the hype on the cover. But I saw only a part of him. It is hard to imagine how a man of such astonishing ability could have the opportunity to develop so many of his talents these days - do men of such ability exist in these less taxing times? Rawlinson's career in the East India Company's army leads us from England to India, Afghanistan, Persia, and into Turkish Arabia and Baghdad. We explore the countries, the politics of the time, the early days of Archaeology in the region and get a fascinating glimpse of the Middle East and European attitudes as they were then. Places now so familiar from recent news crop up frequently and you wonder if much has really changed. After twenty two years of dedication to his job and studies Rawlinson is finally allowed to return to England, and along with him we exchange the heat of the desert for the heat of academic rivalry; the ambition, competition and intrigue fuelled by false friends. The difference between the circumstances, characters and techniques of Rawlinson and his chief rival Hinks is both poignant and appalling. How they solved the puzzle of cuneiform, unravelled the ancient languages and came to their interpretations would fascinate anyone who understands the structure of languages and grammar, but I must admit this bit went over my head. Not that I felt cheated, as there is so much more to this book. This is a book to inspire and to inform.
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on 20 July 2003
This book describes the life of the amazing character Henry Rawlinson, and the adventurous life he led as a soldier, explorer and diplomat. He was absolutely fearless in anything he tackled, which made it possible for him to climb up to a cuneiform inscription in Iran that provided the key for decipherment. A very absorbing read and a very good introduction to ancient cuneiform writing.
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on 19 April 2009
The Victorians invariably inspire, and that is certainly the case in the story of how cuneiform was deciphered in the 19th C. told very abley by Lesley Adkins. She takes us to a stage full of larger than life haracters fiercely competing for the prize of being the first to crack the ancient alphabets of Babylon. And the scenery is nearly as interesting as the story: India, Iran, Iraq, an interlude for the Afghan war, club land in London, and Ireland. Centre stage is the ambitious gentlemanly Henry Rawlinson, successful soldier and diplomat who becomes engrossed in trying to find the meaning of the ancient alphabets. And so we find him at Bishapur, Mount Elwand, and Bisitun precariously balancing on ladders in the scorching heat copying cuneiform from the inscriptions on the rocks. Later we join him for the very bloody Afghan war where he has to retreat from Kandahar, clearly as fanatical and doped up then as now. He then foregoes promotion in India and leave to England, so he can be based in Baghdad as Consul to resume work on his `old friends' the cuneiforms. Rawlinson's discoveries were received with great excitement back in London, and he looked set to become the winner of the race. But it wasn't quite so simple, for he was not alone. There was Austen Henry Layard, who had a less than formal education, but was widely read and was especially enamoured by `Arabian Nights'. After turning his back on a profession in the law, he borrowed £300 from his mother and started travelling east, towards Nineveh, where he spent hours drawing the ruins, including the cuneiform: soon he was in correspondence with Rawlinson. As the story unfolds, Layard and Rawlinson initially become something of a team, with Layard being the chief excavator, supplying Rawlinson with more and more cuneiform, and Rawlinson the chief analyst. Then there is the opium smoking Frenchman Paul Emile Botta, whose excavations inspired Layard. The amount of support he received from his government also irritated the Englishmen as they had to largely rely on their own means. These three were men who knew the heat and dust of Asia, and were friends, of sorts. The fourth character in the drama was not. This was Revd Edward Hincks, shepherd to an obscure flock twenty miles south of Belfast, who knew only the rain of Ireland. But he was a linguistic genius. Working only on the cuneiform available in the public domain, he had worked out the name Nebuchadnezzar on one of the inscriptions before Rawlinson. He presented his first paper on `Old Persian and Elamite Cuneiform in 1846, and, as Adkins says, `his achievement was more remarkable because he did not have a copy of Rawlinson's Bisitun inscription'. There is a sense of rivalry between the two men from the start. When Rawlinson hears of Hinck's advances, he writes to Layard `A certain Dr Hincks has got much further than I and pretend(s) to have succeeded.' They met four years later in London, but there was no friendship and later when both of them were answering questions at a meeting in Edinburgh, Hincks was annoyed that Rawlinson did not acknowledge his significant early contribution, and later Rawlinson would refer to Hinck's `over confidence'. The neglect of Hincks continued when in 1851 the American Oriental Society published a long analysis of Old Persian: Rawlinson was mentioned, not him. Infuriated Hincks eventually published a new paper detailing the scholars responsible for the discovery to all the letters so far deciphered. The tone makes it quite clear who has been more successful - `Of the 177 values we have in common, 100 were first published by me in my former paper...' By now Layard, writing popular books on the romance of the discoveries, was siding more with Hincks in print. This enraged Rawlinson who used his influence to oppose Hincks' employment at the British Museum, which was very important for the poorly paid cleric. As well as this rivalry, there was also some scepticism among the wider public regarding the whole enterprise, some saying the translations were just `moonshine'. To settle this Royal Asiatic Society held a literary inquest in 1857 where scholars analysed both Rawlinson and Hinck's work. The result was a vindication for both scholars - and Hincks was shown to be just as capable translator as Rawlinson. Despite their rivalry they laid the foundation for all that is now known about the ancient Babylonian languages. Hincks ended his days in obscurity in Ireland; Rawlinson, always famous, became very much the establishment man of London society. The characters and the story make the book fascinating, but it also reveals much about Victorian Britain: the insatiable desire to explore; the great importance of knowledge about the ancient civilisations, especially regards corroborating the events in the Bible,. There is the exactitude demanded by the academic societies; and finally there is the strange, almost extraordinary confidence of these Victorians. A confidence that made them sure they would be able to decipher the cuneiform alphabets, and a confidence that never questioned their right to excavate the plains of Babylonian. Some of this was done by the young Layard with a team of Arab helpers. He would bring up the obelisks; ship them down the Tigris to Bombay, and from there to London and the British Museum. He was not doing this with a military escort. The local Arab and Iranian rulers were allowing it. The question screaming in between the lines is, why weren't the Arab and Iranian scholars trying to decipher their own ancient languages? The answer must be to do with the stark difference between the intellectual climates of West and East. Quite rightly Adkins doesn't explore this, her story is already complex enough, and she tells it superbly to the end.
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on 13 April 2010
As part of my research I had already read Henry Creswicke Rawlinson bios from his brother George; as well as Robert Silverberg. Both of those publications seemed to lack an insightful feel to Henry's personality. I wanted to know who Henry married and a little more about his life in the U.K.. What better place than Amazon UK? I wasn't disappointed. Lesley Adkins satisfied my goal. I got a short bio on his wife and sons and a great literary picture of Henry's rivalry with his arch rival Edward Hinks ( a side story barely breached anywhere else). If you're studying Rawlinson-catch George Rawlinson's book in the Public Domain and add this book to season to taste.
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on 23 July 2003
Purchased book becuase of good review in UK Daily Telegraph. Although Indiana Jones was not based on Henry Rawlinson he could well have been! The story of his life is as close as you're going to get to a real life Indiana. Rawlinson was very passionate about discovering the lost language of Persia, and this caused him bodily danger a few times, Indiana style!. The story is also enormously topical at the present time becuase it is, of course, set in present day Iraq.
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on 21 August 2003
I thoroughly enjoyed this biography of an extraordinary man. Sir Henry Rawlinson was remarkable in being a Victorian man of adventure and political ambition, but a man whose first love was the solution of a riddle of the ages: the meaning of the various cuneiform inscriptions which he observed during his decades of service in Mesopotamia, Persia and Afghanistan. This history is well told by Adkins, who takes us with Rawlinson through his life. His achievements are crisply stated. His diary entries make us know the man more than we otherwise might. Adkins also relates the decipherment of cuneiform - Old Persian, Babylonian and Elamite - with care, never descending into much detail (understandably but regrettably). My only cavil is that the history which the cuneiform inscriptions told could have been orchestrated into a clearer narrative itself. Nevertheless, this was a wonderful book, well written and revealing the life of a rare individual. I should like to have met him.
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on 9 February 2011
First of all, let's not kid ourselves. As a book about Henry Rawlinson and the Bisotun inscription, Empires of the Plain is engagingly written. Rawlinson comes across as a fascinating character and I really enjoyed reading about his efforts to copy the Bisotun inscription. However, if there's a great book to be written about Rawlinson, this isn't it.

