Empires of the Plain

Paperback Version
UK paperback

Publication Details

Empires of the Plain: Henry Rawlinson and the Lost Languages of Babylon by Lesley Adkins is published in the UK in paperback by Harper Perennial, and in hardcover in the US and Canada by Thomas Dunne Books (an imprint of St Martin’s Press). HarperCollins is now selling e-books of this title.

Available Rights

Apart from World English language, Polish and Bulgarian rights, all other rights for Empires of the Plain are currently available. Please contact me directly for further information. In Poland the book is published as Runą Mury Babilonu by Wydawnictwo Amber. In Bulgaria, it is published in paperback by Riva Publishing.

Paperback Version
UK paperback

Bulgarian Cover

Polish Cover

Summary of the Book

Empires of the Plain is is a highly topical book, because it is set in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and India. As such, it is an essential read for anyone wanting to understand the historical background of this region in the early- to mid-nineteenth century. The book concentrates on the entertaining story of Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, a fearless soldier, sportsman and imperial adventurer of the first rank, who spent twenty-five years 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, Rawlinson became obsessed with cuneiform, the world’s earliest writing. The key to understanding the many cuneiform scripts and languages was an immense inscription high on a sheer rock face at Bisitun (or Behistun) in the mountains of western Iran, carved on the orders of King Darius the Great of Persia over 2,000 years ago.

Hardback Version
Henry Rawlinson at the age of 40, sitting at a desk covered with sheets of cuneiform drawings, as painted by Henry Wyndham Phillips

Only Rawlinson had the physical and intellectual skills, courage, self-motivation and opportunity to make the perilous ascent and copy the monument. This was no ordinary inscription, but was written in three languages and three cuneiform scripts, like an enormous Rosetta Stone. Equipped with copies of this inscription, Rawlinson was in an enviable position to tackle decipherment of cuneiform. While based for many years in Baghdad, he also became involved in the very first excavations of the ancient mounds of Mesopotamia, sites like Nineveh and Babylon that produced many more cuneiform inscriptions, and his success in decipherment 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 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.

Rawlinson’s Early Life

Henry Rawlinson was born in 1810 in the large manor house within the village of Chadlington in north Oxfordshire, close to the town of Chipping Norton. Here he spent much of his childhood on an idyllic estate of several hundred acres. The manor house still survives, next to the church, but much of Wychwood Forest to the south has been cleared, so the view from the house has changed greatly. There are reminders today of the Rawlinson family in Chadlington. Set in the west wall of the manor house is a plaque commemorating the life of Henry Rawlinson, while Coronation Cottage nearby celebrates the astounding win his father had at the Derby with a horse by the name of Coronation. In West Chadlington, the modern Rawlinson Close keeps the family name alive, while in the church a stained glass window commemorates Henry’s father Abram and his mother.

Looking northwestwards to the manor house and church at Chadlington in Oxfordshire
Looking northwestwards to the manor house and church at Chadlington in Oxfordshire

Stained glass window in memory of Henry Rawlinson’s parents
Stained glass window in memory of Henry Rawlinson’s parents

As a young boy, Henry also spent much time at Bristol, where he lived with his aunt and uncle in Park Street on what was then the very edge of the city. His uncle Richard Smith was a surgeon, who became infamous for what he did with the skin of the hanged man he had dissected in front of a large audience. Henry’s aunt, Anna Smith, was part of a large literary circle in Bristol, many of whom were also involved in the campaign to abolish slavery. At the age of eleven, Henry began to spend less and less time at Chadlington and Bristol, because he was sent away to various boarding schools, his last one being at Ealing, then a village near London, and not as today part of the urban sprawl.

The East India Company

In 1827 Rawlinson went to India as a military cadet of the East India Company’s army, based initially at Bombay, a city on the west coast that is today known as Mumbai. Military duties were not onerous, which left Rawlinson plenty of time to engage in his passions of horseracing and the hunting of game. At that time India abounded in wildlife, and so nobody around him was bothered by conservation issues. Unusually for a man of his age, he also had other passions: history, languages and buying books. He was so good at languages that he became an interpreter in his regiment, and in 1833 he was chosen to go to Persia because of his excellent knowledge of Persian. It was in Persia (today known as Iran) that he became obsessed with ancient cuneiform writing.

What is Cuneiform?

Cuneiform literally means ‘of wedge-shaped form’ and is probably the earliest writing in the world, first invented by accountants to keep track of produce entering and leaving the palaces of Mesopotamia. It gradually became more complex, so that it was used for writing down languages, not just lists. It may have been ‘picture writing’ at a very early date, but most cuneiform writing that we see on monuments, clay tablets, relief sculptures and so on resembles abstract strokes and arrows. The Persian king Darius the Great unwittingly helped the decipherment of cuneiform enormously, because he actually invented a simplified form of cuneiform that could be used to write down the language of Old Persian.

