Behistun Inscription

Coordinates: 34°23′26″N 47°26′9″E / 34.39056°N 47.43583°E / 34.39056; 47.43583
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UNESCO World Heritage Site
Punishment of captured impostors and conspirators: Gaumāta lies under the boot of Darius the Great. The last person in line, wearing a traditional Scythian hat and costume, is identified as Skunkha. His image was added after the inscription was completed, requiring some of the text to be removed.
LocationMount Behistun, Kermanshah Province, Iran
CriteriaCultural: ii, iii
Inscription2006 (30th Session)
Area187 ha
Buffer zone361 ha
Coordinates34°23′26″N 47°26′9″E / 34.39056°N 47.43583°E / 34.39056; 47.43583
Behistun Inscription is located in West and Central Asia
Behistun Inscription
Location of Behistun Inscription in West and Central Asia
Behistun Inscription is located in Iran
Behistun Inscription
Behistun Inscription (Iran)

The Behistun Inscription (also Bisotun, Bisitun or Bisutun; Persian: بیستون, Old Persian: Bagastana, meaning "the place of god") is a multilingual Achaemenid royal inscription and large rock relief on a cliff at Mount Behistun in the Kermanshah Province of Iran, near the city of Kermanshah in western Iran, established by Darius the Great (r. 522–486 BC). It was important to the decipherment of cuneiform, as it is the longest known trilingual cuneiform inscription, written in Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian (a variety of Akkadian).

Authored by Darius the Great sometime between his coronation as king of the Persian Empire in the summer of 522 BC and his death in autumn of 486 BC, the inscription begins with a brief autobiography of Darius, including his ancestry and lineage. Later in the inscription, Darius provides a lengthy sequence of events following the death of Cambyses II in which he fought nineteen battles in a period of one year (ending in December 521 BC) to put down multiple rebellions throughout the Persian Empire. The inscription states in detail that the rebellions were orchestrated by several impostors and their co-conspirators in various cities throughout the empire, each of whom falsely proclaimed himself king during the upheaval following Cambyses II's death. Darius the Great proclaimed himself victorious in all battles during the period of upheaval, attributing his success to the "grace of Ahura Mazda".

The inscription is approximately 15 m (49 ft) high by 25 m (82 ft) wide and 100 m (330 ft) up a limestone cliff from an ancient road connecting the capitals of Babylonia and Media (Babylon and Ecbatana, respectively). The Old Persian text contains 414 lines in five columns; the Elamite text includes 260 lines in eight columns, and the Babylonian text is in 112 lines.[1][2] A copy of the text in Aramaic, written during the reign of Darius II, was found in Egypt.[3] The inscription was illustrated by a life-sized bas-relief of Darius I, the Great, holding a bow as a sign of kingship, with his left foot on the chest of a figure lying supine before him. The supine figure is reputed to be the pretender Gaumata. Darius is attended to the left by two servants, and nine one-meter figures stand to the right, with hands tied and rope around their necks, representing conquered peoples. A Faravahar floats above, giving its blessing to the king. One figure appears to have been added after the others were completed, as was Darius's beard, which is a separate block of stone attached with iron pins and lead.


Darius at Behistun
Full figure of Darius trampling rival Gaumata.
Head of Darius with crenellated crown

After the fall of the Persian Empire's Achaemenid Dynasty and its successors, and the lapse of Old Persian cuneiform writing into disuse, the nature of the inscription was forgotten, and fanciful explanations became the norm. For centuries, instead of being attributed to Darius the Great, it was believed to be from the reign of Khosrau II of Persia—one of the last Sassanid kings, who lived over 1000 years after the time of Darius the Great.

The inscription is mentioned by Ctesias of Cnidus, who noted its existence some time around 400 BC and mentioned a well and a garden beneath the inscription. He incorrectly concluded that the inscription had been dedicated "by Queen Semiramis of Babylon to Zeus". Tacitus also mentions it and includes a description of some of the long-lost ancillary monuments at the base of the cliff, including an altar to "Herakles". What has been recovered of them, including a statue dedicated in 148 BC, is consistent with Tacitus's description. Diodorus also writes of "Bagistanon" and claims it was inscribed by Semiramis.

Route to inscription at upper right.
Context of the inscription (centre) in 2010. A person is visible in the lower left; reaching the inscription requires climbing the steep cliff face in front of them, then traversing a narrow ledge.

