Behistun Inscription: Darius's Message to the Persian Empire

The Behistun Inscription, Iran
The Behistun Inscription, Iran. Ensie & Matthias

The Behistun inscription (also spelled Bisitun or Bisotun and typically abbreviated as DB for Darius Bisitun) is a 6th century BCE Persian Empire carving. The ancient billboard includes four panels of cuneiform writing around a set of three-dimensional figures, cut deep into a limestone cliff. The figures are carved 300 feet (90 meters) above the Royal Road of the Achaemenids, known today as the Kermanshah-Tehran highway in Iran.

The carving is located near the town of Bisotun, Iran, about 310 miles (500 kilometers) from Tehran and about 18 mi (30 km) from Kermanshah. The figures show the crowned Persian king Darius I stepping on Guatama (his predecessor and rival) and nine rebel leaders standing before him connected by ropes around their necks. The figures measures some 60x10.5 ft (18x3.2 m) and the four panels of text more than double the overall size, creating an irregular rectangle of approximately 200x120 ft (60x35 m), with the lowest part of the carving some 125 ft (38 m) above the road.

Behistun Text

The writing on the Behistun inscription, like the Rosetta Stone, is a parallel text, a type of linguistic text that consists of two or more strings of written language placed alongside each other so they can be easily compared. The Behistun inscription is recorded in three different languages: in this case, cuneiform versions of Old Persian, Elamite, and a form of Neo-Babylonian called Akkadian. Like the Rosetta Stone, the Behistun text greatly assisted in the decipherment of those ancient languages: the inscription includes the earliest known use of Old Persian, a sub-branch of Indo-Iranian.

A version of the Behistun inscription written in Aramaic (the same language of the Dead Sea Scrolls) was discovered on a papyrus scroll in Egypt, probably written during the early years of the reign of Darius II, about a century after the DB was carved into the rocks. See Tavernier (2001) for more specifics about the Aramaic script.

Royal Propaganda

The text of the Behistun inscription describes the early military campaigns of the Achaemenid rule King Darius I (522–486 BCE). The inscription, carved shortly after Darius's accession to the throne between 520 and 518 BCE, give autobiographical, historical, royal and religious information about Darius: the Behistun text is one of several pieces of propaganda establishing Darius's right to rule.

The text also includes Darius's genealogy, a list of the ethnic groups subject to him, how his accession occurred, several failed revolts against him, a list of his royal virtues, instructions to future generations and how the text was created. 

So, What Does it Mean?

Most scholars agree that the Behistun inscription is a bit of political bragging. Darius's main purpose was to establish the legitimacy of his claim to Cyrus the Great's throne, to which he had no blood connection. Other bits of Darius's braggadocio are found in others of these trilingual passages, as well as big architectural projects at Persepolis and Susa, and the burial places of Cyrus at Pasargadae and his own at Naqsh-i-Rustam.

Historian Jennifer Finn (2011) noted that the location of the cuneiform is too far above the road to be read, and few people were likely literate in any language anyway when the inscription was made. She suggests that the written portion was meant not only for public consumption but that there was likely a ritual component, that the text was a message to the cosmos about the king.

Translations and Interpretations

Henry Rawlinson is credited with the first successful translation in English, scrambling up the cliff in 1835, and publishing his text in 1851. The 19th-century Persian scholar Mohammad Hasan Khan E'temad al-Saltaneh (1843–96) published the first Persian translation of the Behistun translation. He noted but disputed the then-current idea that Darius or Dara might have been matched to King Lohrasp of the Zoroastrian religious and Persian epic traditions. 

Israeli historian Nadav Na'aman has suggested (2015) that the Behistun inscription may have been a source for the Old Testament story of Abraham's victory over the four powerful Near Eastern kings.

Sources

Behistun Steel: Fast Facts

  • Name of Work: Behistun Inscription
  • Artist or Architect: Darius the Great, ruled 522–486 BCE
  • Style/Movement: Parallel CuneiformText
  • Period: Persian Empire
  • Height: 120 feet
  • Width: 125 feet
  • Type of Work: Carved inscription
  • Created/Built: 520–518 BCE
  • Medium: Carved Limestone Bedrock
  • Location: Near Bisotun, Iran
  • Offbeat Fact: The earliest known example of political propaganda
  • Languages: Old Persian, Elamite, Akkadian