Iran's Bistun Inscription, the Great Persian Treasure

Bistun Inscription, the Great Persian TreasureBistun Inscription, the Great Persian Treasure

Some 30 km to the northeast of Kermanshah city along the ancient caravan route connecting the ancient capitals of Babylonia and Media, (between present day Baghdad, Iraq and Hamedan, Iran) lies the greatest inscription the world has ever seen along with illustrations that  attract every traveler and passerby.

The inscription became one of the world’s most momentous finds, when it made deciphering cuneiform script possible.

The Bistun inscription bears unique testimony to the Persian Empire and the interchange of influences in art and writing in the region, according to Encyclopaedia Iranica.

The inscription accompanied by life-sized bas-relief illustrations are engraved high up the Bistun limestone cliff, covering an area of 15 meters high and 25 meters wide.

The inscription whose author was Darius the Great, sometime between his coronation as king of the Persian Empire in the summer of 522 BC, and his death in autumn of 486 BC, begins with a brief autobiography of Darius, including his ancestry and lineage. Later in it, Darius provides a lengthy sequence of events following the deaths of Cyrus the Great and Cambyses II in which he fought nineteen battles in a period of one year (ending in December 521 BC) to put down multiple rebellions throughout the Persian empire. The inscription states in detail that the rebellions proclaimed kinghood during the upheaval following Cyrus’s death.


The bas-relief is high above the ground level and is hardly visible without the use of binoculars.

The scene portrays Darius the King’s victory; it shows him holding a bow as a sign of kingship, while Ahura Mazda’s symbolic celestial figure can be seen hovering above his head, giving blessing to the king. With his left foot Darius is trampling upon the rebel Gaumata (pretender) lying prostrate at his feet. Two persons are standing behind Darius, while nine governors from different nations are seen before him enchained. The name and nationality of each rebel governor have also been inscribed.

  Decoding the Codes

The story of Darius has been written in three versions in three different cuneiform script languages: Old Persian in 414 lines and five columns, Elamite in 593 lines and  eight columns, and Babylonian in 112 lines.

Surprisingly enough, Henry Rawlinson, a subaltern officer in the British army who was serving Iran back in the 19th century, began the process of deciphering the scripts which until that time had baffled scholars.

Rawlinson’s fascination with cuneiform began shortly after he was posted to the Near East. His first relevant activity was to copy the trilingual inscriptions of Darius I (r. 522-486 BC) and Xerxes I (r. 486-465 BC) at Mount Alvand near Hamedan in April 1835.

Not long after he had his first sight of Bistun, but his military duties prevented him from investigating the inscriptions until more than a year later. In late May 1836 he climbed repeatedly up to the ledge to copy the first lines of the Old Persian; in early 1837 he transcribed almost half of the Old Persian and finished the rest of it in the first week in September. From 4-10 September 1844, he recopied the Old Persian and took squeezes (paper casts) of the Elamite and the detached Babylonian labels—and carved his name below the inscriptions. Not until September 1847 did he copy the main Babylonian text: by telescope twice over, and by hiring a “wild Kurdish boy” to scramble up the cliff, rig a sort of bosun’s chair and make squeezes.

In 1838, he completed decoding of the Old Persian cuneiform text. In translating the Elamite and Babylonian texts he received help from his compatriots.  

In 1948 Dr. G. Cameron in the University of Chicago corrected Rawlinson’s errors.

  Mount Bistun Treasures

Bistun Mountain has several other must-sees and stories to be heard.

A legend told by the great Persian poet Ferdowsi (940–1020 CE), goes that a man named Farhad was strongly in love with a woman named Shirin. Based on the story, Khosrow Parviz, a Persian king, ordered Farhad to cut through Mount Bistun to reach water; if successful he would be able to join his beloved.

However, with passage of time, and when the mountain was cut by half, Farhad was told Shirin had passed away. The lover threw down his axe and himself passed away.

Up to this time, 28 historical monuments cradled in Mount Bistun have been inscribed in the national heritage list.

The Bistun inscription itself became a UNESCO World Heritage site in January 2005.