Old Persian cuneiform
Old Persian cuneiform syllabary (left), and the DNa inscription (part II, right) of Darius the Great (circa 490 BC), in the newly created script.
Script type
Time period
525 BC – 330 BC
DirectionLeft-to-right Edit this on Wikidata
LanguagesOld Persian
ISO 15924
ISO 15924Xpeo (030), ​Old Persian
Unicode alias
Old Persian

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 This article contains phonetic transcriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA. For the distinction between [ ], / / and ⟨ ⟩, see IPA § Brackets and transcription delimiters.

Old Persian cuneiform is a semi-alphabetic cuneiform script that was the primary script for Old Persian. Texts written in this cuneiform have been found in Iran (Persepolis, Susa, Hamadan, Kharg Island), Armenia, Romania (Gherla),[1][2][3] Turkey (Van Fortress), and along the Suez Canal.[4] They were mostly inscriptions from the time period of Darius I, such as the DNa inscription, as well as his son, Xerxes I. Later kings down to Artaxerxes III used more recent forms of the language classified as "pre-Middle Persian".[4]


Old Persian cuneiform is loosely inspired by the Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform; however, only one glyph is directly derived from it – l(a) (𐎾), from la (𒆷). (lᵃ did not occur in native Old Persian words, but was found in Akkadian borrowings.)

Scholars today mostly agree that the Old Persian script was invented by about 525 BC to provide monument inscriptions for the Achaemenid king Darius I, to be used at Behistun. While a few Old Persian texts may seem to have been inscribed during the reigns of Cyrus the Great (CMa, CMb, and CMc, all found at Pasargadae), the first Achaemenid emperor, or of Arsames and Ariaramnes (AsH and AmH, both found at Hamadan), grandfather and great-grandfather of Darius I, all five, specially the latter two, are generally agreed to have been later inscriptions.

Around the time period in which Old Persian was used, nearby languages included Elamite and Akkadian. One of the chief differences between the writing systems of these languages is that Old Persian is a semi-alphabet, but Elamite and Akkadian are syllabaries. Further, Old Persian was written in a consistent semi-alphabetic system, but Elamite and Akkadian used borrowings from other languages, creating mixed systems.


Main article: Decipherment of cuneiform

Old Persian cuneiform was only deciphered by a series of guesses, in the absence of bilingual documents connecting it to a known language. Various characteristics of sign series, such as length or recurrence of signs, allowed researchers to hypothesize about their meaning, and to discriminate between the various possible historically known kings, and then to create a correspondence between each cuneiform and a specific sound.

Archaeological records of cuneiform inscriptions

Cuneiform inscriptions recorded by Jean Chardin in Persepolis in 1674 (1711 edition)

The first mention of ancient inscriptions in the newly discovered ruins of Persepolis was made by the Spain and Portugal ambassador to Persia, Antonio de Gouveia in a 1611 publication.[5] Various travelers then made attempts at illustrating these new inscriptions, which in 1700 Thomas Hyde first called "cuneiform", but were deemed to be no more than decorative friezes.[5]

Proper attempts at deciphering Old Persian cuneiform started with faithful copies of cuneiform inscriptions, which first became available in 1711 when duplicates of Darius's inscriptions were published by Jean Chardin.[6][7] Around 1764, Carsten Niebuhr visited the ruins of Persepolis, and was able to make excellent copies of the inscriptions, identifying "three different alphabets". His faithful copies of the cuneiform inscriptions at Persepolis proved to be a key turning-point in the decipherment of cuneiform, and the birth of Assyriology.[8][9]

The set of characters that would later be known as Old Persian cuneiform, was soon perceived as being the simplest of the various types of cuneiform scripts that have been encountered, and because of this was understood as a prime candidate for decipherment. Niebuhr determined that there were only 42 characters in this category of inscriptions, which he named "Class I", and affirmed that this must therefore be an alphabetic script.[6]

Münter guesses the word for "king" (1802)

