Meanwhile, in Egypt…

Crescent moon

Crescent roll


I was telling you about the Sumerians and we kind of zoomed ahead to the Persian Empire because I needed to tell you how we are able to translate cuneiform. We skipped over a few thousand years and if I keep doing that this is going to be a really short book. So let’s pause for a moment and drift back to 6,000 bc or so and travel west from Mesopotamia to the northern edge of Africa—to Egypt. Just like the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, people settled along the banks of the Nile River because it was easy to grow food there. In fact, the area that contains all three rivers is known as the Fertile Crescent—where civilization got its start.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fertile_Crescent
https://www.almanac.com/content/captivating-crescent-moon

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Crytograms


“A cryptogram is a type of puzzle that consists of a short piece of encrypted text. Generally the cipher used to encrypt the text is simple enough that the cryptogram can be solved by hand. Substitution ciphers where each letter is replaced by a different letter or number are frequently used. To solve the puzzle, one must recover the original lettering. Though once used in more serious applications, they are now mainly printed for entertainment in newspapers and magazines.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryptogram

Have you ever solved a cryptogram puzzle? At first it looks pretty difficult. I’ll tell you the secret to solving them: look for the shortest words. Especially words of only one letter—that’ll be either ‘a’ or ‘I.’ Two-letter words will be ‘an, or, to, so, at, of, it, if, is…’ you get the idea. After you solve one or two short words you can more easily guess at the longer ones. If you find ‘a,’ then a 3-letter word ‘A_ _’ may be ‘and, any, are, all’. ‘E’ occurs most often in English, so look for the cypher (the substitute letter) in the puzzle that occurs most often.

If you were a 19th-century British cadet serving in Iran and you wanted to solve the riddle of cuneiform, you’d use that method. Rawlinson was solving a cryptogram. Rawlinson wanted to read the Persian version of Darius’ proclamation. He spoke modern Persian (Farsi). His first step was to look for commonly-used words. For instance, the inscription begins: ‘King Darius proclaims.’ Then Darius repeatedly offers thanks to the god Ahura Mazda. Rawlinson may have started there, and used symbols from those words to figure out the other ones.

https://api.razzlepuzzles.com/cryptogram
https://www.ancient.eu/Darius_I/

Related side note: During World War II, the heroic Englishman Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code used by the Germans to send secret messages. In the biopic The Imitation Game, Turing looked for the words ‘Heil Hitler’ which appeared in every message.
https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/how-alan-turing-cracked-the-enigma-code
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2084970/

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The man who cracked the cuneiform code

Henry Creswicke Rawlinson

Now we skip ahead a couple thousand years to ad 1833. By that time Persia found herself part of a bigger empire: The British Empire, the Raj. Like Darius, the Brits had governors to oversee and manage their conquered nations. British Royal Army officers trained Persian soldiers to maintain peace. Among those British officers was a young cadet named Henry Creswicke Rawlinson. He had an interest in foreign language—I’m telling you, the British Empire was chock full of Englishmen with a flair for languages.* Rawlinson had learned to speak Farsi—the Persian language of the native soldiers. Rawlinson was quartered in the village of Behistun. Carved into a rock looking down on the village was one of Darius’ trilingual proclamations. One day Rawlinson decided to climb that rock and write down, as best as he could manage, all 3 versions of the proclamation.

One version of Darius’ proclamation was written in Old Persian. Since Rawlinson spoke Farsi—modern Persian, he could just about work out what the proclamation said. After he got the Persian part, he could begin the work of translating the other two—and deciphering cuneiform.

* In India, British officers in command of native troops were expected to learn the language of their men. I don’t know how many officers did learn, but it would have been a big achievement. It’s a lot harder to learn a different language when you’re grown up than it is when you’re a kid.

https://www.livius.org/articles/person/darius-the-great/6-organizing-the-empire/
https://www.britannica.com/place/Bisitun#ref99616

Henry Rawlinson and the Mesopotamian Cuneiform


https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-Creswicke-Rawlinson
https://royalasiaticsociety.org/sir-henry-creswicke-rawlinson-1810-1895/

The Politics of Persian Language Education in Colonial India


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Indian_Army

I, Darius, proclaim

And in what language were Darius’ messages written? The Persian Empire was a big place. By the time Darius was in charge, he ruled over different cultures that spoke/read different languages. To make sure everybody got the message when he made official announcements, Darius had them translated. For instance, there’s a royal proclamation carved in stone near Behistun, a village in Iran. It’s written 3 times, in 3 languages: Babylonian, Old Persian, and Elamite. To drive the message home, there are pictures helpfully carved into the stone for people who couldn’t read.

