The Behistun Inscription- The Iranian Rosetta Stone

By: The Scribe on Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Translating ancient languages can be difficult if there is no method of unlocking them. Archaeologists may have still been puzzling over ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics if it wasn’t for the Rosetta Stone. This was a stone that had text written on it in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, demotic script and Ancient Greek. Although there were some differences between the three languages, they were similar enough that it was possible to translate back and forth between the three written languages.

This is a portion of the text that appears on the Behistun InscriptionArchaeologists discovered another similar piece of inscription on Mount Behistun in Iran. Unlike the Rosetta Stone, where the author is unknown, it was very clear that the author of the Behistun Inscription was none other than Darius the Great, the man who ruled the Achaemenid Empire. The empire included Egypt, Balochistan and even parts of Greece. The inscription was one of the many massive projects that Darius undertook. Many of his other projects were architectural in nature. During his reign, Darius constructed palaces in Persepolis and Susa and also linked the Red Sea to the Nile river by means of a canal. This was completed and opened in 497 BCE. While the piece was first discovered in the mid 10th century, it was not until 1598 that it was mentioned to Western scholars.

The inscription was written in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. Translating it would prove to be very difficult for several reasons. One was the obscure nature of some of the languages that made up the inscription. The second was the positioning of the inscription itself. While it is quite large (the entire piece measures 15 meters high by 25 meters wide) it is located 100 meters above the ground. There is a ledge that runs below the inscription but the area is hard to get to as individuals who want to study the inscription need to deal with a limestone cliff that makes it difficult to reach the inscription. Some areas of the inscription are difficult to reach because of the presence of chasms, but scientists have constructed bridges in order to reach the areas that could not be recorded in the past.The terrain makes the inscription hard to reach for study

While the majority of the inscription is text, there are some illustrations as well. The piece features several bas-reliefs. One is of Darius I, the Great. In the piece, he is shown with a bow in his hands, an ancient symbol or sign of kingship. He has his left foot resting on the chest of a figure who is lying before him. This is believed to represent Gautama (a magus who was believed to have impersonated a relative of two ancient Persian kings).

The inscription has had to withstand more than just weather and time. Like many of the monuments in ancient Egypt, the inscription also sustained damage after being used for target practice during World War II. Starting in 1999, archaeologists began to document the inscription and the damages it suffered. They are using photographic methods to record the inscription and preserve it in case the site became damaged further in the future. They are also attempting to conserve it and have turned the site into a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


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