surveyors are giving the finishing touches to the documentation
process of Behistun inscription, which is damaged badly over the
last decades west of Iran.
The Behistun inscription (also Behistun, Bisutun, and Bisistun)
is to cuneiform what the Rosetta Stone is to Egyptian
hieroglyphs: the document most crucial in the decipherment of a
previously lost script.
The inscription is approximately 15 meters high by 25 meters
wide, and 100 meters up a cliff from an ancient road connecting
the capitals of Babylon and Ecbatana. It is extremely
inaccessible as the mountainside was removed to make the
inscription more visible after its completion. The text itself
is a statement by Darius the Great, written three times in three
different scripts and languages: two languages side by side,
Aryan (Old Persian) and Elamite, and Akkadian above them.
“The documentation process was started in 1999 by a group of
Iranian experts, who applied the photogrameteric method. In
other words, they took 2 dimensional photos using two cameras
and then transmuted them into 3-D pictures,” said Malieh
Mehdiabadi, project manager.
The project was scheduled to finish in 2003, but Ms. Mehdiabadi
said that lack of funds had postponed the operation, whose ideal
time of the year is in spring. “The photogrameteric process,
anyways, is coming to an end and we are hopeful it will lead to
better preservation of the inscription,” she further added.
King of Kings Darius the Great ruled the Iranian Empire from 521
to 486 BC. Some time around 515 BC, he arranged for the
inscription of a long ode of his accession in the face of the
usurper Geomata (and Darius' subsequent successful wars and
suppressions of rebellion) to be inscribed into a cliff in the
Zagros Mountains of Iran, just as one reaches them from the
inscription was illustrated by a life-sized bas-relief of
Darius, two servants, and ten one-meter figures representing
conquered peoples; the God Ahura Mazda floats above, giving his
blessing to the king of kings. One figure appears to have been
added after the others were completed, as was (oddly enough)
Darius' beard, which is a separate block of stone attached with
iron pins and lead.
The first historical mention of the inscription is by the Greek
Ctesias of Cnidus, who noted its existence some time around 400
BC. Also Tacitus mentions it and includes a description of some
of the long-lost ancillary monuments at the base of the cliff,
where a spring is located. What has been recovered of them is
consistent with his description. Diodorus also writes of "Bagistanon"
and claims it was inscribed by Queen Semiramis of Babylon.
After the fall of the Iranian Empire and its successors, and the
fall of cuneiform writing into disuse, the nature of the
inscription was forgotten and fanciful origins became the norm.
For centuries, instead of being attributed to Darius, it was
believed to be from the reign of Khosrow II Parviz of Sasanid
dynasty. A legend arose that it had been created by Fahrad, a
lover of Khosrow's' wife Shirin. Exiled for his transgression,
Fahrad is given the task of cutting away the mountain to find
water; if he succeeds, he will be given permission to marry
Shirin. After many years and the removal of half the mountain,
he does find water, but is informed by Khosrow that Shirin had
died. He goes mad, and throws himself from the cliff. Shirin is
not dead, naturally, and hangs herself upon hearing the news.
In 1598 the inscription came to the attention of Western Europe
when it was seen by Robert Sherley, an Englishman on a
diplomatic mission to Persia in the service of Austria. His
party came to the conclusion that it was a picture of the
ascension of Jesus Christ. Biblical misinterpretations by
Europeans were rife for the next two centuries, including such
notions as it being Christ and his Apostles, and the tribes of
Israel and Shalmaneser of Assyria.
In 1835 Henry Rawlinson, a British army officer training the
army of the Shah of Iran, began studying the inscription in
earnest. As the town of Bisistun's name was anglicized as "Behistun"
at this time, the monument became known as the "Behistun
Inscription". Despite its inaccessibility, Rawlinson was
able to scale the cliff and copy the Old Persian inscription.
The Elamite was across a chasm, and the Akkadian four metres
above; both were beyond easy reach and were left for later.
Armed with the Persian text, and with about a third of the
syllabary made available to him from the cuneiform expert Georg
Friedrich Grotefend, Rawlinson set to work on deciphering the
text. Fortunately, the first section of this text contained a
list of Persian kings identical to that found in Herodotus, and
by matching the names and the characters, Rawlinson was able to
crack the form of cuneiform used for Old Persian by 1838.
Next came the remaining two texts. After a stretch of service in
Afghanistan, Rawlinson returned in 1843. Using planks he crossed
the gap between the Old Persian text and the Elamite, and copied
that. He was then able to find an enterprising local boy to
climb up a crack in the cliff and rig ropes across the Akkadian
writing, so that papier-mache casts of it could be taken.
Rawlinson set to work and translated the Akkadian writing and
language, working independently of Edward Hincks, Julius Oppert
and William Henry Fox Talbot, who also contributed to the
decipherment; Edwin Norris and others were the first to do the
same for the Elamite. As three of the primary languages of
Mesopotamia, and three variations of the cuneiform script, these
decipherments were one of the keys to putting Assyriology on a
It is believed that Darius the Great placed the inscription
where he did specifically to make it tamper-resistant. Even
readability -- the text is completely illegible from ground
level -- took second place to this imperative. Unfortunately,
the king of kings did not account for the pool at the bottom
which first caused to a road to be run through the area; the
crack into which the local boy wedged himself is the outlet of a
small stream of underground water, non-existent at the time of
the inscription and now dry, but perhaps the source of the tale
of Fahrad's quest for water. It has caused considerable
destruction to some figures. Darius also did not anticipate
gunpowder, and his monument suffered some damage due to British
soldiers barbarically taking potshots at it during World War II.