This Old Persian cuneiform sign sequence, because of its numerous occurrences in inscriptions, was correctly guessed by Münter as being the word for "King". This word is now known to be pronounced xšāyaθiya in Old Persian (𐎧𐏁𐎠𐎹𐎰𐎡𐎹), and indeed means "King".[10][11]

In 1802, Friedrich Münter confirmed that "Class I" characters (today called "Old Persian cuneiform") were probably alphabetical, also because of the small number of different signs forming inscriptions.[6] He proved that they belonged to the Achaemenid Empire, which led to the suggestion that the inscriptions were in the Old Persian language and probably mentioned Achaemenid kings.[12][6] He identified a highly recurring group of characters in these inscriptions: 𐎧𐏁𐎠𐎹𐎰𐎡𐎹. Because of its high recurrence and length, he guessed that this must be the word for "king" (xa-ša-a-ya-θa-i-ya, now known to be pronounced in Old Persian xšāyaθiya).[12] He guessed correctly, but that would only be confirmed several decades later. Münter also understood that each word was separated from the next by a backslash sign (𐏐).[12]

Grotefend guesses the names of individual rulers (1802–1815)

Main article: Georg Friedrich Grotefend

Grotefend extended this work by realizing, based on the known inscriptions of much later rulers (the Pahlavi inscriptions of the Sasanian emperors), that a king's name is often followed by "great king, king of kings" and the name of the king's father.[10][11] This understanding of the structure of monumental inscriptions in Old Persian was based on the work of Anquetil-Duperron, who had studied Old Persian through the Zoroastrian Avestas in India, and Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, who had decrypted the monumental Pahlavi inscriptions of the Sasanian emperors.[13][14]

Grotefend focused on two inscriptions from Persepolis, called the "Niebuhr inscriptions", which seemed to use the words "King" and "King of Kings" guessed by Münter, and which seemed to have broadly similar content except for what he thought must be the names of kings:[15]

Old Persian alphabet, and proposed transcription of the Xerxes inscription, according to Grotefend. Initially published in 1815.[18] Grotefend only identified correctly eight letters among the thirty signs he had collated.[19]
Hypothesis for the sentence structure of Persepolitan inscriptions, by Grotefend (1815).
Relying on deductions only, and without knowing the actual script or language, Grotefend obtained a near-perfect translation of the Xerxes inscription (here shown in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian): "Xerxes the strong King, King of Kings, son of Darius the King, ruler of the world" ("Xerxes Rex fortis, Rex regum, Darii Regis Filius, orbis rector", right column). The modern translation is: "Xerxes the Great King, King of Kings, son of Darius the King, an Achaemenian".[15]

Looking at similarities in character sequences, he made the hypothesis that the father of the ruler in one inscription would possibly appear as the first name in the other inscription: the first word in Niebuhr 1 (𐎭𐎠𐎼𐎹𐎺𐎢𐏁) indeed corresponded to the 6th word in Niebuhr 2.[15]

Looking at the length of the character sequences, and comparing with the names and genealogy of the Achaemenid kings as known from the Greeks, also taking into account the fact that the father of one of the rulers in the inscriptions didn't have the attribute "king", he made the correct guess that this could be no other than Darius the Great, his father Hystapes, who was not a king, and his son the famous Xerxes. The inscriptions were made around this time; there were only two instances where a ruler came to power without being a previous king's son. They were Darius the Great and Cyrus the Great, both of whom became emperor by revolt. The deciding factors between these two choices were the names of their fathers and sons. Darius's father was Hystaspes and his son was Xerxes, while Cyrus's father was Cambyses I and his son was Cambyses II. Within the text, the father and son of the king had different groups of symbols for names so Grotefend assumed that the king must have been Darius.[11]

