UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Behistun Inscription photographed in 2019
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 spelled Bisotun, Bisitun or Bisutun; Persian: بیستون, Old Persian: Bagastana, meaning "the place of god") is a multilingual Achaemenid royal inscription and large rock relief, produced during the reign of Darius I the Great (r. 522–486 BC). It is carved on a cliff at Mount Behistun in the Kermanshah Province of modern Iran. The inscription was important to the decipherment of cuneiform, because it is the longest known cuneiform text recorded in multiple languages, being written in Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian (a variety of Akkadian). It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.[1]

Written in the form of a speech by Darius, the inscription begins with a brief autobiography, including Darius' claimed ancestry and lineage. The inscription describes a lengthy sequence of events during the upheaval following the death of Darius' predecessor, Cambyses II. It states that a series of rebellions were orchestrated in various cities throughout the empire, by several impostors who falsely proclaimed themselves king. Darius claims he fought and won nineteen battles in a period of one year to secure the Achaemenid Empire, attributing his success to the "grace of Ahura Mazda". Based on other sources, modern historians conclude that Darius was actually a usurper who overthrew the legitimate successor of Cambyses II, so the inscription is a form of propaganda intended to legitimize Darius' rule.

The inscription and associated relief are approximately 15 m (49 ft) high by 25 m (82 ft) wide. The Old Persian text contains 414 lines in five columns; the Elamite text includes 260 lines in eight columns, and the Babylonian text is 112 lines.[2][3] The inscription is illustrated by a life-sized bas-relief of Darius the Great and twelve other figures.

The date of the inscription is uncertain. The coronation of Darius occurred in the summer of 522 BC, and the series of military victories described in the inscription implies that the campaign ended in December 521 BC. The inscription could have been produced at any point between then and the death of Darius in autumn of 486 BC, but is more likely to have been in the first few years of his reign. A later fragmentary copy of the text in imperial Aramaic, produced about a century later during the reign of the (unrelated) Darius II (r. 423–404 BC), has been found in Egypt.[4]

Pre-translation history

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.

Elamite cuneiform fell into disuse c. 400 BC, and after the fall of the Achaemenid Empire in 330 BC Old Persian cuneiform also died out. Babylonian cuneiform persisted for longer, with the last surviving examples being from c. 75 BC. After this point, the inscription was no longer understood by contemporary observers and its purpose was forgotten.

The inscription is mentioned by the Greek traveller Ctesias of Cnidus around 400 BC; modern historians regard Ctesias as an unreliable source. He states that a well and a garden were located beneath the inscription. Ctesias incorrectly concluded that the inscription had been dedicated by Semiramis of Babylon (a semi-legendary ruler) to Zeus. The Hellenistic historian Diodorus also mentions "Bagistanon" in his writing, but repeats Ctesias' incorrect claim that the inscription was produced by Semiramis.

The Roman historian Tacitus mentions the inscription and describes the presence (in the first century AD) of ancillary monuments at the base of the cliff, including an altar to Herakles. Modern archaeology of the site, including the discovery of a Hellenistic statue dedicated in 148 BC, is consistent with Tacitus's description.

For several centuries, the inscription was misattributed to the reign of the Sassanid king Khosrau II (590 to 628 AD), who lived over 1000 years after Darius the Great.

In 1598, Englishman Robert Sherley saw the inscription during a diplomatic mission to Safavid Persia on behalf of the Habsburg monarchy, and subsequently brought it to the attention of scholars in western Europe. His party incorrectly concluded that the inscription was Christian in origin.[5] Italian explorer Pietro della Valle visited the inscription in 1604 and made drawings of the monument.[6] German surveyor Carsten Niebuhr visited in around 1764, exploring for Frederick V of Denmark. Niebuhr recorded the (then unintelligible) text of the inscription, leading to its first publication in 1778 in his account of his journeys.[7]

In the early 19th century, the French ambassador to Persia Claude Matthieu, Count Gardane thought it showed "Christ and his twelve apostles", and a decade later the British traveller Robert Ker Porter thought it represented the Lost Tribes of Israel and Shalmaneser of Assyria.[8]

Layout and appearance

Face-on view of the bas-relief carvings
Details of Darius
This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (April 2023)

The inscription and associated relief is approximately 15 m (49 ft) high by 25 m (82 ft) wide. It is carved into a limestone cliff, 100 m (330 ft) above an ancient road that connected the capitals of Babylonia and Media (Babylon and Ecbatana, respectively). The location is difficult to access, with modern explorers having to climb the sheer cliff face and traverse a narrow ledge. Reaching the Elamite part of the inscription requires jumping across a chasm. This inaccessible location, combined with the dry desert environment, may have aided the preservation of the inscription.

