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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.
Fast Facts: Behistun Steel
- 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
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.
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.
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.
- Alibaigi, Sajjad, Kamal Aldin Niknami, and Shokouh Khosravi. "The Location of the Parthian City of Bagistana in Bistoun, Kermanshah: A Proposal." Iranica Antiqua 47 (2011): 117-31. Print.
- Briant, Pierre. "History of the Persian Empire (550-330 BC)." Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia. Eds. Curtis, John E., and Nigel Tallis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. 12-17. Print.
- Daryaee, Touraj. "Persianate Contribution to the Study of Antiquity: E'temad Al-Saltaneh's Nativisation of the Qajars." Iran 54.1 (2016): 39-45. Print.
- Ebeling, Signe Oksefjell, and Jarie Ebeling. "From Babylon to Bergen: On the Usefulness of Aligned Texts." Bergen Language and Linguistics Studies 3.1 (2013): 23-42. Print.
- Finn, Jennifer. "Gods, Kings, Men: Trilingual Inscriptions and Symbolic Visualizations in the Achaemenid Empire." Ars Orientalis 41 (2011): 219-75. Print.
- Na'aman, Nadav. "Abraham's Victory over the Kings of the Four Quadrants in Light of Darius I's Bisitun Inscription." Tel Aviv 42.1 (2015): 72-88. Print.
- Olmstead, A. T. "Darius and His Behistun Inscription." The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 55.4 (1938): 392-416. Print.
- Rawlinson, H. C. "Memoir on the Babylonian and Assyrian Inscriptions." Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 14 (1851): i-16. Print.
- Tavernier, Jan. "An Achaemenid Royal Inscription: The Text of Paragraph 13 of the Aramaic Version of the Bisitun Inscription." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 60.3 (2001): 61-176. Print.
- Wilson-Wright, Aren. "From Persepolis to Jerusalem: A Reevaluation of Old Persian-Hebrew Contact in the Achaemenid Period." Vetus Testamentum 65.1 (2015): 152-67. Print.