Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge. The podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.
Today we move east for our first visit to Iran. We travel back two and a half thousand years to the time of Darius the Great, ruler of the Persian “Achaemenid” empire. Under Darius, Persian rule stretched from India as far west as Eastern Europe, engulfing the ancient Middle East. Darius celebrated his successes by creating a monument high above the road between the great capital cities of Babylon in Iraq and Ecbatana in Iran. Nowadays, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The words of the great king still echo loudly today. They form the text carved into cuneiform’s equivalent of the Rosetta Stone: Behistun. Our guest has spent many years examining the monument. He’s photographed it extensively, and shared his photos with the world. He’s painstakingly reconstructed the text of one of the three languages into which the inscription was copied. His work introduces us to several ideas: the importance of working with original sources; the relationship between technology and scholarship; and the value of looking again, at even the best known objects. A fresh pair of eyes can often bring new insights.
Our guest has been working with the most stubborn of Behistun’s three languages, the one called Elamite. This was the language of a group that lived in western Iran. Since records began many centuries earlier, the history of the Elamites had been inextricably linked with that of their Mesopotamian neighbours. Now, power had passed from the Elamite dynasties to the Persians, but their language retained prestige, and was still used as the main language of administration.
So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable. And let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you very much for joining us.
Hello, and thank you very much for your inviting me.
Could you tell us please: who are you and what do you do?
My name is Saber Amiri Parian. I am an independent scholar who work on the Elamite version of the Behistun inscription. For about 10 years, I have been working on the Elamite texts, and especially about the Achaemenid era; I am working on the Elamite version of the Behistun inscription.
Your work centres on Behistun. That’s a name that everyone who’s ever studied the ancient Middle East will know very well indeed. But it’s not as well-known as it deserves to be more generally. Could you start by telling us what and where Behistun is please? And why is it so important?
First of all, I tell you about the Behistun monuments. The Behistun monument was created by Darius the Great, the Achaemenid king, the Persian empire king, in the late sixth century BC to commemorate his victories over the rebellious kings, and establishing his empire through the ancient Near East. It is located near Kermanshah province in Iran and contains a number of reliefs. Reliefs of the king, his two courtiers, relief of Gaumata the magus or Smerdis, lying under Darius’s feet, and reliefs of nine seized kings, holed by rope, was standing in line in front of Darius.
Surrounding them are several trilingual inscriptions. They are written in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. What’s not simple to mention is that the monument has been carved on a huge cliff, high up on the mount Behistun. It is overlooking the ancient road connecting Babylon in Mesopotamia or modern Iraq to Ecbatana the capital of Media in Iran. One can describe the Behistun inscription as Darius’ declaration to future people, representing his res gestae of the early years of his reign. The Behistun inscription had a key role in decipherment of the cuneiform scripts, and reading the enormous cuneiform texts found throughout the Near East. Its role in establishing the field of assyriology shouldn’t be neglected. It contains the largest cuneiform text written on stone. By deciphering it’s cuneiform texts, assyriologists accessed a sheer amount of the signs with the phonetic values; an index so that they used in order to decipher other cuneiform texts. In fact, the Behistun inscription should be considered as an Achaemenid masterpiece, which they placed on a huge belief in accessible to people, to be achieved by scholars thousands of years later. It strongly same as the Rosetta Stone for the decipherment of hieroglyphs.
Why are there three languages used in this monument?
Well, for the first time Achaemenids created trilingual inscriptions. Written in Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian, as three versions of an original text. Behistun is the largest one. In fact, your questions lead us to find the answer [to] the question why Achaemenids left such trilingual inscriptions. In order to answer these questions, one must consider the synchronicity of the Achaemenid Empire with the languages written in cuneiform. Babylonian: Babylon was one of the capital of the Empire. And at that time, the Babylonian cuneiform had the long history. In the south of Iran, where the Achaemenids settled in later, the civilisation of Elam had been established before. And also Susa was one of the capitals of the Achaemenids. The Elamite language also wrote in cuneiform. Thousands of clay tablets found in Persepolis substantiated that the Elamite was the official language in the Achaemenid court in Persepolis and Susa. On the other hand, Old Persian was the vernacular language of the Achaemenids, and they invented a cuneiform script to write its relevant texts. Therefore, you see that three languages Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian appears in the trilingual inscriptions. They should be considered as royal inscriptions. And it seems that Behistun inscription is the first one left by Achaemenids.
You know that first Old Persian languages was deciphered by some scholars same as Grotefend before Rawlinson. And Rawlinson in the 19th century completed the decipherment of the Old Persian and later on of course, some other scholars continued his methods to complete them. Old Persian was written in the cuneiform that seems simple, simpler than the two others. And it’s decipherment was easier than two others. Because Old Persian has the same root as the other languages, same as Avestan and Sanskrit, and belong to indo-European language. Then when Old Persian languages and Old Persian texts was deciphered, it open a way to compare their correspondences in other two texts, in Elamite and Babylonian languages. And by comparing the correspondences, assyriologists became able to decipher the two other texts.
