Acts 29 - The Rock of Behistun

The Rock of Behistun

by Dr Campbell Thompson (1937) who investigated the Rock of Behistun on behalf of the British Museum.


(Page 761) Two of the most important events in the advancement of historical knowledge have been the discovery of the key to the Egyptian hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone and the deciphering of the cuneiform inscriptionson the Rock of Behistun. The former opened the door to the Wonderland of Egyptian history, and the latter brought daylight into the dark places of antiquity in the Middle East, revealing to the modern world the vanished civilizations of Mesopotamia in all the truth of contemporary record. The Rosetta Stone is the subject of another chapter of this work: here Dr. Campbell Thompson, who investigated the Rock of Behistun on behalf of the British Museum, tells its story. (Sir J. A. Hammerton, editor of the Wonders of the Past)

Text of the article

(Page 761) Two days' journey south-west from the ancient Summer Palace of Ecbatana, along the old caravan-road leading down to Babylon, a towering rock bastion nearly 4,000 feet high marks the end of one of the many great earth-folds of the crumpled Persian border. At its foot a spring wells out in a broad pool, and meanders across the rich, broad vale of the Karkhah, where the rains of spring are kindly and deck the plains with grass and the mountain crannies with flowers. Here, between scaur and well-head, where slow caravans have crawled the ages through, the well-worn track passes the sordid little village of Behistun. More than five hundred years B.C. the Great King, the king of Kings, the King of Persia, the King of the Provinces, Darius, took counsel where he should worthily grave the story of his reign. It must be set in a place which all should see, and yet be safe from the ravages of time and the malice of enemies; it must be written in several languages, that foreigners as well as Persians might know his glory; it must be shown in picture as well as in the written word, that those poor illiterates who could not read might yet tremble at the great king's vengeance. His choice fell on this rock-face at Behistun, a hundred feet and more above the pool, in a gully masked by the last crags. In 516 B.C. his scribes composed the great history in three languages, and in Persian, Susian, and Babylonish cuneiform the engravers chiselled it in thirteen columns in the smooth vertical surface, and then, above the five tall columns of Persian writing, twelve feet high, his artists carved a delicate panel with a life-sized figure of the king in relief, receiving the submission of ten rebel upstarts who had challenged his right to the throne.

In course of time the Achaemenid kingdom went the way of other Oriental monarchies, leaving the dumb witness of ruined cities, sculptures, and above all, this great rock-picture, safeguarded by its height above the road, to testify to a power long dead. Legends grew fast round such a marvel, and travellers carried away strange tales of its rugged scarps, inscribed with unknown writings. Diodorus, a contemporary of Julius Caesar, called it the "Bagistanon" mountain, the forerunner of its modern name, and told a wonderful tale how Semiramis, Queen of Babylon, ordered it to be carved, climbing the face of the (Page 763) mountain on a heap of pack saddles from her baggage train piled against the rock. The place was held sacred, said he; and to this day the Persian women come to hang their little votive scraps of rag on a bush beneath, as though it were some saint's tomb, in token of their dues to its mystery. Others who visited Persia in later times spoke of its wonder when they returned to Europe; many let their fancy run wild in their explanation of its meaning. Bembo in the seventeenth, Otter in the eighteenth century, tells of it; nay, Gardanne in 1809 avers that the picture is meant for the Twelve Apostles, and Ker Porter 1827, hardly less fanciful, thinks it to be Shalmaneser and the captive Tribes of Israel.

In 1835 Henry Rawlinson, a young English soldier, twenty-five years old, was sent as Assistant to the Governor of Kermanshah. His attention was turned to the cuneiform inscriptions at Elwend near Ecbatana, and, as a soldier whose scholarly side ill brooked long periods of boredom, he set himself to decipher the strange nknown tongue in which they were written. In his "Memoir" he says that he was aware that a German professor, Grotefend, about the beginning of the century, had deciphered some of the names of the early sovereigns of the house of Achaemenes, but in his isolated position at Kermanshah he could neither obtain a copy of the German's alphabet, nor discover which were the inscriptions that he (Page 764) had used. Actually Grotefend had made out the names of Hystaspes, Darius, and Xerxes from two short inscriptions accurately copied by Niebuhr at Persepolis in 1765, subsequently discovering the name of Cyrus, and from these he was able to assign correct values to about a third of the old Persian cuneiform alphabet, which consists of between forty and fifty characters. Closely after his labours must be reckoned those of Professor Lassen, who had deciphered about six more characters by 1836, and the names Tychsen, Munter, Burnouf, Rask, Beer, Jacquet, and Saint Martin must be accorded full title to their share in the decipherment of the inscriptions.