The proclamation at Behistun tells the story of how Darius’ throne was stolen while he was away, how Darius returned and killed the usurper, how Darius then conquered the nations that were now part of the Persian Empire, and how those nations would be overseen by Persian governors (satraps). When Darius took over he had these proclamations put up all over his empire.

https://www.tasnimnews.com/en/news/2017/04/03/1364911/the-behistun-inscription-a-multilingual-inscription
https://www.livius.org/articles/concept/satraps-and-satrapies/
https://www.ancient.eu/Persian_Governor/

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The Persian Postal Service

Darius built a road system to criss-cross the Persian Empire. His roads made it possible to send messages back and forth at unheard-of speed. There were changing stations along the way so his messengers could get a fresh horse and a meal. Persian royal mounted messengers became the primo reliable mail service. The Greek historian Herodotus’ description of their dependability became the unofficial motto of the United States Postal Service in our time—“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

Ancient Persia’s Pony Express

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Darius the Great

As you look at those old, old clay tablets with the weird, impossible-to-read cuneiform inscriptions, you have to wonder: how do we know what’s written on them? None of those symbols seem to resemble anything we recognize today. Yet somehow we got the epic of Gilgamesh.

Who figured it out? Who cracked the code? How was cuneiform deciphered?

Good question. To be honest, it was only a hundred or so years ago that archæologists even found out there were Sumerians living in Mesopotamia. The land between the rivers was very desirable real estate—people who didn’t live there really wanted to live there. When a nation wants to take over a piece of land, its army usually straps on armor and makes war on the people who live there. It’s a bad old world we live in, gang. So the Sumerians were conquered by the Akkadians who were conquered by the Babylonians who were conquered by the Persians.

At one point, the Persians’ head guy—the emperor, the shahanshah (king of kings)—was Darius the Great. What made him so great? Well, for one thing, he was a monster for organization and standardization. In other words, he liked understandable systems for complicated things. He liked it when merchandise weighed and cost the same wherever he went. Darius made weights and measures standard throughout the empire. He instituted universal currency—coins—which made it a whole lot easier to do business, because everybody knew how much something cost.

https://www.livius.org/articles/person/darius-the-great/6-organizing-the-empire/

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In case you hadn’t remember’d—

John Manders' Blog

(Originally posted Oct 25, 2013)

Happy St Crispin’s Day!

But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.Spoken by Henry; from William Shakespeare’s Henry V, Act IV Scene 3

Gang, this beautiful language is our inheritance—a gift to us from people long gone. Here is the entire scene. More info here. If you saw the Queen Elizabeth movie that came out a few years ago, you’ll remember Cate Blanchett in armor giving a speech to her troops just before they battle the Spanish. I assumed the screenwriters had…

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The Bull of Heaven

There are so many fun visual elements in the Gilgamesh story. I think it would make a terrific graphic novel, like 300.

One lively part is when Ishtar, the Goddess of Love, wants Gilgamesh for her boyfriend. Gilgamesh says no, Ishtar gets steamed and asks the other gods to send the Bull of Heaven down to Earth to destroy him (am I the only one who thinks it really funny that the gods worry about the Bull leaving giant-sized cow-flops all over the landscape? I am? Oh). Gilgamesh and Enkidu have to fight for their lives against the Bull. For the ancient Sumerians, the Bull of Heaven was/is a constellation—a group of stars. Thousands of years later we still call that constellation ‘Taurus’—Latin for ‘Bull.’

http://www.seasky.org/constellations/constellation-taurus.html
http://www.mesopotamia.co.uk/gods/explore/bullheav.html
http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section1/tr1812.htm
Hey, look at Douglas De La Hoz’ interpretation of the Gilgamesh story!
https://hozart.artstation.com/projects/nQOq1K
Lynnie McIlvain shows us some parallels between Gilgamesh and Homer’s epics and the Bible—
https://www.thecollector.com/epic-of-gilgamesh/

I realize now I should have put horns on my Enkidu character design.

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That dirty rotten Rochefort

Here’s a little scene from The Three Musketeers where our hero, D’Artagnan,  recovers from having been knocked out by Rochefort’s henchmen. Rochefort has a quick conversation with Milady DeWinter—and you can see that he has stolen D’Artagnan’s letter. That scoundrel!

Reference photos (yes, that’s a Wells-Fargo stagecoach), thumbnail sketch, tight sketch, color sketch, work in progress, final art—bon appetit!

Christopher Lee and the astonishingly lovely Faye Dunaway

The birth of Western Lit

Literature, that is.

Because of the cuneiform writing system and the scribes who could write in it, the Sumerians left us a beautiful gift: the first ever epic poem, Gilgamesh.

