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5.0 out of 5 stars The Victorians invariably inspire, 19 April 2009
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This review is from: Empires of the Plain: Henry Rawlinson and the Lost Languages of Babylon (Paperback)
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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