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each letter being composed of several distinct wedges combined together. The following may be given as an example: —
m a- T ~v *r H «t* -v
This inscription contains the name of an Assyrian king and his title of king of Assyria. It is not improbable that these letters were originally formed by mere lines, for which the wedge was afterwards substituted as an embellishment; and that the character itself may once have resembled the picture writing of Egypt, though all traces of its ideographic properties have been lost. The Assyrians, like the Egyptians, possessed at a later period a cursive writing, resembling the rounded character of the Phoenicians, Palmyrenes, Babylonians, and Jews, which was probably used for written documents, whilst the cuneiform was reserved for monumental purposes. There is this great difference between the two forms of writing, which appears to point to a distinct origin, — the cuneiform runs always from left to right, the cursive from right to left.
The cuneiform under various modifications, the letters being differently formed in different countries, prevailed over the greater part of western Asia to the time of the overthrow of the Persian empire by Alexander the Great. It is to this circumstance that we mainly owe the progress which has been made in decyphering the Assyrian inscriptions, and the hope that we shall ultimately be able to ascertain, with some degree of certainty, their contents. The Persian kings ruled over all the nations using this peculiar form of writing. These nations consisted of three principal races, the Babylonian (including the Assyrian) speaking a language allied to the Hebrew and Arabic, the Persian, and the Tatar, the last two using dialects nearly approaching those still found amongst their descendants. When recording their victories, as was their custom, on rocks and pillars, these monarchs used the three languages spoken by their subjects. Such was the origin of what are called the trilingual inscriptions of Persia, which afford the principal clue to the Assyrian writing. The tablets containing these inscriptions are divided into three columns, each column being occupied by a version of the same inscription in one of the three national languages, and each language being written in the modification of the cuneiform character peculiar to it. Fortunately, the contents of the Persian inscriptions have long been accurately ascertained, and the alphabet and grammar reduced to a system. Owing, however, to the very large number of distinct characters in the Assyrian inscriptions, there being nearly 400 different signs, whilst in the Persian there are but thirty-nine or forty, and the great apparent laxity in the use of letters and the grammar, the process of decyphering is one of considerable difficulty, notwithstanding the aid which a version of the same inscription in a known tongue naturally supplies.
The most important trilingual inscriptions hitherto discovered are those on the palaces of Darius and Xerxes at Persepolis, over the tomb of Darius, and in the rock tablets of Behistun. The latter are by far the most extensive and valuable. They contain a history of the principal events of the reign of Darius, and giving a long list of countries and tribes subdued by that monarch, and the names of conquered kings and rebels, afford the best materials for decyphering the Assyrian character, proper names being the real clue to the value of letters. The inscriptions of Behistun are upon the face of a lofty precipice, so difficult of access, that Colonel Rawlinson has alone succeeded in copying them. He has printed the Persian column with a translation, but the corresponding Babylonian or Assyrian column is still in his possession, and the scientific world is anxiously awaiting the publication of an inscription which can afford the only trustworthy materials for decyphering the Assyrian records.
In the meanwhile, Colonel Rawlinson has communicated to the public, through the journals of the Royal Asiatic Society, some of the results of his own inquiries, which are of great interest and importance; and other scholars, amongst whom may be mentioned Dr. Hincks, have made such progress in decyphering the Assyrian character as the means at their disposal would permit. It is to Dr. Hincks we owe the determination of the numerals, the name of Sennacherib on the monuments of Kouyunjik and of Nebuchadnezzar on the bricks of Babylon— three very important and valuable discoveries. The actual state of our knowledge of the cuneiform character will enable us to ascertain the general contents of an inscription, although probably no one can yet give a literal translation of any one record, or the definite sound of many words.
The custom of engraving inscriptions on stone, as well as on baked clay, the two methods of perpetuating their annals adopted by the Assyrians, is of the very highest antiquity. The divine commands were first given to man on stone tables; Job is made to exclaim, "Oh that my words were now written ! . . . that they were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock for ever ;"* and Ezekiel, when prophesying on the river Chebar, was directed "to take
* Ch. xix. 23, 24,
a tile and portray upon it the city of Jerusalem." * There could have been no more durable method of preserving the national records; and the inscribed walls of palaces and rock tablets have handed down to us the only authentic history of ancient Assyria.
* Ch. iv. 1.