When Rawlinson first went to Persia, cuneiform was barely understood, although a German, Georg Grotefend, had made a useful attempt to work out the meaning of the signs. As well as being gifted in languages, both ancient and modern, Rawlinson had the good fortune to be posted to Kermanshah, a remote town in the west of Iran in the Zagros mountains, just a few miles from a rock-cut monument at Bisitun that turned out to be far more significant than Egypt’s Rosetta Stone. Cuneiform was a writing system, not a language. This is rather like Roman letters today, which are used to write down many languages, such as English, German, French, Swedish, Spanish, and so on.

On the rock face of the Bisitun mountain, the Persian king Darius the Great had ordered a huge inscription to be carved, with the same message written in three different languages, all carved in cuneiform writing. One of those languages was Old Persian, carved in Darius’s newly invented cuneiform, and the other two languages were Babylonian and Elamite. Rather fortunately, after the monument was completed, Darius ordered all access to it to be quarried away, so nobody could reach it and deface it. It was far too difficult for anyone to climb, until the intrepid Rawlinson came along. With nerves of steel, he repeatedly climbed up to the monument, copying at his peril the enormous inscription, which in the end gave him the key to deciphering two of the languages, Babylonian and Old Persian, and greatly helped with the third, Elamite.

The Bisitun mountain: the cuneiform monument is just right of centre
The Bisitun mountain: the cuneiform monument is just right of centre

Rawlinson’s drawing of part of the cuneiform inscription at Bisitun
Rawlinson’s drawing of part of the cuneiform inscription at Bisitun

The cuneiform inscription and relief sculptures of Darius the Great at Bisitun
The cuneiform inscription and relief sculptures of Darius the Great at Bisitun

Afghanistan to Iraq

All did not go smoothly with the work at Bisitun, as Rawlinson was sent to Afghanistan, to become embroiled in the First Anglo-Afghan War. He was based for around two years as the political agent (diplomat) in Kandahar, a city that has appeared in the news so often following the events of September 11 2001. While much of the British Army perished, Rawlinson survived, and accepted a posting to Baghdad, where he remained for twelve years. Apart from his diplomatic duties, he made two expeditions back into Persia to copy more of the Bisitun monument, and also continued his cuneiform decipherment work, making many discoveries while based in the British Residency at Baghdad by the Tigris river. Also in Baghdad he made the acquaintance of Austen Henry Layard, who began to excavate the huge ancient mounds of Nineveh and Nimrud, with astounding and unsuspected results. When Layard finally gave up his work, Rawlinson became much more involved in the excavation of Iraq’s ancient cities. He was not without rivals in his decipherment work, as many others were working on the problem, and Rawlinson’s biggest threat was Edward Hincks, a brilliant scholar and parish priest from Ireland, but whose worst enemy was lack of money.

Part of the British Residency at Baghdad, where the decipherment of cuneiform took place
Part of the British Residency at Baghdad, where the decipherment of cuneiform took place

Baghdad in the 1850s, with the Tigris River and an East India Company steamer, as viewed from the British Residency
Baghdad in the 1850s, with the Tigris River and an East India Company steamer, as viewed from the British Residency

Even when he retired to England, Rawlinson continued his work at the British Museum, helping other students, including George Smith, who became so proficient that he was taken on as an employee of the museum. Smith made the astounding discovery on one clay tablet that there was a story of the flood similar to that in the Old Testament, but much earlier in date. This was exciting, yet disturbing news, and resulted in the Daily Telegraph sponsoring Smith to undertake further excavations at Nineveh. Rawlinson married late in life, as did Layard. He had two sons, but his wife died tragically early. He himself kept busy right to his death at the age of 84, most notably as a Member of Parliament, with the Royal Asiatic Society, Royal Geographical Society, as a Trustee of the British Museum, and as a Director of the East India Company.

Excerpt: Introduction – ‘RAWLINSON’S ROCK’

Henry Rawlinson was hanging by his arms, watched in horror by his two companions. What had stopped him plunging to his death was the grip of his hands on the remaining length of wood that bridged the gap in the ledge – the ledge beneath the great cuneiform inscription cut into the side of a mountain at Bisitun in Persia. Years before, Rawlinson had thought nothing of climbing up and down this perpendicular rock with nobody to help him, defying the intentions of Darius the Great, King of Persia, who more than two thousand years earlier had ordered the cliff face below his monument to be cut back and smoothed to prevent anyone climbing up and vandalizing it. Rawlinson was no longer an agile young soldier, but a thirty-four-year-old diplomat in Baghdad, yet he had lost none of his mountaineering expertise and remained physically fit through horse riding and hunting. He had made the long journey on horseback to Bisitun with ropes, ladders and men to try to copy much more of the inscription, as well as the enormous relief sculpture itself. It was only for a few moments that Rawlinson clung to the piece of wood across the break in the ledge…..