None of the work of these scholars had as yet reached the young Englishman, who applied himself to the task of decipherment unaided. There was no Rosetta Stone to give the translation of the strange characters; nothing but the unyielding problem of unknown names. Unconsciously he followed the method which Grotefend had employed. He compared two inscriptions, in this case at Elwend, which had been set up side by side, and found that they were identically the same except in two short passages of a few characters each. But t e first of these two groups in the first inscription coincided with the second group in the second inscription, and Rawlinson's genius suggested, first, that these groups must be the names of kings concerned in setting up the inscriptions and second, if so, the first name in the first inscription must represent the father of the king who set up the second. He was right. He took the names of the three most famous Persian kings in history, Hystaspes, Darius, and Xerxes, applied them to his theory, and found that the values for the characters which their names provided stood the test wherever the same characters reappeared in the names. The threshold was crossed.

But although Rawlinson, as well as foreign scholars, had so brilliantly deciphered the value of some of the characters, the names of some of the kings, and even of countries mentioned in the text, the meaning of the inscriptions and the language in which they were couched were still a sealed book.

The Englishman had long been attracted by the problem of the Behistun inscription, and during his sojourn in Persia he set himself to unravel its meaning. By the end of 1837 he had so far overcome the difficulties involved in scaling the rock-face and copying the cuneiform text, that he had completed a version of about half of the Persian text, and in this year he forwarded to the Royal Asiatic Society, which has always shown a deep appreciation of scholarship of this nature, a translation of the two first paragraphs of the Behistun inscription, recording the titles and genealogy of Darius. Unfortunately he was compelled to break into his studies by his being transferred from "the lettered seclusion of Bagdad to fill a responsible and laborious office in Afghanistan," but 1843 again found him in the City of the Caliphs, eager to continue his labours. For many years past he applied himself to Zend, the oldest Pers an dialect known, and it was his application of this language to the Persian cuneiform inscriptions which brought about his extraordinary exploit of translating the whole of the Persian inscription of Behistun for the first time. His decipherment of the characters which composed the proper names allowed him first to transliterate the inscription and so know how the words sounded, and his genius for languages then led him to their correct affinities with other dialects. His "Memoir," giving a complete translation with notes was published in 1846.

Lassen, however, must not be forgotten in according the due meed of praise to the pioneers of translation as well as decipherment, for he, too (independently, but simultaneously with Rawlinson), applied himself to the Persepolitan inscriptions with definitely satisfactory results, publishing his rendering of them in 1844.

Rawlinson was not content only with the Persian part of the inscription. In 1844 he once more, this time with two companions, climbed the rock, crossed the chasm between the Persian and Susian columns, and copied the Susian version. Again in 1847 he hoped to attack the Babylonian version, which is cut on two faces of a ponderous verhanging boulder above the sheer face of the Susian columns. To this he did not himself climb, but found a Kurdish boy who scaled the height from a flank, and in a swinging seat took squeezes under Rawlinson's direction. With the Persian version now thoroughly understood, it was only a matter of time to elucidate the Susian and the Babylonian. The former yielded to the energy of Hinks, Westergaard, de Saulcy, and particularly Norris; the latter to Rawlinson, Hincks, Oppert and Fox Talbot, who showed that the Babylonian was a Semitic language allied to Hebrew. The great problem of cuneiform had been solved.

Subsequently Professor Williams Jackson in 1903 visited the inscription, and, climbing to the Persian ledge, re-examined the lower part this text. But by this time the squeezes which Rawlinson had made of the inscription and stored in the British Museum were decaying, and particularly the Babylonian version, read thus from squeezes, was probably capable of considerable improvement. It was obvious that any advance in our knowledge of text, Persian, Susian and Babylonian, must be made by a collation of the Rock itself, and in 1904 the Trustees of the British Museum decided to send an expedition down to the Rock.