These connections allowed Grotefend to figure out the cuneiform characters that are part of Darius, Darius's father Hystaspes, and Darius's son Xerxes.[11] He equated the letters 𐎭𐎠𐎼𐎹𐎺𐎢𐏁 with the name d-a-r-h-e-u-sh for Darius, as known from the Greeks.[15][20] This identification was correct, although the actual Persian spelling was da-a-ra-ya-va-u-sha, but this was unknown at the time.[15] Grotefend similarly equated the sequence 𐎧𐏁𐎹𐎠𐎼𐏁𐎠 with kh-sh-h-e-r-sh-e for Xerxes, which again was right, but the actual Old Persian transcription was kha-sha-ya-a-ra-sha-a.[15] Finally, he matched the sequence of the father who was not a king 𐎻𐎡𐏁𐎫𐎠𐎿𐎱 with Hystaspes, but again with the supposed Persian reading of g-o-sh-t-a-s-p,[20] rather than the actual Old Persian vi-i-sha-ta-a-sa-pa.[15]

By this method, Grotefend had correctly identified each king in the inscriptions, but his identification of the phonetic value of individual letters was still quite defective, for want of a better understanding of the Old Persian language itself.[15] Grotefend only identified correctly the phonetic value of eight letters among the thirty signs he had collated.[19]

Guessing whole sentences

Grotefend made further guesses about the remaining words in the inscriptions, and endeavoured to rebuild probable sentences. Again relying on deductions only, and without knowing the actual script or language, Grotefend guessed a complete translation of the Xerxes inscription (Niebuhr inscription 2): "Xerxes the strong King, King of Kings, son of Darius the King, ruler of the world" ("Xerxes Rex fortis, Rex regum, Darii Regis Filius, orbis rector"). In effect, he achieved a fairly close translation, as the modern translation is: "Xerxes the Great King, King of Kings, son of Darius the King, an Achaemenian".[15]

Grotefend's contribution to Old Persian is unique in that he did not have comparisons between Old Persian and known languages, as opposed to the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Rosetta Stone. All his decipherments were done by comparing the texts with known history.[11] However groundbreaking, this inductive method failed to convince academics, and the official recognition of his work was denied for nearly a generation.[11] Grotefend published his deductions in 1802, but they were dismissed by the academic community.[11]


The quadrilingual "Caylus vase" in the name of Xerxes I confirmed the decipherment of Grotefend once Champollion was able to read Egyptian hieroglyphs.[21]

It was only in 1823 that Grotefend's discovery was confirmed, when the French archaeologist Champollion, who had just deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs, was able to read the Egyptian dedication of a quadrilingual hieroglyph-cuneiform inscription on an alabaster vase in the Cabinet des Médailles, the "Caylus vase".[21][22] The Egyptian inscription on the vase was in the name of King Xerxes I, and Champollion, together with the orientalist Antoine-Jean Saint-Martin, was able to confirm that the corresponding words in the cuneiform script were indeed the words which Grotefend had identified as meaning "king" and "Xerxes" through guesswork.[21][22] The findings were published by Saint-Martin in Extrait d'un mémoire relatif aux antiques inscriptions de Persépolis lu à l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, thereby vindicating the pioneering work of Grotefend.[23][24]

More advances were made on Grotefend's work and by 1847, most of the symbols were correctly identified. A basis had now been laid for the interpretation of the Persian inscriptions. However, lacking knowledge of old Persian, Grotefend misconstrued several important characters. Significant work remained to be done to complete the decipherment.[25] Building on Grotefend's insights, this task was performed by Eugène Burnouf, Christian Lassen and Sir Henry Rawlinson.

The decipherment of the Old Persian cuneiform script was at the beginning of the decipherment of all the other cuneiform scripts, as various multi-lingual inscriptions between the various cuneiform scripts were obtained from archaeological discoveries.[11] The decipherment of Old Persian was the starting point for the decipherment of Elamite, Babylonian and Akkadian (predecessor of Babylonian), especially through the multi-lingual Behistun Inscription, and ultimately Sumerian through Akkadian-Sumerian bilingual tablets.