Rawlinson’s Rock
Chapter 1 – Into India
Chapter 2 – From Poona to Panwell
Chapter 3 – In the Service of the Shah
Chapter 4 – The Cuneiform Conundrum
Chapter 5 – Discovering Darius
Chapter 6 – Bewitched by Bisitun
Chapter 7 – Royal Societies
Chapter 8 – An Afghan Adventure
Chapter 9 – Back to Baghdad
Chapter 10 – Introduction to Layard
Chapter 11 – Old Persian Published
Chapter 12 – Nimrud, Niffer and Nineveh
Chapter 13 – An Irish Intruder
Chapter 14 – Battling with Babylonian
Chapter 15 – A Brief Encouter
Chapter 16 – Celebrity
Chapter 17 – Rivals
Chapter 18 – Magic at Borsippa
Chapter 19 – The Final Test
Digging Down to Babylon

Some Reviews

‘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 … Sir Henry Rawlinson was essentially James Bond in the flesh a century before Ian Fleming was born … Well-told story of a life dedicated to scholarship, with great adventures and derring-do an unexpected bonus’ (Kirkus Reviews)

‘Reading this absorbing biography of the 19th-century soldier-scholar Henry Rawlinson, one cannot help hearing, from time to time, the resonances of more recent events … Lesley Adkins, who published a fine study of the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics a few years ago, keeps her main focus here on the story of the heroic struggle to unlock the secrets of cuneiform. But she does not neglect the other aspects of Rawlinson’s career … Adkins has a good eye for colourful detail; but this is not a sensationalist book … The difference between past and present is striking here. If a British researcher returned from Iraq today with news of such a discovery, it would be nice to think that The Daily Telegraph might rise to the occasion, but quite impossible to imagine that the Prime Minister would attend the lecture. More than one lost world is brought to life in this book’ (Noel Malcolm, Sunday Telegraph)

‘A lively account’ (Maggie Hartford, Oxford Times)

‘insightful page-turner of a biography’ (Stuart Ferguson, The Wall Street Journal)

‘An erudite, adventurous tale’ (Maggie McDonald, New Scientist)

‘Like a Boy’s Own adventure serial, Empires of the Plain begins with a moment of suspense … Adkins’s account is sympathetic to both sides of Rawlinson’s personality … a Victorian Indiana Jones: tough, glamorous and, for many years, alluringly single’ (Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Telegraph)

‘Empires of the Plain is a welcome addition to history writing on the archaeological exploration of the Near East’ (The Times)

Our comment: The Times reviewer, by the way, said that the book failed to mention a very important episode that ‘created a stir’ when first revealed in a book published in 1994. He was referring to a British Museum curator (William Vaux) sending Rawlinson unpublished research material of Edward Hincks. As I state in my book, I concentrated largely on the early life of Rawlinson, but this episode took place in 1854, right towards the end of the book. To all intents and purposes Rawlinson (along with Hincks) had by now deciphered cuneiform. Rawlinson only received the material at the end of 1854, just when his cuneiform studies were eclipsed by his bitter disappointment at not getting a much-coveted job in Tehran and at the same time having a serious fall from a horse, leading to his retirement back to England. The incident says much more about the complex and difficult relationship that Hincks had with the British Museum and so was going beyond the scope of my book. I did, though, add a sentence in the paperback edition (page 332) just to show its context, before others are misled into thinking that Rawlinson’s many years of decipherment work depended on Hincks. As I explain on page 336 of Empires of the Plain, Talbot urged Hincks to get the British Museum to publish his work, but Hincks was by then too embittered to do so: his own worst enemy.

‘Lesley Adkins tells the tale with considerable panache and scholarly detail’ (Nonesuch, the University of Bristol alumni magazine)

These are just a handful of the reviews sent by readers (we never thought of collating the initial ones that were sent):

‘I finished reading “Empires of the Plain” last week. Thank you for all your work. It helps me to understand the “why” of so much’ (DH from Wisconsin, USA)

‘Just finished reading “Empires of the Plain” – fascinating and informative. I learned a lot from this book’ (SJ, USA)

‘I am orignally from Iran and have seen the Bistun carvings … Thank you for this breathtaking adventure!’ (MS, Birmingham)

‘I am currently reading your book “Empires of the Plain” and I am fascinated by it (not the least since part of it is situated in Afghanistan, where I currently live and work as development worker)’ (JT in Kabul, Afghanistan)

‘I think of you with fondness every time I walk by [a framed picture of Behistun] as you made Rawlinson and Behistun come alive. I must read it again’ (BH, Florida)

‘I have just finished reading Empires of the Plain and wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed it. I read a favorable review in the Wall Street Journal … You took a potentially boring subject and turned it into adventure with history thrown in’ (SG, Illinois, USA)

Our comment: This reader added that thanks to Amazon, she in rural Illinois now had access to books that a few years ago would have been very difficult to find.