Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Bisotoun Inscription

The Bisotoun Inscription (کتیبه بیستون)
is a multilingual Achaemenid royal inscription and large rock relief on a cliff at Mount Bisotoun in Kermanshah Province. It was discovered in 1598 after Englishman Robert Sherley saw the inscription during a diplomatic mission to Safavid Persia on behalf of Austria, and brought it to the attention of Western European scholars. Since then translations of the text has been done in various stages and by different researchers. It was important to the decipherment of cuneiform, as it is the longest known trilingual cuneiform inscription, written in Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian.  Over the millennia all the inscriptions on the rock at Bisotoun, especially the Babylonian version, have suffered severe damage from erosion by rain and drifting sand and from seasonal torrents. Further damage has been done during World War II by Allied soldiers using the figures in the relief as shooting targets.

The inscription is approximately 15 meters high by 25 meters wide and 100 meters up a limestone cliff from an ancient road connecting the capitals of Babylonia and Media (Babylon and Ecbatana, respectively). It is believed that Darius placed the inscription in an inaccessible position to make it tamper-resistant. Readability took second place to this demand: the text is completely illegible from ground level. 

The inscription was illustrated by a life-sized bas-relief of Darius I, the Great, holding a bow as a sign of kingship, with his left foot on the chest of a figure lying supine before him. The supine figure is reputed to be the pretender Gaumata, a userper pretending to be son of Cyrus the Great and the younger brother of Cambyses II

Darius is attended to the left by two servants, and nine one-meter figures stand to the right, with hands tied and rope around their necks, representing conquered peoples (impostors and their co-conspirators in various cities throughout the empire, each of whom falsely proclaimed himself king during the upheaval following Cambyses II's death). A Faravahar floats above, giving its blessing to the king. 

One figure appears to have been added after the others were completed, as was Darius's beard, which is a separate block of stone attached with iron pins and lead.

It is believed that the first main inscription was in Elamite to the right of the figures. Soon after the Elamite original was inscribed the Babylonian version was added to the left on a projecting slope that looks like a huge clay tablet leaning against the rock, not on a perpendicular flat surface, as all the other texts. Engraving began at a level well above the top of the relief, but, when it became apparent that the entire text would not fit on the rock face, the further left face of the projection was also dressed, and engraving continued there. Later in the same year the Old Persian text was added underneath. The Elamite text later had to be moved. After the defeat of the Elamites under Atamaita (not portrayed on the relief) and the Scythians under Skunkha in Darius’s second and third regnal years, the figure of Skunkha had to be added to the right end of the queue of subdued rebels. It had thus to be cut into the first Elamite text, which had to be completely abandoned and therefore was meticulously copied and placed to the left of the Old Persian version. This second Elamite text was carved on a carefully dressed surface where the rock with the Babylonian version had been undercut. In the final stage, six more paragraphs recording the recent events were added to the Old Persian text in a separate, fifth, column.

Authored by 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, the inscription begins with a brief autobiography of Darius, including his ancestry and lineage:

“My father is Hystaspes; the father of Hystaspes was Arsames; the father of Arsames was Ariaramnes; the father of Ariaramnes was Teispes; the father of Teispes was Achaemenes.”

“That is why we are called Achaemenids; from antiquity we have been noble; from antiquity has our dynasty been royal.”

“Eight of my dynasty were kings before me; I am the ninth. Nine in succession we have been kings. “

Later in the inscription, Darius provides a lengthy sequence of events following the death of 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 were orchestrated by individuals claiming the throne following Cambyses II's death. Darius the Great proclaimed himself victorious in all battles during a one-year period of upheaval, attributing his success to the "grace of Ahura Mazda".

The Bisotoun Inscription became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006.


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