At the mountain of Behistun, Darius carved a huge billboard in the stone cliff to record the struggles he faced in gaining the throne. Darius' monument, displayed in a picture, and text printed in three languages, was critical to scholars who used the texts as a way to decipher the Persian and Babylonian languages. Two articles are provided here which describe the monument, the efforts required to examine it, and the history of its importance. At this time, all illustrations have been removed due to space issues. Page markers have been added to the text, and indexed with HTML anchors to allow students to reference the text, and to assist in text searches.
Thompson, R. Campbell. "The Rock
of Behistun". Wonders of the Past. Edited by Sir J. A.
Hammerton. Vol. II. New York: Wise and Co., 1937. (p. 760-767)
Dr. Thompson (D.Litt., M.A., F.S.A.) investigated the Rock of Behistun on behalf of the British Museum
Cameron, George G. "Darius Carved History
on Ageless Rock". The National Geographic Magazine. Vol.
XCVIII, Num. 6, Dec. 1950. (Pages 825-844)
George Cameron was the chairman of the department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan.
(Page 761) Two of the most important events in the advancement of historical
knowledge have been the discovery of the key to the Egyptian hieroglyphics
on the Rosetta Stone and the deciphering of the cuneiform inscriptions
on the Rock of Behistun. The former opened the door to the Wonderland of
Egyptian history, and the latter brought daylight into the dark places
of antiquity in the Middle East, revealing to the modern world the vanished
civilizations of Mesopotamia in all the truth of contemporary record. The
Rosetta Stone is the subject of another chapter of this work: here Dr.
Campbell Thompson, who investigated the Rock of Behistun on behalf of the
British Museum, tells its story. (Sir J. A. Hammerton, editor of the Wonders
of the Past)
(Page 761) Two days' journey south-west from the ancient Summer Palace of Ecbatana, along the old caravan-road leading down to Babylon, a towering rock bastion nearly 4,000 feet high marks the end of one of the many great earth-folds of the crumpled Persian border. At its foot a spring wells out in a broad pool, and meanders across the rich, broad vale of the Karkhah, where the rains of spring are kindly and deck the plains with grass and the mountain crannies with flowers. Here, between scaur and well-head, where slow caravans have crawled the ages through, the well-worn track passes the sordid little village of Behistun. More than five hundred years B.C. the Great King, the king of Kings, the King of Persia, the King of the Provinces, Darius, took counsel where he should worthily grave the story of his reign. It must be set in a place which all should see, and yet be safe from the ravages of time and the malice of enemies; it must be written in several languages, that foreigners as well as Persians might know his glory; it must be shown in picture as well as in the written word, that those poor illiterates who could not read might yet tremble at the great king's vengeance. His choice fell on this rock-face at Behistun, a hundred feet and more above the pool, in a gully masked by the last crags. In 516 B.C. his scribes composed the great history in three languages, and in Persian, Susian, and Babylonish cuneiform the engravers chiselled it in thirteen columns in the smooth vertical surface, and then, above the five tall columns of Persian writing, twelve feet high, his artists carved a delicate panel with a life-sized figure of the king in relief, receiving the submission of ten rebel upstarts who had challenged his right to the throne.
In course of time the Achaemenid kingdom went the way of other Oriental monarchies, leaving the dumb witness of ruined cities, sculptures, and above all, this great rock-picture, safeguarded by its height above the road, to testify to a power long dead. Legends grew fast round such a marvel, and travellers carried away strange tales of its rugged scarps, inscribed with unknown writings. Diodorus, a contemporary of Julius Caesar, called it the "Bagistanon" mountain, the forerunner of its modern name, and told a wonderful tale how Semiramis, Queen of Babylon, ordered it to be carved, climbing the face of the (Page 763) mountain on a heap of pack saddles from her baggage train piled against the rock. The place was held sacred, said he; and to this day the Persian women come to hang their little votive scraps of rag on a bush beneath, as though it were some saint's tomb, in token of their dues to its mystery. Others who visited Persia in later times spoke of its wonder when they returned to Europe; many let their fancy run wild in their explanation of its meaning. Bembo in the seventeenth, Otter in the eighteenth century, tells of it; nay, Gardanne in 1809 avers that the picture is meant for the Twelve Apostles, and Ker Porter 1827, hardly less fanciful, thinks it to be Shalmaneser and the captive Tribes of Israel.
In 1835 Henry Rawlinson, a young English soldier, twenty-five years old, was sent as Assistant to the Governor of Kermanshah. His attention was turned to the cuneiform inscriptions at Elwend near Ecbatana, and, as a soldier whose scholarly side ill brooked long periods of boredom, he set himself to decipher the strange unknown tongue in which they were written. In his "Memoir" he says that he was aware that a German professor, Grotefend, about the beginning of the century, had deciphered some of the names of the early sovereigns of the house of Achaemenes, but in his isolated position at Kermanshah he could neither obtain a copy of the German's alphabet, nor discover which were the inscriptions that he (Page 764) had used. Actually Grotefend had made out the names of Hystaspes, Darius, and Xerxes from two short inscriptions accurately copied by Niebuhr at Persepolis in 1765, subsequently discovering the name of Cyrus, and from these he was able to assign correct values to about a third of the old Persian cuneiform alphabet, which consists of between forty and fifty characters. Closely after his labours must be reckoned those of Professor Lassen, who had deciphered about six more characters by 1836, and the names Tychsen, Munter, Burnouf, Rask, Beer, Jacquet, and Saint Martin must be accorded full title to their share in the decipherment of the inscriptions.
