Tag Archives: raj

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