I was giving the lower slopes of Mount Bisotun a good eyeballing as I approached, hoping vainly to espy the famous cliff inscriptions of Darius I from afar. The inscriptions eluded me; all I could see was a carving of another sort: an enormous, flat, blank panel at the base of the mountain. It looked like a giant drive-in cinema screen, or some kind of titanic advertising space. More likely, of course, is that it is a remnant of a quarry or mining operation.
Then I spot the Bisotun Inscription and I forget about the strange blank panel. Or to be more accurate I spot the scaffolding obscuring the inscription – the scaffolding, which has been up for years (and is unlikely to come down any time soon), provides access to the inscription for ongoing archaeological analysis.
The Bisotun Inscription
The Bisotun Inscription isn’t small; it’s 15 metres high and 25 metres wide, but as the carving is a hundred metres above ground level you can’t make out much by eye. Be sure to bring along a camera with a decent zoom lens, or a pair of binoculars, if you want to view the inscription in detail.
Why did they place the inscription so high up the mountain? No one knows for sure.
Why was it put on the slopes of Mount Bisotun? That we do know. A road in the valley below connected the ancient cities of Babylon, in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), and Medea (now Hamadan, Iran). Putting the inscription here meant all who entered Persia by this route would learn of the might of Darius I.
The Bisotun Inscription was created sometime around 500 BCE for Darius I, who was also known as Darius the Great (and who was entombed at Naqsh-e Rustam). Darius is shown standing on the back of a defeated combatant. He is casting his gaze over nine wrist-bound individuals, who represent vanquished enemies.
Above their heads is the Faravahar, an Achaemenid symbol thought to have been a royal emblem of the Achaemenids (which later became a sign of Zoroastrianism, and is used today as a secular symbol of Iran).
The illustration is remarkable, but it is the text below and around the illustrations that makes the inscription so important. The 1,200 lines of text you can see in the photo above – which outline Darius’s lineage, and describe in detail the turmoil that followed the death of Emperor Cyrus, including the many rebellions quashed by Darius, and his ascendency to the throne – are written in three forms of cuneiform: Babylonian, Elamite, and old Persian.
It was this trilingual translation that led to the cracking of the cuneiform scripts. The Bisotun Inscription is every bit the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone (which also included three languages, and led to the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics).
Seleucid Statue of Herakles
There’s more to see at the Bisotun archaeological site than just the inscription (which is lucky because many people are disappointed with the distant, indistinct, partially-obstructed view of the Darius inscription). There is actually quite an odd mix of artefacts here from various historical periods, such as this cartoonish statue of Hercules, created in 148 BCE during the reign of the Seleucid Empire (the Seleucids were a Hellenistic culture that came to rule the lands of Iran after they were conquered by Alexander the Great).
The statue was only discovered in 1958. And then, in 1979, its head, bowl-carrying hand, and genitals, were broken off by vandals. The head and hand have been replaced. Not so the genitals.
Sasanid palace, Ilkhanid and Safavid caravanserai
Below the ruins lie the remains of a palace that dates to the Sasanid Empire, and which is believed to be the royal residence of Shirin, queen to Khosrow II (who reigned from 590 CE to 628 CE).
There are also the ruins of a caravanserai from the Ilkhanid period (from the mid-13th to the mid-14th Centuries when Iran was ruled by the Mongol Empire), and a more complete caravanserai from the Safavid era (the Safavids ruled Iran between 1501 CE and 1736 CE).
Then there is the Balash Stone, a boulder with bas-reliefs on three sides, from the Parthian era (between 247 BCE and 224 CE). And there is the Mithradata II Relief, was also created in the Parthian era, and largely destroyed during the Safavid era.
And if that deluge of historical sites from various Persian eras wasn’t enough already, there’s also a cave at Bisotun that was used by hunting parties in the Palaeolithic era. Finds inside the cave include stone tools and an arm bone that archaeologists believe belonged to a neanderthal.
And of course there is that enormous, obscure, blank panel in the base of the cliff. While its exact purpose is unknown, it’s thought that it was created during the reign of Sasanid king Khosrow II (yes, the same Khosrow II who built a palace nearby for his queen, Shirin. It’s possible that some of the stones that were carved out of the cliff to create this panel were even used in the construction of her palace).
You don’t grasp the size of this strange carving till you are standing alongside it. It’s 36 metres high and 200 metres long (a standard IMAX cinema screen, for comparison, is 16 metres high and 22 metres wide).
Why is it blank? The obvious answer is that they never got around to carving it.
What happened in between carving out the the blank panel and putting in the detail? No one knows.
What was intended to be carved here? No one knows.
Whatever it was, I feel that Khosrow II, like all those who visit Bisotun, looked up at the distant, indistinct inscription of Darius I, and thought to himself, what a silly place to put an inscription!
Khosrow II went one step further than the rest of us though, and set out to make an inscription that no one could miss. Pity he never finished it.
Bisotun is 40 kilometres from the city of Kermanshah in western Iran. It takes about thirty minutes to reach the site in a taxi. It is also possible to reach the site using local buses.