It's not that there's anything particularly wrong with book, it's just that there's nothing particularly great about it. More to the point, once the action moves away from Bisotun the story slowly loses its fizz. There is some interesting history along the way - for example, Adkins describes just how the British foray into Afghanistan in the 1840s ended in disaster (and how it needn't have done) - but generally it goes into too much uninteresting detail about the excavations overseen by Austin Henry Layard, and about Rawlinson's bitter rivalry with the brilliant Irish clergyman, Edward Hincks.

That's one of my main criticisms, but I have some others as well. First of all, to anybody who has been to Bisotun to see the famous inscription, it should be obvious from the author's description that she has never done the same. I'm pretty sure the book was researched and written without the author having left the UK.

Not that this should matter, but it does lead to some glaring errors. For example, she mentions the variable nature of Persian place names when transliterated into English. This is true, but had she been to the town she would have known that the most common local spelling is "Bisotun". She likewise gets Taq-e Bostan and Naqsh-e Rostam wrong. It's true that these errors are found on the internet, but for a properly researched book it really isn't good enough. Even a quick glance at the Lonely Planet guide to Iran would have alerted her to the correct spellings.

More broadly, the book also feels unfinished. It is littered with signs of slack editing. On page 165, for example, we are informed that "in fact, Rawlinson had already repeatedly climbed up and down on the inscriptions without the aid of ladders, when he was based at Kermanshah." Heck, we already knew that - she told us the same thing in the previous chapters. This sort of repetition occurs quite a few times.

Otherwise we have situations like in chapter four, where she quotes Genesis 11 Verses 3-9 and then paraphrases the same for no good reason, or chapter three, in which she informs us that Ahuramazda means "great god" in Persian. Perhaps it does, but Ahuramazda is also the name of the deity in Zoroastrianism. She mentions this in subsequent references to Ahuramazda, but why didn't she say so in the first place? Zoroastrianism, moreover, is barely mentioned in the book. Considering that it was the state religion of one of the empires the book's title refers to, it is an astonishing omission.

Incidentally, this leads me to wonder: Since we can now read their writings, why aren't we told more about the lost civilisations that Rawlinson et al were rediscovering?

Perhaps I criticise too much, but for me these errors and lapses combine to take some of the shine off what is otherwise a readable account. The book feels like it was rushed into print, which is a pity because it could have been so much better. I just wish the author had spent the time to give it the final touch of polish it needs.
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on 19 October 2012
I am a historian and I recommand this book to all lovers of history, the book written about Henry Rawlinson nthat found the key to open the lost Babylonian Language which for thousands of years men did not know how to read them.
I purchased mored more copies to give away to friends.
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on 26 October 2003
Good but not great biography of Sir Henry Rawlinson, one of the many Victorian soldiers, administrators and diplomats who helped to uncover the history of India, Persia, Mesopotamia and other imperial possessions or trading partners. The treatment of cuneiform is expert, but that of Rawlinson's life is less sure, lacking the humour and feeling one associates with the best biographies. The uneven quality of the writing does not help - at times the prose is flat-footed and the discussion unilluminating ("Today three controversies still surround Noah's Ark...did it ever exist?").
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