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The Behistun inscription

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Relief and inscription at Behistun. Photo Marco Prins.
The Behistun relief
Behistun or Bisotun: town in Iran, site of several ancient monuments, including a famous inscription by the Persian king Darius I the Great. A satellite photo of the location can be found here.


In Antiquity, Bagastāna, which means 'place where the gods dwell', was the name of a village and a remarkable, isolated rock along the road that connected the capitals of Babylonia and Media, Babylon and Ecbatana (modern Hamadan). Many travellers passed along this place, so it was the logical place for the Persian king Darius I the Great (522-486) to proclaim his military victories.

The famous Behistun inscription was engraved on a cliff about 100 meters off the ground. Darius tells us how the supreme god Ahuramazda choose him to dethrone an usurper named Gaumāta, how he set out to quell several revolts, and how he defeated his foreign enemies.

Other monuments
Medieval legend
Translation 1
Translation 2

Persian text
Minor inscriptions

The rock of Behistun. Photo Jona Lendering.
The rock of Behistun, from the east

The monument consists of four parts.
  • A large relief (5½ x 3 meters) depicting king Darius, his bow carrier Intaphrenes and his lance carrier Gobryas. Darius overlooks nine representatives of conquered peoples, their necks tied. A tenth figure, badly damaged, is laying under the king's feet. Above these thirteen people is a representation of the supreme god Ahuramazda. This relief is based on older monuments, further along the road, at Sar-e Pol-e Zahab.
  • Underneath is a panel with a cuneiform text in Old Persian, telling the story of the king's conquests (translated below). The text consists of four columns (#1, #2, #3, #4) and an appendix (#5) and has a total length of about 515 lines.
  • Another panel telling more or less the same story in Babylonian. The appendix ("column five") is missing.
  • A third panel with the same text in Elamite (the language of the administration of the Achaemenid empire). This translation of the Persian text has a length of 650 lines. Again, the appendix is missing.

The Behistun relief today. Photo Marco Prins.
The relief today

In the text Darius describes how the god Ahuramazda choose him to dethrone the usurper Gaumāta (522 BCE). After this event, king Darius set out to quell several revolts. This is also depicted above the text, where we see the god and the king, the slain usurper, and seven men representing seven rebellious people. While artists were making this monument, Darius defeated foreign enemies (520-519 BCE); these victories were duly celebrated by a change in the initial design, adding two new figures to the right.

When the carvings were completed, the ledge below the inscription was removed so that nobody could tamper with the inscriptions. This allowed the monument to survive (and made it impossible for humans to read the texts).

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