Most scholars consider the writing system to be an independent invention because it has no obvious connections with other writing systems at the time, such as Elamite, Akkadian, Hurrian, and Hittite cuneiforms.[26] While Old Persian's basic strokes are similar to those found in cuneiform scripts, Old Persian texts were engraved on hard materials, so the engravers had to make cuts that imitated the forms easily made on clay tablets.[7] The signs are composed of horizontal, vertical, and angled wedges. There are four basic components and new signs are created by adding wedges to these basic components.[27] These four basic components are two parallel wedges without angle, three parallel wedges without angle, one wedge without angle and an angled wedge, and two angled wedges.[27] The script is written from left to right.[28]

The name of Darius I in Old Persian cuneiform on the DNa inscription of his tomb: Dārayavauš (𐎭𐎠𐎼𐎹𐎺𐎢𐏁)

The script encodes three vowels, a, i, u, and twenty-two consonants, k, x, g, c, ç, j, t, θ, d, p, f, b, n, m, y, v, r, l, s, z, š, and h. Old Persian contains two sets of consonants: those whose shape depends on the following vowel and those whose shape is independent of the following vowel. The consonant symbols that depend on the following vowel act like the consonants in Devanagari. Vowel diacritics are added to these consonant symbols to change the inherent vowel or add length to the inherent vowel. However, the vowel symbols are usually still included so [di] would be written as [di] [i] even though [di] already implies the vowel.[29] For the consonants whose shape does not depend on the following vowels, the vowel signs must be used after the consonant symbol.[30]

Compared to the Avestan alphabet Old Persian notably lacks voiced fricatives, but includes the sign ç (of uncertain pronunciation) and a sign for the non-native l. Notably, in common with the Brahmic scripts, there appears to be no distinction between a consonant followed by an a and a consonant followed by nothing.

k- x- g- c- ç- j- t- θ- d- p- f- b- n- m- y- v- r- l- s- z- š- h-
-(a) 𐎠 𐎣 𐎧 𐎥 𐎨 𐏂 𐎩 𐎫 𐎰 𐎭 𐎱 𐎳 𐎲 𐎴 𐎶 𐎹 𐎺 𐎼 𐎾 𐎿 𐏀 𐏁 𐏃
-i 𐎡 𐎪 𐎮 𐎷 𐎻
-u 𐎢 𐎤 𐎦 𐎬 𐎯 𐎵 𐎸 𐎽

Alphabetic properties

Close-up of the Behistun inscription
An Old Persian inscription in Persepolis

Although based on a logo-syllabic prototype, all vowels but short /a/ are written and so the system is essentially an alphabet. There are three vowels, long and short. Initially, no distinction is made for length: 𐎠 a or ā, 𐎡 i or ī, 𐎢 u or ū. However, as in the Brahmic scripts, short a is not written after a consonant: 𐏃 h or ha, 𐏃𐎠 hā, 𐏃𐎡 hi or hī, 𐏃𐎢 hu or hū. (Old Persian is not considered an abugida because vowels are represented as full letters.)

Thirteen out of twenty-two consonants, such as 𐏃 h(a), are invariant, regardless of the following vowel (that is, they are alphabetic), while only six have a distinct form for each consonant-vowel combination (that is, they are syllabic), and among these, only d and m occur in three forms for all three vowels: 𐎭 d or da, 𐎭𐎠 dā, 𐎮𐎡 di or dī, 𐎯𐎢 du or dū. (k, g do not occur before i, and j, v do not occur before u, so these consonants only have two forms each.)

Sometimes medial long vowels are written with a y or v, as in Semitic: 𐎮𐎡𐎹 dī, 𐎯𐎢𐎺 dū. Diphthongs are written by mismatching consonant and vowel: 𐎭𐎡 dai, or sometimes, in cases where the consonant does not differentiate between vowels, by writing the consonant and both vowel components: 𐎨𐎡𐏁𐎱𐎠𐎡𐏁 cišpaiš (gen. of name Cišpi- 'Teispes').

In addition, three consonants, t, n, and r, are partially syllabic, having the same form before a and i, and a distinct form only before u: 𐎴 n or na, 𐎴𐎠 nā, 𐎴𐎡 ni or nī, 𐎵𐎢 nu or nū.