We find two names used for the monument: Behistun and Bisitun. Which one should we be using?
Both names come from the name, Bagastan. That is ancient name which appears in the Greeks as Bagastanon. Today, both names are used to refer to the inscriptions at the mountain. In some Islamic sources, the name Behistun is mentioned in reference to the mountain and the monument. The modern name Bisutun or Bisitun is a popular transformation of the name Behistun, and nowadays is translated as “without column” in Persian. Bisitun means “place without column”. Personally, I prefer using Behistun, because the name Behistun has well preserved the form of old name Bagistan or Behistan. We know that some pioneers same as Rawlinson use Behistun in their records.
Every description of Behistun will detail the work of European travellers and scholars of the 18th and 19th centuries. But Behistun is a very large monument, carved in a place designed to be seen. What local knowledge existed about Behistun before the European travellers?
Behistun is related to Achaemenid memories. Unfortunately, there haven’t been any real information about the Behistun–who created the monument? And who was the king that created Behistun–among the Iranians. Iranians, unfortunately, hadn’t been aware of the real history of the Achaemenids. Their base story was some legends written in such books like Shahnameh. And in such sources, you will not see any information about the real history such as Achaemenids, or for example, Medes’ empire. Their discovery, the real history of ancient Persia or ancient Iran is owed to the efforts of some scholars such as Rawlinson. I am in debt of Rawlinson. You know, Rawlinson was an officer who was employed in Iran, and he could achieve the inscription and make the first study of its cuneiform test. Before Rawlinson, of course, we know that some scholars would travel to Iran; for example, Carsten Niebuhr from Denmark. They copied the inscriptions, and they took a copy of the inscriptions to Europe. And then some scholars such as Grotefend studied them and could decipher such as the cuneiform signs. But we know that Behistun contain a long text this. And this long text is significant, and for the extracting terms, extracting grammar of an ancient language. For example, regarding to Elamites, regarding to Babylon. Despite of the researches by prior scholars, Rawlinson could definitely solve the problem of the cuneiform texts. When the Iranian people hear the news, they graduately [gradually] informed about the real history of Iran, and then they became enthusiasm [enthusiastic] to know more about it.
Behistun has been known for a long time, and many translations of it have been published. So why is new work needed?
Despite the high position of the inscription that have made inaccessible to human damage, natural elements such as streams of water over the inscription form tufa deposits or water with calcareous compounds have severely suffered [damaged] it. In same parts, the cuneiform signs are partially visible at best. In some others, they have been completely illegible. Moreover, position of the inscription has made close observation and copy of each text difficult. We know that, aside from Henry Rawlinson who for the first time copied the cuneiform texts between 1836 and 1844, only on a few occasions have scholars copied and examined the inscription. Assyriologists have enclosed [embraced] methods that are dated today, such as drawing of signs, paper or latex impressions, or photographing with old cameras. The copies provided by such methods are not accurate, and don’t represent the idiosyncrasies or imperfections of the original engraving. Those copies have previously been used by assyriologists in order to prepare their editions. Therefore, previous transliterations use doubtful readings. It should be mentioned that the most of the published editions were not accompanied by photographs or even a hand copy. Unfortunately, in the main source King and Thompson’s edition in 1907, the cuneiform signs are typed in a standard shapes, and they don’t represent the original engravings too. Therefore, in order to prepare an improved edition, it is necessary to have new copies of the inscription which clarify more details. Of course, in recent years, laser scanning of the inscription was carried out under the auspices of the Bisitun Cultural Heritage Center. This project is very important and necessary, and would give us really significant information about Behistun. Unfortunately, I haven’t had access to these copies, and I have photographs with my own camera.
What’s the nature of the work that you’ve been doing?
Since 2013, I have been conducting research on the Elamite version of the Behistun inscription. The Elamite version has got intense damages as well. Its considerable portions have been illegible today, partially in its first and its third columns. According to current references, one must rely on the King and Thompson edition in 1907 to do research on the whole inscription. Moreover, the base of other editions such as Grillot-Susini and Labat in 1993, or Francois Vallat in 1977, are not based on accurate copy of the Elamite version. Unfortunately, no accurate copies of the version have been available. And Edwin Norris’s plate provided in 1855 are both dated and in error.
The Elamite version of the Behistun inscription has got the longest Elamite text ever found. And it’s written in three large columns. Since the Elamite is an extinct language like Sumerian, with no known linguistic relatives, it is a significant to do research on such a long text. In my numerous close visits of the inscription, I have taken many photographs and measured its dimensions, particularly of the Elamite. Then I have analysed the photographs, and using Photoshop, I have measured the surface of the columns and marked grid lines on them, so that the space between each two grid lines is equal to one centimetre. By examining them, and comparing with other detailed photographs, then collating prior editions, I have tried to restore the damaged signs and using Photoshop, match them to traces or fill the gaps. Ultimately, I have prepared a new edition of the whole Elamite version.
