Tag Archives: Persia

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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Longitude doesn’t represent distance—there, I said it

In the last post I said I’d tell you how Eratosthanes knew how many degrees of longitude Benghazi is from Alexandria.

We know that lines or parallels of latitude are about 69 miles apart. Latitude measures degrees of two 90° quarter-circles, each starting at the Equator and ending at the poles. The Equator is 0° and the North & South poles are 90°.

Longitude measures time. Or to be more precise, longitude converts time into degrees of a 360° circle. “WHAT?” I hear you holler as you spring from your comfy chair. “Have you finally lost your marbles, Manders?”

Al-Biruni (973–1048), another one of those amazingly-accomplished scholars

Ptolemy’s geocentric vision of the universe reckoned that Earth doesn’t move—she is stationary while the heavens whirl around her. But a Persian scholar, Al-Biruni, thought that the Earth spins on her axis—just like the globe in your classroom. If that were true (and of course it is), you’ll realize that the Earth spins all the way around every day, every 24 hours.

I drew 24 sections on this sphere—for the 24 hours it takes for Earth to spin around on her axis. Each line is a meridian, a longitude line.

THAT CHANGES EVERYTHING! Mapmakers could divide the Earth’s surface into 24 units. Each unit would represent one hour. Each unit would also represent 15 degrees. Why? Because there are 360 degrees in a circle. 360 divided by 24 equals 15. Now I ask you, who was it who divided the day into two 12-hour halves? Who was it who came up with Base Sixty counting, which makes it so easy to divide 360 by 24? Who? WHO?

Thanks, Sumerians!

The Sumerians, that’s who! I love those guys!

Getting back to Eratosthanes’ experiment: if that lunar eclipse began at 12:36 am Alexandria time and midnight Benghazi time, Eratosthanes knew that Benghazi is 36 minutes west of Alexandria. The Earth rotates on her axis 360° every day, 15° every hour, and 1° every 4 minutes. So, 36 minutes difference in time from Alexandria to Benghazi ÷ 4 = 9 degrees of longitude. Thinking of a chunk of time as a chunk of a circle, Eratosthanes could confidently mark Benghazi’s longitude on a map.

https://www.britannica.com/biography/al-Biruni

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Meanwhile, in Persia—

With only a jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thousands of calculations, Omar Khayyám works out a new calendar

ad1075. In Persia, using the Hindu-Arabic decimal system, Omar Khayyam introduced a new calendar. The length of the year was measured as 365.24219858156 days and is very accurate. It didn’t catch on in the West.

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Omar-Khayyam-Persian-poet-and-astronomer

Omar Khayyam


https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/persian-calendar.html

Marathon

One of the important battles in the wars between the Greeks and Persians took place on the Plains of Marathon. Herodotus tells about how in 490 bc, when the Greeks were seriously outnumbered, a messenger named Pheidippides (Fay DIP e deez) ran from Athens to Sparta to get their help. Then he ran to Marathon to join the fight, THEN ran back to Athens to tell everybody that the Greeks won.

Around the world we still celebrate Pheidippides’ heroic run in races called marathons. If you run a marathon, it’s 26 miles and 385 yards—the distance from the Plains of Marathon to Athens. The very fastest runners have done it in a little over 2 hours!

Herodotus of Halicarnassus

Herodotus reading his Histories to the crowd

“These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.”

While the Greeks did think of time as a cycle, there was still a desire to reach back in time to remember stories from the past. We saw how Homer kept alive the story of the siege of Troy through his epic poem, the Iliad.

Herodotus (Hay ROD oh toos) was a Greek who lived in the fourth century bc and is thought to be the first historian. He wrote The Histories mostly about the wars between the Greeks and Persians and how they got started. Herodotus was a great storyteller, but what made him a historian is that he investigated, he did research—he got his information from several sources; he visited the places where the history took place; he went to the library; he interviewed people—then he arranged the information he’d gathered to explain how and why something happened.

I have a paperback copy of The Histories. It’s not an easy read, but I like to ‘dip into’ my copy and read whatever I open to. The battle of Thermopylae is in there—that story has since been made into a graphic novel and movie, The 300—and the battles of Marathon and Salamis. Herodotus included lots of oddball side-stories and observations, which are also fun. The Persian emperors Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes are in there (Xerxes is thought to be the party-boy king Ahasuerus from the biblical Book of Esther).

History is often about the big military battles and wars. I want this history, the one you’re reading right now, to be about ideas. But I’m telling you, if the Greeks hadn’t broken the will of the mighty Persian Empire and eventually beat ‘em, there would have been no flowering of art, literature, philosophy and democracy that happened after the wars—and was the Greeks’ gift to us.

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