Behistun Inscription - Darius's Message to the Persian Empire

What Was the Purpose of the Behistun Inscription, and Who Made it?

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 BC 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 90 m (300 ft) above the Royal Road of the Achaemenids, known today as the Kermanshah-Tehran highway in Iran.

The carving is located about 500 kilometers (310 miles) from Tehran and about 30 km (18 mi) from Kermanshah, near the town of Bisotun, Iran. The figures show the crowned Persian king Darius I stepping on Guatama (his predecessor) and nine rebel leaders standing before him connected by ropes around their necks. The figures measures some 18x3.2 m (60x10.5 ft) and the four panels of text more than double the overall size, creating an irregular rectangle of approximately 60x35 m (200x120 ft), with the lowest part of the carving some 38 m (125 ft) 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 BC). The inscription, carved shortly after Darius's accession to the throne between 520 and 518 BC, 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.

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.

Henry Rawlinson is credited with the first successful translation, scrambling up the cliff in 1835, and publishing his text in 1851.

Sources

This glossary entry is part of the About.com Guide to the Persian Empire, the Guide to the Achaemenid Dynasty, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Alibaigi S, Niknami KA, and Khosravi S. 2011. The location of the Parthian city of Bagistana in Bisotun, Kermanshah: a proposal. Iranica Antiqua 47:117-131.

Briant P. 2005. History of the Persian empire (550-330 BC). In: Curtis JE, and Tallis N, editors. Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

p 12-17.

Ebeling SO, and Ebeling J. 2013. From Babylon to Bergen: On the usefulness of aligned texts. Bergen Language and Linguistics STudies 3(1):23-42. doi: 10.15845/bells.v3i1.359

Finn J. 2011. Gods, kings, men: Trilingual Inscriptions and Symbolic Visualizations in the Achaemenid Empire. Ars Orientalis 41:219-275.

Olmstead AT. 1938. Darius and His Behistun Inscription. The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 55(4):392-416.

Rawlinson HC. 1851. Memoir on the Babylonian and Assyrian Inscriptions. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 14:i-16.

Shahkarami A, and Karimnia M. 2011. Hydromechanical coupling behavior effects on the Bisotun epigraph damaging process. Journal of Applied Sciences 11:2764-2772.

Tavernier J. 2001. An Achaemenid Royal Inscription: The Text of Paragraph 13 of the Aramaic Version of the Bisitun Inscription. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 60(3):61-176.