Sunday 8 November 2015

A Strange Script & A Self-made Scholar

Read Right to Left: Cypriot Script
Three lectures in 36 hours in Nicosia still left time to visit the archaeological museum with my PhD student, theatre director Magdalena Zira. One stunning inscription from the 6th century BCE, in the mysterious syllabic script of
With Magdalena at Theatro Ena
early Cyprus, led me to the working-class intellectual titan who made the first crucial steps in deciphering it, George Smith of Chelsea(1840-1876).

Father of Six & Outstanding Scholar
Brought up in a slum tenement, after minimal schooling in which he learned little except the Old Testament, Smith was apprenticed to an engraving company off Fleet Street at the age of 14. He spent every leisure minute in the British Museum poring over the recent finds from Nineveh and Babylon. He taught himself cuneiform, and got a low-paid post as a ‘repairer’, piecing together inscribed fragments. He became rather too indispensable to the great star of cuneiform studies,  Major-General Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson.

Deluge Tablet from Gilgamesh
Almost all of the 3rd and 4th volume of Rawlinson's Cuneiform Inscriptions was actually contributed by Smith, whose own works then changed the face of Assyrian Studies. Besides an avalanche of game-changing volumes including the enormous Annals of Assurbanipal,  he brought the world the Babylonian creation poem Enuma Elish. But his most famous feat was the sensational public reading in 1872 of his translation of the  account of the deluge from the Epic of Gilgamesh. This made it difficult to read the flood in the Old Testament as anything other than myth rather than history.

Discoverer of Gilgamesh Tablets
Smith miraculously deciphered Gilgamesh from the clay tablets discovered by the Assyrian Hormuzd Rassam. The translations Smith gave to the world between 1873 and 1876 changed our understanding of the history of literature for ever. His ‘cracking’ of the syllabary of Cyprus in 1871 was a mere bagatelle in comparison: scholars as effortlessly brilliant as Smith can make the rest of us despair.

Cypriot syllabic 'Alphabet'
Having rewritten biblical studies and invented Babylonian literature, as well as fathering six children, Smith died of dysentery at the age of 36 in Aleppo and was buried in the Protestant cemetery belonging to the Levant Company. I do not know whether his grave has survived the last few years.
Gravestone of a Cypriot Mother

Here is what the Nicosia Museum inscription actually says (it is also a funeral monument, perhaps for someone else who died before her time): [THIS GRAVESTONE BELONGS TO] TIMOKYPRA, DAUGHTER OF ONASIKYPROS. This sort of voice from the longlost past makes my hair stand on end.


  1. What a remarkable chap. Maurice Pope in his book 'The Story of Decipherment' gives him due recognition but suggests that he would have had better insight into the Cypriot script if he had known Greek.

  2. Thanks for this. I have huge respect for Maurice Pope, who taught me Homer, but do not understand on what evidence he assumed that Smith didn't know Greek.