To this end Dr. L. W. King, and I as his junior, left for Mosul in April, 1904, for Behistun. On our arrival there our first view of the inscription suggested that it must first be attacked from behind, and a spot was found two hundred feet above the sculpture, whence we could shake down two ropes until they reached its face. Then, after scaling the rock from below to the ledge of the base of the inscription, we were able to tie two cradles to these ropes, adding lengths of stouter rope wherewith we might climb into them. The first part of the ascent from below was an almost perpendicular scramble of 12 feet or so, with handholds on tufts of grass, and footholds on soil or projecting stone; thence upward, in a gentle ascent to the right, the line of approach lay along the smooth rock, broken only by one gap with a sheer long drop to earth beneath. From here the way up was comparatively easy to the right-hand side of the Persian inscription. After we had evolved this route together, happily without native help, pegs and a rope-rail were fastened along it, making the daily climb a trivial matter.
Rawlinson, "Archaeologia," xxxiv., 1853, 74, says: "Notwithstanding that a French antiquarian commission in Persia described it a few years back to be impossible to copy the Behistun inscriptions, I certainly do not consider it any great feat in climbing to ascend to the spot where (Page 766) the inscriptions occur. When I was living at Kermanshah fifteen years ago, and was somewhat more active than I am at present, I used frequently to scale the rock three or four times a day without the aid of a rope or ladder: without any assistance, in fact, whatever. During my late visits I have found it more convenient to ascend and descend by the help of ropes where the track lies up a precipitate cleft, and to throw a plank over those chasms where a false step in leaping across would probably be fatal." The Babylonian overhang, however, he did not copy himself but, as is mentioned above, sent a Kurdish boy up to take squeezes. "The craigsmen of the place . . . . . declared the particular block inscribed with the Babylonian legend to be unapproachable."
Beneath the fifth Persian column was a ledge of some six feet which narrowed almost to nothing near the first column, beyond which, on a salient face, were the three columns of the Susian, of the same height as the Persian, but across a chasm, of which Rawlinson had spoken. In front of these, too, was a ledge, which we found could be easily reached by swinging across on our ropes. The Babylonian, written on an overhanging boulder twelve feet above this, was a more difficult problem. From a vantage-point high above the inscription our men could raise or lower the cradles to the right height on the face of the inscription, or to the sculpture above the Persian columns; after they had made fast the ends above, we climbed into the cradles and thus sat, collating and photographing the inscriptions and sculptures for the next sixteen days. We were able to reach and collate the Babylonian overhang by swinging across to the Susian ledge and then climbing the ropes to a ledge above the Susian, and thence, again sitting in the cradles, working our way round the inscribed face of the boulder by hands or knees. The great sculpture was photographed with a hand camera either from here at an angle, or piecemeal direct at five feet distance by pushing the cradles away from the rock with our feet. The results were published by the Trustee "The Inscription of Darius the Great at Behistun," where full details and photographs will be found.

Throughout, what was most striking was great accuracy of Rawlinson's copies. The Persian columns alone contain more than fifteen thousand characters, and his work showed surprisingly few errors, considering the difficulties of every kind with which he had to contend.
The inscription itself tells the ancient glory of Persia at its zenith, before Darius had challenged (Page 767) the Greeks and had been defeated in 490 at Marathon. It begins with the genealogy of Darius, traced direct to Achaemenes, and then refers to the reign of Cambyses, who had preceded Darius, the murder of Smerdis (the brother of Cambyses), and the revolt of the Persians during the absence of Cambyses on his campaign in Egypt. At this moment Gaumata, the Magian, seizing his opportunity, declared himself to be Smerdis, the son of Cyrus, with a claim to the throne. Cambyses hastened homewards, but died on the way, and Gaumata, as the Babylonian contract tablets show, held sway for a brief period.

It was Darius, the son of Hystaspes, who challenged the usurper, and, marching against him with a small force, slew him and took the throne. But revolts broke out in many of the provinces, and the first years of Darius were spent in subduing them. Nidintu-Bel seized Babylon, claiming to be Nebuchadnezzar; Martiya headed a revolution in Susiana: in Media Phraortes gave himself out to be Khshathritha, of the family of Cyaxares, and led another revolt. These were dealt with successfully, and the unfortunate pretenders are to be seen with several others, equally unsuccessful, on the sculptured panel above the inscription. The king stands with his arm raised and his foot on Gaumata; behind him are his generals or satraps. Before him, roped one to another, come the recalcitrant chiefs in the following order: Atrina, the first Susian pretender; Nidintu-Bel, of Babylon; Fravartish (Phraortes), of Media; Martiza, the second Susian pretender; Citrantakhma, of Sagartia; Vahyazdata, the second pseudo-Smerdis; Arakha, the second Babylonian pretender; Frada, of Margiana; and subsequently, at the cost of destroying part of the Susian inscription, Skunkha, the Scythian, in his high peaked hat was added.

It is a nice point whether the inscription is a finer memorial to the Persian, Darius, who wrote it, or to the Englishman, Rawlinson, who deciphered it.

Thompson, R. Campbell. "The Rock of Behistun". Wonders of the Past. Edited by Sir J. A. Hammerton. Vol. II. New York: Wise and Co., 1937. (p. 760-767)