A legend began around Mount Behistun (Bisotun), as written about by the Persian poet and writer Ferdowsi in his Shahnameh (Book of Kings) c. 1000 AD, about a man named Farhad, who was a lover of King Khosrow's wife, Shirin. The legend states that, exiled for his transgression, Farhad was given the task of cutting away the mountain to find water; if he succeeded, he would be given permission to marry Shirin. After many years and the removal of half the mountain, he did find water, but was informed by Khosrow that Shirin had died. He went mad, threw his axe down the hill, kissed the ground and died. It is told in the book of Khosrow and Shirin that his axe was made out of a pomegranate tree, and, where he threw the axe, a pomegranate tree grew with fruit that would cure the ill. Shirin was not dead, according to the story, and mourned upon hearing the news.

In 1598, Englishman Robert Sherley saw the inscription during a diplomatic mission to Safavid Persia on behalf of Austria, and brought it to the attention of Western European scholars. His party incorrectly came to the conclusion that it was Christian in origin.[4] French General Gardanne thought it showed "Christ and his twelve apostles", and Sir Robert Ker Porter thought it represented the Lost Tribes of Israel and Shalmaneser of Assyria.[5] In 1604, Italian explorer Pietro della Valle visited the inscription and made preliminary drawings of the monument.[6]

Translation efforts[edit]

Column 1 (DB I 1–15), sketch by Friedrich von Spiegel (1881).
Behistun papyrus with an Aramaic translation of the Behistun inscription's text, known as TAD C2.1.

German surveyor Carsten Niebuhr visited in around 1764 for Frederick V of Denmark, publishing a copy of the inscription in the account of his journeys in 1778.[7] Niebuhr's transcriptions were used by Georg Friedrich Grotefend and others in their efforts to decipher the Old Persian cuneiform script. Grotefend had deciphered ten of the 37 symbols of Old Persian by 1802, after realizing that unlike the Semitic cuneiform scripts, Old Persian text is alphabetic and each word is separated by a vertical slanted symbol.[8]

The Old Persian text was copied and deciphered before recovery and copying of the Elamite and Babylonian inscriptions had even been attempted, which proved to be a good deciphering strategy, since Old Persian script was easier to study due to its alphabetic nature and because the language it represents had naturally evolved via Middle Persian to the living modern Persian language dialects, and was also related to the Avestan language, used in the Zoroastrian book the Avesta.

In 1835, Sir Henry Rawlinson, an officer of the British East India Company army assigned to the forces of the Shah of Iran, began studying the inscription in earnest. As the town of Bisotun's name was anglicized as "Behistun" at this time, the monument became known as the "Behistun Inscription". Despite its relative inaccessibility, Rawlinson was able to scale the cliff with the help of a local boy and copy the Old Persian inscription. The Elamite was across a chasm, and the Babylonian four meters above; both were beyond easy reach and were left for later. In 1847, he was able to send a full and accurate copy to Europe.[9]

With the Persian text, and with about a third of the syllabary made available to him by the work of Georg Friedrich Grotefend, Rawlinson set to work on deciphering the text.[9] The first section of this text contained a list of the same Persian kings found in Herodotus but in their original Persian forms as opposed to Herodotus's Greek transliterations; for example Darius is given as the original Dâryavuš instead of the Hellenized Δαρειος. By matching the names and the characters, Rawlinson deciphered the type of cuneiform used for Old Persian by 1838 and presented his results to the Royal Asiatic Society in London and the Société Asiatique in Paris.

In the interim, Rawlinson spent a brief tour of duty in Afghanistan, returning to the site in 1843. This time he crossed the chasm between the Persian and Elamite scripts by bridging the gap with planks, subsequently copying the Elamite inscription. He found an enterprising local boy to climb up a crack in the cliff and suspend ropes across the Babylonian writing, so that papier-mâché casts of the inscriptions could be taken. Rawlinson, along with several other scholars, most notably Edward Hincks, Julius Oppert, William Henry Fox Talbot, and Edwin Norris, either working separately or in collaboration, eventually deciphered these inscriptions, leading eventually to the ability to read them completely.

The translation of the Old Persian sections of the Behistun Inscription paved the way to the subsequent ability to decipher the Elamite and Babylonian parts of the text, which greatly promoted the development of modern Assyriology.

