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The Behistun Inscription

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The unfinished Sassanid relief. Photo Marco Prins.
The unfinished Sasanian relief
and the caravanserai,
which is now a prison
Behistun or Bisotun: town in Iran, site of several ancient monuments, including a famous inscription by the Persian king Darius I the Great.

The Story of Shirin and Fahrad

The Sasanian king Khusrau II (591-628) was a powerful ruler and a great conqueror. His surname ParvÍz, 'the victorious', was well deserved. In 614, he seized Jerusalem and took Egypt away from the Byzantine empire. He seems to have intended to celebrate his victories with a relief at Behistun, where a rock was cleared to add the relief, and the foundations of a palace were laid. However, the invasion of Iran by the Muslims prevented these projects from being finished.

These were all historical facts, but what now follows is a famous medieval legend, which explains why there is a monument near the well of Behistun. Originally written down by Nezami Ganjavi (1141-1209), there are several versions of this story, including a shadow show from Turkey. It may be inspired by the unfinished relief. This is how I heard the legend in a Persian restaurant in Amsterdam.

Like all Persian kings, Khusrau has several wives, but he is especially fond of the beautiful Shirin ('sweet'). But the king is not the only one who loves Shirin: she has another admirer, Fahrad, an architect. The latter is not discouraged by his hopeless situation (although at one point, he becomes almost mad), but starts to write verses and to sing songs for Shirin. The woman starts to notice Fahrad and then falls in love with him. 

Unfortunately, Khusrau discovers their love and is jealous. However, he is also a generous king and a gentleman, and he decides to spare the lives of this pair of star-cross'd lovers. Nonetheless, he banishes his rival from court and orders him to dig a well at Behistun. His only tool will be a chisel. It is an impossible task, but Fahrad knows that if he manages to find water, he will have the king's permission to live with Shirin.

Other monuments
Medieval legend
Translation 1
Translation 2

Persian text
Minor inscriptions

Coin of the Sassanid king Khusrau II the Victorious. Livius Onderwijs Collection.
Coin of the Sassanid king Khusrau II the Victorious (Livius Onderwijs Collection)

Many years pass. Fahrad is working at the rock of Behistun. Sometimes, he watches the Persian armies pass along; then, he disrupts his work and asks questions to the soldiers. They tell him that Khusrau is still in charge of the country and that Shirin is still his wife. Although Fahrad is glad to hear that the love of his life is still alive, words like these make him very sad. He has already cut away half of the rock, and he still hasn't found water.

In order to regain the king's favor, he creates the famous monument, which shows Khusrau and the enemies he has defeated. The king lets him know that he is very pleased with the relief, but that he cannot revoke his earlier decree.

Crown of Khusrau II. Taq-e Bostan. Photo Marco Prins.
Khusrau (detail of a capital from the palace in Behistun, now in Taq-e Bostan)

At the moments of his greatest despair, Fahrad thinks of Shirin, and then he manages to go on. Finally, he finds water. He throws away his chisel and sends a message to king Khusrau.

However, Khusrau is no longer the old Khusrau. Years of war have changed his character and he is not very gentlemanlike in his behavior any more. He sends an old woman to Fahrad, who tells him that the king will be glad to receive his old rival, so that they can mourn together about their common loss. When Fahrad asks what the kings means, she explains that Shirin has died a few days earlier.

Fahrad is terribly shocked by this news and his mind, already shattered by this tragic love affair and the hardship of so many years of hard labor, finally leaves him. In an act of insanity, he throws himself down from the rock and dies.

Shirin is, of course, still alive. When she hears that the man she has been waiting for, is dead, she hangs herself.

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