A surprisingly action-packed biography of the soldier, adventurer, athlete, scholar, and diplomat whose exploits in deciphering cuneiform scripts literally forced a revelation of the originality and depth of ancient Mesopotamian cultures onto a skeptical Western world.
Never mind that Sir Henry Rawlinson (1810–95) was essentially James Bond in the flesh a century before Ian Fleming was born. His ultimate impact, British reference-book author Adkins reminds us, was to finally wither the precept universally held in mid-19th-century that if Adam spoke to Eve it was in Hebrew, “the language that was spoken in Paradise.” An English schoolboy who once fretted that his grasp of Greek and Latin might clutter his mind, Rawlinson signed on in his teens as a subaltern in a regiment of native troops in colonial India, where he learned the required fluent Hindustani, then studied Persian. Posted with troops under his command to offer military aid and curry favor for the Empire with the Persian Shah, Rawlinson was eventually able in his spare time to range from Baghdad (then under Turkish rule) to indulge in what became his obsession: inspecting antiquities. His focus narrowed to the cuneiform inscriptions often carved into monuments of apparent great age, as well as pressed into clay tablets littered in mounds of ancient habitation all over the Middle East. At great personal risk, he climbed a sheer rock wall at Bisitun in Persia and, balanced on a rickety ladder, meticulously copied a cuneiform inscription ordained by King Darius in 520 b.c. proclaiming his greatness in three different languages. Adkins posits this, rather than Egypt’s Rosetta Stone, as ultimately the most significant cipher in finally unlocking ancient Sumerian languages (Assyrian and Babylonian), including original parables, law codes, and legends traceable thousands of years later in the Judeo-Christian Bible, including stories of Genesis and the Flood.
Well-told story of a life dedicated to scholarship, with great adventures and derring-do an unexpected bonus.