Bisotun, Iran's Living Witness of History
Aug 9, 2006

A few kilometers from the city of Kermanshah, the capital of Kermanshah province, stands a mountain which bears traces of Ancient Persia. A collection of huge rock reliefs and inscriptions and the gigantic statue of Hercules are all witnesses of the ancient Persian glory and years of civilization.

Bisotun Mountain is located 30 kilometers to the northeast of Kermanshah along ten ancient trade routes linking the Persian high plateau to Mesopotamia and features remains from the prehistoric times to the Median, Achaemenid, Sassanid, and Ilkhanid dynastic periods.

On the rocks of the famous Bisotun mountain, about 50 meters above the ground, there are some pictures and inscriptions denoted to Darius the Great, the Achaemenid king (550 - 486 BC), which still remain intact. The Achaemenid King later issued an order in the consequence of a series of clashes and wars, according to which the details of his conquests and administration had to be left in trust on the rocks.

The Bisotun inscription comes in three prevalent languages of the time namely Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. In this demonstration, Darius the Great stands before 9 captives whose hands have been cuffed placing his left foot on the chest of Keommana who is lying on the ground with a sword in his hand.

Carleton Coon, who carried out some excavations in a cave in the area in 1949, discovered that there are some evidence of highly developed industry in the area dating back to the Middle Paleolithic era, which indicate that the settlement of human beings in Bisotun goes back to long before the Achaemenids came in power in Ancient Persia and it was inhabited during the prehistoric period even and the Wurm glaciations (dated less than 100,000 years ago).

The Bisotun sculptures are some of the most important historical evidence, which were created in 480 BC, during the reign of Darius the Great. There are a lot of stories about this archeology site in the history. The first historical mention of the inscription is by the Greek Ctesias of Cnidus, who noted its existence some time around 400 BC, and mentioned that a well and a garden beneath the inscription were dedicated by Queen Semiramis of Babylon to Zeus (the Greek analogue of Ahura Mazda).

The statue of Hercules in Bisotun is among the rare Greek relics belonging to the period when the successors of Alexander of Macedonia ruled in Iran. The statue was discovered in 1957. It was unearthed during construction operation of the new Hamedan-Kermanshah road. The stonework, attached to the rocks by the foot of the mountain, reveals a nude man who is stretching down on his left side on a lion figure under tree shade, and his left hand is on the lion's head and his foot is on his back. The man holds a bowl in his left hand which is 14 centimeters in diameter and 8.5 centimeters in depth. His right hand is on his right foot while his left foot is relying on the other. A tablet and some carvings could be seen behind the statue. The tablet is in Old Greek scripture in seven lines and is 33 by 43 centimeters. The general appearance of the tablet resembles that of Greek temples. The carvings by the tablet show a tree on the branch of which a bow, its two ends resembling the peak of a duck, is stretched. A quiver full of arrows is also hanging from the tree. By the tree, a cylinder shaped knotted club could be seen.

According to the tablet, the date of the statue goes back to the time when Mehrdad I, from the Parthian dynasty (248 BC - 224 AD) was ruling in Iran and had already passed half of his ruling term. On the tablet it is written: "In the year 164, in the month of Pandmoi of Hercules the shining conqueror, this ceremony was held by Hiakin Tous, son of Ian Tiakhous on the occasion of saving of Kal Amen, the chief commander."

On the roadside there are Achaemenid (550-330 BC) inscriptions and reliefs carved in Bisotun cliff, which attract the attention of tourists and passengers to the art and delicacy which was used in carving these historical relics. Henry Rawlinson, who was a subaltern in the British Army, copied the trilingual inscriptions in 1833-1834 and eventually began the process of decoding the inscriptions. Later, in 1948 Dr. G. Cameron in University of Chicago could correct some of Rawlinson's errors.

Altogether, twelve hundred lines exist in the inscriptions which tell the story of the battles Darius had to wage in 521-520 BC against the governors who were trying to dismantle the Empire founded by Cyrus the Great. The crucial battle took place on this site.

A bas-relief portrays the king's victory, the scene showing him with his main enemy at his feet and nine rebel governors enchained. It is some 50 meters above ground level and is hardly visible without the use of binoculars.

The tablet of Darius the Great is high up on the side of the cliff over the village of Bisotun which stands to a large pool. There is a staircase up to a platform under the tablet from which a shallow recess containing an inscription in Greek and a rather worn mid-second century BC sculpture of Hercules on the back of a lion can be seen. These sculptures, inscriptions and tablets of considerable dimensions, contain the figure of Darius in a full length position with attractive features, while Ahura Mazda, the symbolic celestial figure can be seen hovering above his head. In this relief, Darius has stretched his right hand toward this deity and with his left foot he is trampling upon the rebel Gaumata (pretender) lying prostrate at his feet. Two persons are standing behind Darius, while nine governors from different nations are seen before him with their hands tied behind their backs and a cord running around their necks.

The inscriptions in this ancient site are also known as the longer and the shorter. The longer ones consist of Ahura Mazda's praise and adoration, the genealogy of Darius the Great, and an account of the events of his reign, his views, beliefs, recommendations, and comments. The shorter inscriptions deal with Darius' lineage and a number of events taken place during his reign.

For example, the carving of the Achaemenid sovereign, Darius II, wearing a garment with folds at the waist can be seen carved on the mountain. One of the two prisoners (governors) standing behind the king, bears the royal bow and arrow, while the other is holding the King's spear. The figure of Ahura Mazda is seen above the heads of the prisoners, with a winged sun-disc (which is the symbol of eternity) encircling him. In the inscriptions, Darius gives the names of his ancestors and says: "Eight of my family members were kings before me. I am the ninth. We inherit kingship on both sides."

After the fall of the Persian Empire and its successors and the fall of cuneiform writing into disuse, the nature of the inscription was forgotten and fanciful origins became the norm. For centuries, instead of being attributed to Darius, it was believed to be from the reign of Khosrow II of Persia (the Sassanid king).

A legend arose that it had been created by Farhad, a lover of Khosrow's wife, Shirin. Farhad, who was exiled for his transgression, was asked to carve the mountain to find water and if he succeeds, he would have given permission to marry Shirin. After many years and removal of half the mountain, he finds water, but was informed wrongly by Khosrow Parviz that Shirin had died. He goes mad and throws himself from the cliff. Due to this legend, Bisotun has a special place as symbol of love and faith in Persian literature.

Bisotun was recently registered in UNESCO's List of World Heritage Sites in a decision made by UNESCO's World Heritage Committee and announced Thursday, 13th of July 2006. Registration of Bisotun has given new hopes to the cultural heritage authorities of Iran to inscribe other prominent cultural heritage sites of Kerman province in the list of UNESCO. These include:

The relief and inscriptions at Taq-e Bostan, the two staircases of the temple of Anahita at Kangavar, the Taq-e Gara which is 90 kilometers west of Kermanshah and is believed to have belonged to the Sassanid dynastic era (224?651 AD) but its accurate time is not yet known, the ruins of Dinavar dating from the Seleucid era to the late 14th century AD and locating at 45 kilometers northeast of the town, the Mound of Kambadene (from Achaemenid to Sassanid periods) just to northeast of Kermanshah, and Dokkan-e Davoud (David's Shop) which is a Median Tomb belonging to the 7th century BC located 3 kilometers from the city of Sar-e Pol-e Zahab showing a praying man on a rock piece.