On the sacred mountain of Bisotun in western Iran’s Kermanshah province is a remarkable multilingual inscription carved on a limestone cliff about 60 m above the plain. Located along one of the main routes linking Persia with Mesopotamia, the inscription is illustrated by a life-sized bas-relief of its creator, the Achaemenid (Persian) king Darius I, and other figures. It is unique, being the only known monumental text of the Achaemenids to document a specific historic event, that of the re-establishment of the empire by Darius I the Great. Moreover, Bisotun is an outstanding testimony to the important interchange of human values on the development of monumental art and writing, reflecting ancient traditions in monumental bas-reliefs. The inscription, which has three versions of the same text written in three different languages, was the first cuneiform writing to be deciphered in the 19th century. The inscription at Bisotun (meaning “place of gods”), which is about 15 m high by 25 m wide, was created on the orders of King Darius I in 521 BC. Much of it celebrates his victories over numerous pretenders to the Persian Empire’s throne. The inscription was written in three different cuneiform script languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian. Once deciphered in the 19th century, it opened the door to previously unknown aspects of ancient civilizations. In that sense, the inscription at Bisotun has had a value for Assyriology comparable to that of the Rosetta Stone for Egyptology. The monumental bas-relief associated with the text includes an image of King Darius holding a bow as a sign of sovereignty, and treading on the chest of a figure which lies on his back before him. According to legend, the figure represents Gaumāta, the pretender to the throne whose assassination led to Darius’ rise to power. This symbolic representation of the Achaemenid king in relation to his enemy reflects traditions in monumental bas-reliefs that date from ancient Egypt and the Middle East, and which were subsequently further developed during the Achaemenid and later empires. The 187-ha site of Bisotun also features remains from prehistoric times to the Median period (8th to 7th centuries BCE) as well as from the Achaemenid (6th to 4th centuries BCE) and post-Achaemenid periods. Its most significant period, however, was from the 6th century BCE to the 6th century CE.

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Bisotun

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