We have this treasure because of a disaster—the library at Nineveh burned to the ground. But here’s the good news: the cuneiform books and records were written on clay tablets and so they were fired in the blaze. They became as hard as pottery and lasted though the ages.

Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh is the hero of this story. He’s semi-divine—both god and human. Gilgamesh has been translated into modern English. You can likely find a copy at your library. Parts of Gilgamesh are rated R so you probably shouldn’t read it until you’re at least 30. But, because I’m a prince of a fellow, I will tell you the entire (cleaned-up) epic poem in one sentence—

The gods create Enkidu

Gilgamesh is two-thirds god and one-third man he’s the super strong handsome king of Uruk a Sumerian city he built towers and walls and orchards well he didn’t he made everybody else do all the back-breaking work because Gilgamesh is a cruel king who goes around kissing other people’s wives of course nobody is happy about this so the people pray to the gods and the gods create a man-beast Enkidu who is strong enough to teach Gilgamesh a lesson Enkidu is a hairy wild savage he lives in the forest with the animals a hunter finds Enkidu and brings him to a temple where a priestess gives Enkidu a kiss and all his hair falls off and all the animals reject him because now he’s civilized Enkidu goes to Uruk and has an almighty wrestling match with Gilgamesh afterwards Gilgamesh and Enkidu are best buds they go to the forbidden cedar forest and fight and kill the terrible monster Humbaba who was guarding it when they get back to Uruk the goddess Ishtar chooses Gilgamesh to be her boyfriend but Gilgamesh says no thank you ma’am your boyfriends tend to die unpleasantly so Ishtar is pretty steamed and sends the Bull of Heaven to punish him Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight the Bull and kill him the gods say this is a problem and decide Enkidu must die Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh is heartbroken so he sets off to find the meaning of life and achieve immortality he needs to meet Utnapishtim who is immortal Gilgamesh travels to the mountain Mashu and convinces 2 gigantic scorpions to let him through the tunnel under the mountain on the other side is a beautiful garden Gilgamesh meets Siduri who owns a restaurant she tells him to give up looking for immortality and just enjoy his life but Gilgamesh isn’t convinced so Urshanabi the ferryman takes Gilgamesh on a boat across the Sea of Death to Utnapishtim who tells Gilgamesh all about the Flood and how the gods decided to destroy humankind but Ea the god of wisdom warned Utnapishtim and told him to build a really big boat Utnapishtim built it and loaded his family and every kind of animal into the boat after the flood was over the gods said okay that was a bad idea sorry dude we’ll never do that again and they gave Utnapishtim immortality Gilgamesh says I want to live forever too so Utnapishtim says okay hotshot you can be immortal if you can stay awake for a week but Gilgamesh can’t do it so Utnapishtim sends Gilgamesh back home Utnapishtim’s wife tells Gilgamesh about a plant of Eternal Life Gilgamesh finds the plant and means to take it with him but a snake eats it so Gilgamesh returns to Uruk with nothing bupkis nada but he’s older and wiser and he realizes that Kansas isn’t so bad after all.

Enkidu runs with the animals

Gilgamesh isn’t merely the first epic story. It’s a blueprint for all the stories that followed. Every great story has an arc—a character moves from Point A to Point Z and undergoes a transformation. His character is fundamentally changed. Gilgamesh starts out a selfish bully and ends humbled by his experiences, and wiser. The same kind of arc happens to Lightning McQueen in the Pixar movie Cars. Lightning is a selfish and self-centered user; an accident resulting from his selfishness forces him to spend time with characters in a place way outside his narrow world; in the end Lightning values and cherishes his new friends and his life is richer for them. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale is unhappy with her dull life on a Kansas farm; when her dog’s life is threatened she and Toto run away from home; she has a whirlwind adventure in Oz; when Dorothy returns she realizes how blessed her life is—and maybe now has the moral strength to stand up to Miss Gulch and protect her little dog.

The temple priestess gives Enkidu a kiss

Gilgamesh is about a hero who refuses to accept life without meaning. That theme is universal, which means we all feel that way. Everybody wants to leave something behind. Gilgamesh left behind towers and walls and orchards, but the story he left behind is the most enduring.

Enkidu loses his hair and becomes civilized

Side note: You alert readers will have noticed one or two details that can be found in the Hebrew Bible: a beautiful garden, a global flood and the man who preserves creation by putting a pair of every species in a big boat, a Tree of Life (and a treacherous serpent nearby). It’s no secret. The Bible uses themes from ancient Middle Eastern story-telling. The big difference is that—unlike Gilgamesh—the heroes of the Bible are all regular schmoes. No immortals, no demigods. The God of Abraham linked His destiny with ordinary people like you and me.

https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/gilgamesh/summary/
https://www.ancient.eu/gilgamesh/

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