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The Behistun Inscription

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  Behistun or Bisotun: town in Iran, site of several ancient monuments, including a famous inscription by the Persian king Darius I the Great.

Other monuments

Alexander the Great is known to have visited Behistun but we do not know more than that he heard that Bagastâna meant 'place where the gods dwell'. (The incident is recorded by Diodorus of Sicily, World History, 17.110.5) After his death in 323 BCE, his empire disintegrated and the eastern satrapies fell to one of his officers, Seleucus I Nicator, who founded the Seleucid Empire. Behistun, situated along a main road that was just as crowded with travelers as it had always been, remained a monumental site.
Other monuments
Medieval legend
Translation 1
Translation 2

Persian text
Minor inscriptions

The statue of Heracles at Behistun. Photo Marco Prins.
The statue of Heracles at

From this age, we have a nice statue of a reclining Heracles that dates back to 148 BCE, i.e., the final years of Seleucid control of the satrapy of Media. The demigod is shown quietly resting and drinking from a bowl, after performing one of his labors. (According to the Greek orator Libanius, Heracles was considered to be the ancestor of the Seleucid dynasty.) This statue was discovered in 1958, when the road was lowered. At first, it had no head, but this was found a couple of days later. It was later stolen; what you see now, is a copy.

Parthian rock relief at Behistun. Photo Marco Prins.
A few years after the statue of Heracles had been made, Seleucid rule in this part of the empire collapsed. For almost four centuries, the Parthians were in control. They also left monuments at Behistun, like the reliefs on this photo. They are both very damaged, not in the least because a seventeenth-century inscription was added in something resembling a mihrab. (On this photo, to the left, one can see the relief that was made by Darius the Great.)

Parthian relief at Behistun. Photo Marco Prins.
This is the left-hand side of the first of three Parthian reliefs. Although it is very damaged (in the seventeenth century, a niche was cut into the relief), one can still discern two figures, which are represented in profile, as was common in Achaemenid art. However, the inscription on top of it is in Greek and the Nikę, the winged personification of victory that was once visible, is also in Greek style. It is not exaggerated to say that the maker of this relief, the oldest one made for a Parthian king, tried to combine two types of art, as if to stress that the Arsacid dynasty accepted two legacies. Coinage of this age shows the same program: they show an Iranian archer and have a Greek legend.

The relief was made for king Mithridates II, who was ruler of Iran and Iraq fom 121 to 91 BCE, so the relief is only a generation or so younger than the little Heracles.

Drawing of a Parthian relief at Behistun. From L. Vanden Berghe, Reliefs ruprestres de l' Iran ancien (1983).
This is a drawing that shows what the reliefs must have looked like before it was damaged. It is based on sketches that antedate the seventeenth century damage. As you can see, four dignitaties, arrive to salute their king. The central figure carries the Nike and one of the men seems to raise a cup, a motif not otherwise known from Iranian art - and maybe an artist's error.

The second relief, which is shown on the next photo, is immediately to the right of the first one. It shows an equestrian fight between the victorious Parthian king Gotarzes II (39?-51) and his enemy Meherdates. Above flies a Greek Nikę with a diadem.

(From Louis Vanden Berghe,
Reliefs rupestres de l' Iran
ancien, 1983; ©!!!)
Parthian relief at Behistun. Photo Marco Prins.
In the neighborhood of the two reliefs is a single rock (below), about 2˝ meters high, showing a Parthian king who is pouring a libation on an altar. On two other sides, Parthian dignitaries are represented. Dress and style are Iranian, and so is the frontal representation of the people. We are now far removed from the Greek influence on the rock reliefs.

Rock with Parthian relief. Photo Marco Prins.
Rock with Parthian relief. Photo Marco Prins.
Rock with Parthian relief. Photo Marco Prins.

A Safavid bridge at Behistun. Photo Marco Prins.
The bridge at Behistun
An inscription on the Parthian rock mentions that the central figure represents "Vologases, king of kings, son of Vologases, king of kings, grandson of ...". There were six rulers with this name, and at least two had a father called Vologases (II, perhaps III, perhaps V, and VI), so this information is not extremely helpful, except that it helps us date the relief to the first centuries of the common era.

The Parthians, weakened by the military campaigns of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, were overthrown by the Persian dynasty of the Sasanians. They built a bridge at Behistun, but it has been rebuilt several times, and only the foundations can still be called Sasanian. However, it shows that Behistun was still an important place, where new rulers wanted to show themselves. It is no coincidence that the scene of the sad story about the star-cross'd lovers Shirin and Fahrad and Shirin's husband, the Sasanian king Khusrau II (590-628), is laid at Behistun.

The unfinished Sassanid relief. Photo Marco Prins.
The unfinished Sasanian relief 

Khusrau is also connected to the last known monument at Behistun: the unfinished relief. His armies had ravaged the cities of Syria, sacked Jerusalem in 614 (seizing the relic of the True Cross), invaded Egypt and even reached Constantinople. It seemed as if the Achaemenid Empire was restored, and Khusrau ordered the making of brilliant rock reliefs at Taq-e Bostan and Behistun. 

Capital from Behistun with a portrait of Khusrau II, now in Taq-e Bostan. Photo Jona Lendering.
Capital from Behistun with a portrait of Khusrau II, now in Taq-e Bostan

The monument at Taq-e Bostan was finished, but the Behistun relief was not: all that is visible is a piece of rock that was cleared. In 627, the Byzantine emperor Heraclius attacked the Sasanian empire and had been very successful; the Persian army mutinied and Khusrau was murdered (628). His successor Ardašir III made peace and the relic of the True Cross was restored to Jerusalem.

After this, the two empires were an easy target for the rise of Islam. In 641, the Arabs invaded Iran and defeated the Sasanians at Nehavand. On their march to the east, they had taken the main road along Behistun.

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