What are your most important results?
I have produced autographs of the Elamite version. There are autographs of its first and the second columns have been posted onto CDLI, and I have submitted my photo too. I think the prior copies will be replaced by mine. In addition, I have worked on the photographs, and determined the restorations through them. These images are so that they represent the real image of current situation of the original engravings and my restorations on photographs. The results of my research are accessible as two articles. These articles represent my new editions of the first and the second columns of the Elamite version as well as interpretation of new readings. I will prepare this article on the third column soon. I should mention that my work yielded some new suggestions for prior readings, and I substantiated that some prior restorations, or some prior readings, should be replaced with new readings.
What are your plans for the future?
There are many questions regarding the Behistun. Many of them are still unanswered. I know that I will get involved in some of them, and my enthusiasm will press me to do research on them. One of them is about interpretation of the 17th paragraph of the Old Persian version. This paragraph is about preparing an Old Persian copy written both on clay and leather, then sending them through the nations under the Achaemenid Empire. It is controversial for scholars whether Darius implies the invention of the Old Persian script or not.
Another plan is to do research on the old Elamite version of the Behistun inscription. To the right of the reliefs in Behistun, there existed damaged Elamite inscription written in four columns. A part of its first column[s] was completely erased in order to make room for the relief of the captured Skunha. And then the other remaining columns were chiselled by engravers by the order of Darius. We know that later its copy was written in three large columns beneath the Babylonian version. This later copy is the same that is known as the Elamite version, and it is the same version I have researched on. Unfortunately, there hasn’t existed any published transliteration of the old Elamite version. However, it is expected that each context has some differences in phrases or even sentences compared to the newer Elamite version. I have planned to do research, like this research I have done on their newer Elamite one, and photograph it in detail and work on the photograph and prepare the first transliteration in order to be published later.
So the idea is that traces left behind of the old version might fill in gaps in the new version where the surface is damaged or obscured. Is that right?
Yes, absolutely. Yes, of course, I have several photographs of the older Elamite version. And if you look at these images and examine them, you will see that the tips of the wedge[s] are visible. Although engraver chiselled heavily the inscription, the traces of wedges could be found by examining. And this helped me in some phrases in the newer version. The older Elamite version helped me. I could find even the traces. For example, the sentences are written in the newer Elamite version. And then I could trace this in the older Elamite part. And with finding the traces on the older Elamite versions, I could restore the terms in the newer Elamite version that has been wholly damaged.
Do Iranian children learn about Behistun at school?
Generally, yes, they get informed about the monument and the inscription. However, they don’t learn professionally about Behistun. But fortunately a number of books have been published in Persian that contains comprehensive information about Behistun. Persian translations of the Behistun inscriptions are available today and easily can be found on the internet; and in many sources and books are aavailable. And you know that the Persian translation[s], of course, are based on the old Persian. And you know that the other two versions, Babylonian and Elamite, has some differences in sentences or phrases. And unfortunately, the Elamite and the Babylonian translation are escaped [missing] in Persian sources. But since my Persian translation is on my own reading of the inscription, it is more accurate than the other translation that could be found on internet.
Is Behistun a popular tourist attraction? You know, do families visit the site, for example?
Yes, absolutely. You know, there is a tendency among the Iranian families to visit the site[s], because the inscription is famous enough, such as Persepolis. I think even if families have not visited the site, they have eager to have Information about it. Fortunately, Behistun is famous and has good reputation in Iran. It is so that you will see it as a attractive monument in Iran.
Cuneiform is taught in relatively few universities. And in most of those centres, the focus is on Sumerian and particularly the Akkadian language. Elamite is rarely taught. What’s the situation in Iran at the moment? Is Elamite more widely taught there?
Unfortunately, no, it is a great shortcoming that the field of assyriology haven’t been established in Iranian universities. The resources of cuneiform texts are very scarce, unfortunately. And therefore, very few people have sought to study the Elamite language in Iran. Of course, let me say that recently, Abdul Majid Arfaee, the assyriologist in Tehran, has studied a number of the Elamite Fortification Tablets found in Persepolis and published his results, as three books in Persian. I hope such publications would be effective in promulgating the subject of the Elamites among the Iranian students or Iranian peoples who are interested to learn or research on the Elamite texts in future.
How can we follow your work?
Generally, I upload my published works as articles on to my Academia. There is a list of my articles, and you can click on them in order to download them. Also, I tries to announce any news regarding my words about the Behistun via Twitter and Facebook. If anyone has Twitter or Facebook, he can find my page and then see any of my news. Also, there is an opportunity in my web pages about giving any idea about the Behistun. I will appreciate any opinions or any ideas or any comments regarding Behistun inscription.
Thank you very much.
Thank you. Thank you.
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