Rock of Behistun – Achaemenid Empire (6th century BC)

  behistun view 2

For this post, I wanted to write about an astonishing artwork, and what better creation for that than the magnificent Rock of Behistun (also known as Bisotun) in Iran. Indeed, on a limestone cliff a hundred meters high there is an inscription and a relief. This entire work is 15 meters high and 25 meters wide. It was made during the two first years of Darius’ reign, in 521-519 BC. Not only striking, this inscription is essential for historians as it give them one version of Darius’ accession to the throne (the other one being from Greek historians such as Herodotus) and it helped Rawlinson transcribe cuneiform as the Rosetta stone did for hieroglyphs.

The story begins like this. Cyrus the Great chose his son Cambyses II instead of his older son Bardiya as his successor to the throne. While Cambyses II was conquering Egypt, a man claiming to be Bardiya stole the throne. Cambyses II was on his way back to the capital when he died. Later, Darius killed Bardiya, seized power and restored monarchy. He had only a year to justify this seizure and he needed to go big. He chose a cliff on the road connecting Ecbatana, Babylon and Susa, three of the main cities in the Empire. He also chose a place near a spring because the combination of water and rock gave it more magic. This place might also be where he killed Gaumata. The Rock of Behistun is composed of a relief in the center and, on three of its sides, a long trilingual inscription in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian.

                            behistun 2

The relief depicts a victory scene which exalts the power of the king and illustrates the inscription. Darius, in a heroic size, wears the Persian ceremonial dress and a carved crown. With his left foot, he steps on a man who is begging him for mercy. Darius carries in his left hand a bow (royal symbol) and his right hand is up towards a winged disc from which a character is emerging. This character is often seen as the Empire’s God, Ahuramazda. Standing in front of Darius, 9 prisoners (whom names are known by the inscription) are bound together by a rope around their neck, and their hands are tied behind their backs. Behind the king, there are two dignitaries holding his weapons (spear, bow and quiver).

                           behistun drawing

The inscription helps us understand what is happening in the relief. It starts out with Darius’ biography and genealogy where he invents a common ancestor with Cyrus, which will make it easier for him to keep the throne. Later on, there are stories of many battles he won, especially rebellions while Cambyses II was in Egypt. According to him, he was chosen by Ahuramazda to defeat imposters to the throne. Indeed, the man who claimed to be Bardiya was actually named Gaumata. Bardiya was killed by Cambyses II who tried to keep it secret, but Gaumata (a Mede) knew about it and took advantage of it. In the inscription, Darius says he knew Bardiya was dead, and that the man was an imposter. That’s how Darius justifies the murder and seizure of the throne.

Thanks to the story, we know that the man under Darius’ foot is Gaumata and that he needed to put down eight out of the nine characters who proclaim to be kings. The ninth one revolted later and was added to the relief, which disturbed the inscription. At first, Elamite was on the right, Old Persian underneath, and Babylonian on the left. However by adding the new character, they had to erase the first Elamite column, which had to be written somewhere else, and they also needed to tell the story of the recent events. A Elamite copy was inscribed on the left of the Old Persian where they added 6 new paragraphs. They didn’t modify the other versions because there was no room for it.

This inscription is quite impressive by the size but also the place. As I said, it is a hundred meters high and the access is very difficult. Since 2006, the Rock of Behistun is part of the UNESCO’s World Heritage List.


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