Exploration, decipherment and heroism in the name of learning, from the author of 'The Keys Of Egypt'.
At Behistun, in the Zagros mountains of what is now western Iran, rises a vertical cliff face covered with a huge cuneiform inscription set up in 520 BC to record the exploits of the Persian king Darius the Great.
In 1835, Henry Creswicke Rawlinson began the perilous task of recording this inscription, sometimes from a ladder propped up on a narrow ledge, sometimes lowered down the cliff on a rope, but mainly clinging precariously to the rock face itself. Every minute he was in danger of a fatal fall - the work took 12 years to complete.
The decipherment of cuneiform was one of the last great linguistic challenges, though only one pinnacle in the life of a remarkable man - a soldier, adventurer and scholar - who was one-time political agent at Kandahar in Afghanistan, where he had been besieged for two years by local tribesman, and who went on to become consul-general and later a director of the East India Company.
At the time of the decipherment, excavations at Nineveh and Nimrud were producing spectacular results, with huge libraries full of clay tablets inscribed with writing on all sorts of subjects, from selling a slave to epic literature; the civilisations of Assyria and Babylonia were being rediscovered, and the factual content of the Old Testament being revealed - at the same time that evidence was emerging of even earlier civilisations that seemingly predated Creation.
In the manner of 'The Keys Of Egypt', 'Empires Of The Plain' intertwines the decipherment of cuneiform and its effects on nineteenth-century society with the life story of the main character, Rawlinson; though there are many other players too - from Henry Austen Layard, excavator of Nineveh; to King Darius the Great who first ordered a type of cuneiform to be invented for the language of Persia; to George Smith, who discovered a clay tablet with the earliest written record of the Biblical story of the Flood.