Later research and activity[edit]

Close-up of the inscription showing damage
The Behistun Inscription photographed in 2019

The site was visited by the American linguist A. V. Williams Jackson in 1903.[10] Later expeditions, in 1904 sponsored by the British Museum and led by Leonard William King and Reginald Campbell Thompson and in 1948 by George G. Cameron of the University of Michigan, obtained photographs, casts and more accurate transcriptions of the texts, including passages that were not copied by Rawlinson.[11][12][13][14] It also became apparent that rainwater had dissolved some areas of the limestone in which the text was inscribed, while leaving new deposits of limestone over other areas, covering the text.

In 1938, the inscription became of interest to the Nazi German think tank Ahnenerbe, although research plans were cancelled due to the onset of World War II.

The monument later suffered some damage from Allied soldiers using it for target practice in World War II, and during the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran.[15]

In 1999, Iranian archeologists began the documentation and assessment of damages to the site incurred during the 20th century. Malieh Mehdiabadi, who was project manager for the effort, described a photogrammetric process by which two-dimensional photos were taken of the inscriptions using two cameras and later transmuted into 3-D images.[16]

In recent years, Iranian archaeologists have been undertaking conservation works. The site became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006.[17]

In 2012, the Bisotun Cultural Heritage Center organized an international effort to re-examine the inscription.[18]

Content of the inscription[edit]

Lineage of Darius the Great according to the Behistun inscription.


In the first section of the inscription, Darius the Great declares his ancestry and lineage:

King Darius says: My father is Hystaspes [Vištâspa]; the father of Hystaspes was Arsames [Aršâma]; the father of Arsames was Ariaramnes [Ariyâramna]; the father of Ariaramnes was Teispes [Cišpiš]; the father of Teispes was Achaemenes [Haxâmaniš]. King Darius says: That is why we are called Achaemenids; from antiquity we have been noble; from antiquity has our dynasty been royal. King Darius says: Eight of my dynasty were kings before me; I am the ninth. Nine in succession we have been kings.

King Darius says: By the grace of Ahuramazda am I king; Ahuramazda has granted me the kingdom.


Achaemenid empire at its greatest extent

Darius also lists the territories under his rule:

King Darius says: These are the countries which are subject unto me, and by the grace of Ahuramazda I became king of them: Persia [Pârsa], Elam [Ûvja], Babylonia [Bâbiruš], Assyria [Athurâ], Arabia [Arabâya], Egypt [Mudrâya], the countries by the Sea [Tyaiy Drayahyâ (Phoenicia)], Lydia [Sparda], the Greeks [Yauna (Ionia)], Media [Mâda], Armenia [Armina], Cappadocia [Katpatuka], Parthia [Parthava], Drangiana [Zraka], Aria [Haraiva], Chorasmia [Uvârazmîy], Bactria [Bâxtriš], Sogdia [Suguda], Gandhara [Gadâra], Scythia [Saka], Sattagydia [Thataguš], Arachosia [Harauvatiš] and Maka [Maka]; twenty-three lands in all.

Conflicts and revolts[edit]

Later in the inscription, Darius provides an eye-witness account of battles he successfully fought over a one-year period to put down rebellions which had resulted from the deaths of Cyrus the Great, and his son Cambyses II:

Other historical monuments in the Behistun complex[edit]

The site covers an area of 116 hectares. Archeological evidence indicates that this region became a human shelter 40,000 years ago. There are 18 historical monuments other than the inscription of Darius the Great in the Behistun complex that have been registered in the Iranian national list of historical sites. Some of them are:

Similar reliefs and inspiration[edit]

The Anubanini rock relief, dated to 2300 BC, and made by the pre-Iranian Lullubi ruler Anubanini, is very similar in content to the Behistun reliefs (woodprint).