The bas-relief depicts Darius and twelve other figures. Darius is shown facing right and larger than the other figures, approximately life-size, holding a bow in his left hand as a sign of kingship. His right hand is raised, and he wears a crown. Darius' left foot is on the chest of a figure lying on his back before him. The supine figure is not named, but usually identified as Gaumata, one of the pretenders discussed in the text. On the left of Darius are two servants, also facing to the right, carrying a bow and a spear. To the right of Darius, facing towards him, are nine smaller figures representing conquered peoples. These are smaller, approximately 1 metre (3 ft 3 in) tall, shown with their hands tied and a rope around their necks, which ties them all together. One figure[which?] appears to have been added after the others were completed. So was Darius's beard, which consists of a separate block of stone attached with iron pins and lead. A Faravahar (Zoroastrian winged spirit) is depicted in front of and slightly above Darius, giving its blessing to the king.

Layout of the text. The Old Persian inscription is to the left and lower left of the carvings, Elamite is below and to the lower right, while Babylonian is in the upper right.

The cuneiform text is inscribed above, below, and to the right of the figures. Some of its layout is haphazard, as if not originally planned as part of the monument, being instead added to whatever blank regions could be found after the bas-relief was completed. 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.[9][10]

Translation of the text

Main article: Decipherment of cuneiform

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

Georg Friedrich Grotefend and others attempted to decipher the Old Persian cuneiform script, using Niebuhr's transcriptions as their main source. By 1802, Grotefend had deciphered ten of the 37 symbols of Old Persian, after realizing that unlike the Semitic cuneiform scripts, Old Persian text is alphabetic and each word is separated by a vertical slanted symbol.[11]

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.[12]

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.[12] 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. In 1847, he sent a full and accurate copy to Europe.[12]

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

Close-up of the inscription showing damage

The site was visited by the American linguist A. V. Williams Jackson in 1903.[13] 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.[14][15][16][17] 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.[18]

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.[19]

In recent years, Iranian archaeologists have been undertaking conservation works. The site became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006.[20]

In 2012, the Bisotun Cultural Heritage Center organized an international effort to re-examine the inscription.[21]

Content of the inscription

Lineage of Darius the Great according to the Behistun inscription.


See also: Achaemenid family tree

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], Ionia [Yauna], 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

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

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

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).

Main article: Anubanini rock relief

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.[23] The Lullubian reliefs were the model for the Behistun reliefs of Darius the Great.[24]

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.[25]

See also


  1. ^ "Bisotun". World Heritage Convention. UNESCO. Retrieved 21 April 2023.
  2. ^ 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).
  3. ^ "The Bīsitūn Inscription [CDLI Wiki]". 2015-09-06. Archived from the original on 2023-03-25. 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)
  4. ^ 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
  5. ^ E. Denison Ross, The Broadway Travellers: Sir Anthony Sherley and his Persian Adventure, Routledge, 2004, ISBN 0-415-34486-7
  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. ^ [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
  9. ^ 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).
  10. ^ "The Bīsitūn Inscription [CDLI Wiki]". 2015-09-06. Archived from the original on 2023-03-25. 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)
  11. ^ "Old Persian". Ancient Scripts. Archived from the original on 18 April 2010. Retrieved 2010-04-23.
  12. ^ a b c Harari, Y.N. (2015). "15. The Marriage of Science and Empire". Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-231610-3.
  13. ^ 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
  14. ^ [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
  15. ^ George G. Cameron, The Old Persian Text of the Bisitun Inscription, Journal of Cuneiform Studies, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 47–54, 1951
  16. ^ George G. Cameron, The Elamite Version of the Bisitun Inscriptions, Journal of Cuneiform Studies, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 59–68, 1960
  17. ^ 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
  18. ^ "BEHISTUN Inscription - Persia". Archived from the original on 2012-02-03. Retrieved 2011-07-20.
  19. ^ "Documentation of Behistun Inscription Nearly Complete". Archived from the original on 2011-09-18. Retrieved 2010-04-23.
  20. ^ "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.
  21. ^ "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]
  22. ^ a b c d e f Behistun, minor inscriptions DBb inscription- Livius. Archived from the original on 2020-03-10. Retrieved 2020-03-26.
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ Wiesehofer, Josef (2001). Ancient Persia. I.B.Tauris. p. 13. ISBN 9781860646751. Archived from the original on 2012-05-02. Retrieved 2019-03-17.
  25. ^ 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.