The effect is not unlike the English [dʒ] sound, which is typically written g before i or e, but j before other vowels (gem, jam), or the Castilian Spanish [θ] sound, which is written c before i or e and z before other vowels (cinco, zapato): it is more accurate to say that some of the Old Persian consonants are written by different letters depending on the following vowel, rather than classifying the script as syllabic. This situation had its origin in Assyrian cuneiform, where several syllabic distinctions had been lost and were often clarified with explicit vowels. However, in the case of Assyrian, the vowel was not always used, and was never used where not needed, so the system remained (logo-)syllabic.

For a while it was speculated that the alphabet could have had its origin in such a system, with a leveling of consonant signs a millennium earlier producing something like the Ugaritic alphabet, but today it is generally accepted that the Semitic alphabet arose from Egyptian hieroglyphs, where vowel notation was not important. (See Proto-Sinaitic script.)


Main article: Old Persian (Unicode block)

Old Persian cuneiform was added to the Unicode Standard in March 2005 with the release of version 4.1.

The Unicode block for Old Persian cuneiform is U+103A0–U+103DF and is in the Supplementary Multilingual Plane:

Old Persian[1][2]
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
U+103Ax 𐎠 𐎡 𐎢 𐎣 𐎤 𐎥 𐎦 𐎧 𐎨 𐎩 𐎪 𐎫 𐎬 𐎭 𐎮 𐎯
U+103Bx 𐎰 𐎱 𐎲 𐎳 𐎴 𐎵 𐎶 𐎷 𐎸 𐎹 𐎺 𐎻 𐎼 𐎽 𐎾 𐎿
U+103Cx 𐏀 𐏁 𐏂 𐏃 𐏈 𐏉 𐏊 𐏋 𐏌 𐏍 𐏎 𐏏
U+103Dx 𐏐 𐏑 𐏒 𐏓 𐏔 𐏕
1.^ As of Unicode version 15.1
2.^ Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points