The Anubanini rock relief, also called Sarpol-i Zohab, of the Lullubi king Anubanini, dated to c. 2300 BC, and which is located not far from the Behistun reliefs at Sarpol-e Zahab, is very similar to the reliefs at Behistun. The attitude of the ruler, the trampling of an enemy, the lines of prisoners are all very similar, to such extent that it was said that the sculptors of the Behistun Inscription had probably seen the Anubanini relief beforehand and were inspired by it.[20] The Lullubian reliefs were the model for the Behistun reliefs of Darius the Great.[21]

The inscriptional tradition of the Achaemenids, starting especially with Darius I, is thought to have derived from the traditions of Elam, Lullubi, the Babylonians and the Assyrians.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tavernier, Jan (2021). "A list of the Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions by language". Phoenix (in French). 67 (2): 1–4. ISSN 0031-8329. Retrieved 2023-03-25. The rock inscription itself contains no less than 414 lines of Old Persian, 112 lines of Babylonian and 260 lines of Elamite (in an older and a younger version).
  2. ^ "The Bīsitūn Inscription [CDLI Wiki]". 2015-09-06. Retrieved 2023-03-25. This tri-lingual inscription has 414 lines in Old Persian cuneiform, 260 in Elamite cuneiform, and 112 in Akkadian cuneiform (Bae: 2008)
  3. ^ Tavernier, Jan, "An Achaemenid Royal Inscription: The Text of Paragraph 13 of the Aramaic Version of the Bisitun Inscription", Journal of Near Eastern Studies, vol. 60, no. 3, pp. 161–76, 2001
  4. ^ E. Denison Ross, The Broadway Travellers: Sir Anthony Sherley and his Persian Adventure, Routledge, 2004, ISBN 0-415-34486-7
  5. ^ [1] Robert Ker Porter, Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, ancient Babylonia, &c. &c. : during the years 1817, 1818, 1819, and 1820, volume 2, Longman, 1821
  6. ^ Kipfer, Barbara Ann (2013). Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology. Springer US. ISBN 9781475751338.
  7. ^ Carsten Niebuhr, Reisebeschreibung von Arabien und anderen umliegenden Ländern, 2 volumes, 1774 and 1778
  8. ^ "Old Persian". Ancient Scripts. Archived from the original on 18 April 2010. Retrieved 2010-04-23.
  9. ^ a b Harari, Y.N. (2015). "15. The Marriage of Science and Empire". Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-231610-3.
  10. ^ A. V. Williams Jackson, "The Great Behistun Rock and Some Results of a Re-Examination of the Old Persian Inscriptions on It", Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 24, pp. 77–95, 1903
  11. ^ [2] W. King and R. C. Thompson, The sculptures and inscription of Darius the Great on the Rock of Behistûn in Persia: a new collation of the Persian, Susian and Babylonian texts, Longmans, 1907
  12. ^ George G. Cameron, The Old Persian Text of the Bisitun Inscription, Journal of Cuneiform Studies, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 47–54, 1951
  13. ^ George G. Cameron, The Elamite Version of the Bisitun Inscriptions, Journal of Cuneiform Studies, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 59–68, 1960
  14. ^ W. C. Benedict and Elizabeth von Voigtlander, Darius' Bisitun Inscription, Babylonian Version, Lines 1–29, Journal of Cuneiform Studies, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 1–10, 1956
  15. ^ "BEHISTUN Inscription - Persia". Archived from the original on 2012-02-03. Retrieved 2011-07-20.
  16. ^ "Documentation of Behistun Inscription Nearly Complete". Archived from the original on 2011-09-18. Retrieved 2010-04-23.
  17. ^ "Iran's Bisotoon Historical Site Registered in World Heritage List". 2006-07-13. Archived from the original on 2018-12-15. Retrieved 2010-04-23.
  18. ^ "Intl. Experts to reread Bisotun inscriptions - Tehran Times". Archived from the original on 2012-05-29. Retrieved 2012-04-14. Intl. experts to reread Bisotun inscriptions, Tehran Times, May 27, 2012[dead link]
  19. ^ a b c d e f Behistun, minor inscriptions DBb inscription- Livius. Archived from the original on 2020-03-10. Retrieved 2020-03-26.
  20. ^ Potts, D. T. (1999). The Archaeology of Elam: Formation and Transformation of an Ancient Iranian State. Cambridge University Press. p. 318. ISBN 9780521564960. Archived from the original on 2017-10-12. Retrieved 2019-03-15.
  21. ^ Wiesehofer, Josef (2001). Ancient Persia. I.B.Tauris. p. 13. ISBN 9781860646751. Archived from the original on 2012-05-02. Retrieved 2019-03-17.
  22. ^ Eastmond, Antony (2015). Viewing Inscriptions in the Late Antique and Medieval World. Cambridge University Press. p. 14. ISBN 9781107092419. Archived from the original on 2020-05-18. Retrieved 2019-03-16.


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