Notes and references

  1. ^ Kuhrt 2013, p. 197.
  2. ^ Frye 1984, p. 103.
  3. ^ Schmitt 2000, p. 53.
  4. ^ a b Kent, R. G.: "Old Persian: Grammar Texts Lexicon", page 6. American Oriental Society, 1950.
  5. ^ a b Kramer, Samuel Noah (17 September 2010). The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character. University of Chicago Press. pp. 9–10. ISBN 978-0-226-45232-6.
  6. ^ a b c d Kramer, Samuel Noah (17 September 2010). The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character. University of Chicago Press. pp. 11–12. ISBN 978-0-226-45232-6.
  7. ^ a b Kent, R. G.: "Old Persian: Grammar Texts Lexicon", page 9. American Oriental Society, 1950.
  8. ^ Niebuhr, Carsten (1778). Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien und andern umliegender Ländern [Account of travels to Arabia and other surrounding lands] (in German). Vol. 2. Copenhagen, Denmark: Nicolaus Möller. p. 150. ; see also the fold-out plate (Tabelle XXXI) after p. 152. From p. 150: "Ich will auf der Tabelle XXXI, noch eine, oder vielmehr vier Inschriften H, I, K, L beyfügen, die ich etwa in der Mitte an der Hauptmauer nach Süden, alle neben einander, angetroffen habe. Der Stein worauf sie stehen, ist 26 Fuß lang, und 6 Fuß hoch, und dieser ist ganz damit bedeckt. Man kann also daraus die Größe der Buchstaben beurtheilen. Auch hier sind drey verschiedene Alphabete." (I want to include in Plate XXXI another, or rather four inscriptions H, I, K, L, which I found approximately in the middle of the main wall to the south [in the ruined palace at Persepolis], all side by side. The stone on which they appear, is 26 feet long and 6 feet high, and it's completely covered with them. One can thus judge therefrom the size of the letters. Also here, [there] are three different alphabets.)
  9. ^ Sayce, Rev. Arnold H. (1908). The Archaeology of the Cuneiform Inscriptions (2nd ed.). London, England: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. p. 9.
  10. ^ a b Kent, R. G.: "Old Persian: Grammar Texts Lexicon", page 10. American Oriental Society, 1950.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h Sayce, Archibald Henry (2019). The Archaeology of the Cuneiform Inscriptions. Cambridge University Press. pp. 10–14. ISBN 978-1-108-08239-6.
  12. ^ a b c Mousavi, Ali (19 April 2012). Persepolis: Discovery and Afterlife of a World Wonder. Walter de Gruyter. p. 120. ISBN 978-1-61451-033-8.
  13. ^ Heeren, A. H. L. (Arnold Hermann Ludwig) (1857). Vol. 2: Historical researches into the politics, intercourse, and trade of the principal nations of antiquity. / By A.H.L. Heeren. Tr. from the German. H.G. Bohn. p. 332.
  14. ^ Kramer, Samuel Noah (1971). The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character. University of Chicago Press. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-226-45238-8.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k André-Salvini, Béatrice (2005). Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia. University of California Press. p. 129. ISBN 978-0-520-24731-4.
  16. ^ "DPa". Livius. 2020-04-16. Retrieved 2023-03-19.
  17. ^ "XPe". Livius. 2020-09-24. Retrieved 2023-03-19.
  18. ^ Heeren, Arnold Hermann Ludwig (1815). Ideen über die Politik, den Verkehr und den Handel der vornehmsten Völker der alten Welt (in German). Bey Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht. p. 562.
  19. ^ a b The Persian Cuneiform Inscription at Behistun: Decyphered and Tr.; with a Memoir on Persian Cuneiform Inscriptions in General, and on that of Behistun in Particular. J.W. Parker. 1846. p. 6.
  20. ^ a b Heeren, A. H. L. (Arnold Hermann Ludwig) (1857). Vol. 2: Historical researches into the politics, intercourse, and trade of the principal nations of antiquity. / By A.H.L. Heeren. Tr. from the German. H.G. Bohn. p. 333.
  21. ^ a b c Pages 10–14, note 1 on page 13 Sayce, Archibald Henry (2019). The Archaeology of the Cuneiform Inscriptions. Cambridge University Press. pp. 10–14. ISBN 978-1-108-08239-6.
  22. ^ a b Bulletin des sciences historiques, antiquités, philologie (in French). Treuttel et Würtz. 1825. p. 135.
  23. ^ Saint-Martin, Antoine-Jean (January 1823). "Extrait d'un mémoire relatif aux antiques inscriptions de Persépolis lu à l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres". Journal asiatique (in French). Société asiatique (France): 65–90.
  24. ^ In Journal asiatique II, 1823, PI. II, pp. 65—90 AAGE PALLIS, SVEND. "EARLY EXPLORATION IN MESOPOTAMIA" (PDF): 36. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  25. ^ Maurice Pope: "The Story of Decipherment", Thames and Hudson Ltd., London, 1975 and 1999, pp. 101–103.
  26. ^ Windfuhr, G. L.: "Notes on the old Persian signs", page 1. Indo-Iranian Journal, 1970.
  27. ^ a b Windfuhr, G. L.: "Notes on the old Persian signs", page 2. Indo-Iranian Journal, 1970.
  28. ^ Daniels, Peter T.: "The World's Writing Systems", page 134. Oxford University Press, 1996
  29. ^ Daniels, Peter T.: "The World's Writing Systems", page 136. Oxford University Press, 1996
  30. ^ Daniels, Peter T.: "The World's Writing Systems", page 135. Oxford University Press, 1996
  31. ^ Unattested numbers are not listed. The list of attested numbers is based on Kent, Ronald Grubb (2005). Old Persian: Grammar, Text, Glossary (in Persian). translated into Persian by S. Oryan (1384 AP ed.). Tihrān: Pizhūhishkadah-i Zabān va Gūyish bā hamkārī-i Idārah-i Kull-i Umūr-i Farhangī. pp. 699–700. ISBN 964-421-045-X.


Further reading