None of the work of these scholars had as yet reached the young Englishman, who applied himself to the task of decipherment unaided. There was no Rosetta Stone to give the translation of the strange characters; nothing but the unyielding problem of unknown names. Unconsciously he followed the method which Grotefend had employed. He compared two inscriptions, in this case at Elwend, which had been set up side by side, and found that they were identically the same except in two short passages of a few characters each. But the first of these two groups in the first inscription coincided with the second group in the second inscription, and Rawlinson's genius suggested, first, that these groups must be the names of kings concerned in setting up the inscriptions and second, if so, the first name in the first inscription must represent the father of the king who set up the second. He was right. He took the names of the three most famous Persian kings in history, Hystaspes, Darius, and Xerxes, applied them to his theory, and found that the values for the characters which their names provided stood the test wherever the same characters reappeared in the names. The threshold was crossed.
But although Rawlinson, as well as foreign scholars, had so brilliantly deciphered the value of some of the characters, the names of some of the kings, and even of countries mentioned in the text, the meaning of the inscriptions and the language in which they were couched were still a sealed book.
The Englishman had long been attracted by the problem of the Behistun inscription, and during his sojourn in Persia he set himself to unravel its meaning. By the end of 1837 he had so far overcome the difficulties involved in scaling the rock-face and copying the cuneiform text, that he had completed a version of about half of the Persian text, and in this year he forwarded to the Royal Asiatic Society, which has always shown a deep appreciation of scholarship of this nature, a translation of the two first paragraphs of the Behistun inscription, recording the titles and genealogy of Darius. Unfortunately he was compelled to break into his studies by his being transferred from "the lettered seclusion of Bagdad to fill a responsible and laborious office in Afghanistan," but 1843 again found him in the City of the Caliphs, eager to continue his labours. For many years past he applied himself to Zend, the oldest Persian dialect known, and it was his application of this language to the Persian cuneiform inscriptions which brought about his extraordinary exploit of translating the whole of the Persian inscription of Behistun for the first time. His decipherment of the characters which composed the proper names allowed him first to transliterate the inscription and so know how the words sounded, and his genius for languages then led him to their correct affinities with other dialects. His "Memoir," giving a complete translation with notes was published in 1846.
Lassen, however, must not be forgotten in according the due meed of praise to the pioneers of translation as well as decipherment, for he, too (independently, but simultaneously with Rawlinson), applied himself to the Persepolitan inscriptions with definitely satisfactory results, publishing his rendering of them in 1844.
(Page 765) Rawlinson was not content only with the Persian part of the inscription. In 1844 he once more, this time with two companions, climbed the rock, crossed the chasm between the Persian and Susian columns, and copied the Susian version. Again in 1847 he hoped to attack the Babylonian version, which is cut on two faces of a ponderous overhanging boulder above the sheer face of the Susian columns. To this he did not himself climb, but found a Kurdish boy who scaled the height from a flank, and in a swinging seat took squeezes under Rawlinson's direction. With the Persian version now thoroughly understood, it was only a matter of time to elucidate the Susian and the Babylonian. The former yielded to the energy of Hinks, Westergaard, de Saulcy, and particularly Norris; the latter to Rawlinson, Hincks, Oppert and Fox Talbot, who showed that the Babylonian was a Semitic language allied to Hebrew. The great problem of cuneiform had been solved.
Subsequently Professor Williams Jackson in 1903 visited the inscription, and, climbing to the Persian ledge, re-examined the lower part this text. But by this time the squeezes which Rawlinson had made of the inscription and stored in the British Museum were decaying, and particularly the Babylonian version, read thus from squeezes, was probably capable of considerable improvement. It was obvious that any advance in our knowledge of text, Persian, Susian and Babylonian, must be made by a collation of the Rock itself, and in 1904 the Trustees of the British Museum decided to send an expedition down to the Rock.
To this end Dr. L. W. King, and I as his junior, left for Mosul in April, 1904, for Behistun. On our arrival there our first view of the inscription suggested that it must first be attacked from behind, and a spot was found two hundred feet above the sculpture, whence we could shake down two ropes until they reached its face. Then, after scaling the rock from below to the ledge of the base of the inscription, we were able to tie two cradles to these ropes, adding lengths of stouter rope wherewith we might climb into them. The first part of the ascent from below was an almost perpendicular scramble of 12 feet or so, with handholds on tufts of grass, and footholds on soil or projecting stone; thence upward, in a gentle ascent to the right, the line of approach lay along the smooth rock, broken only by one gap with a sheer long drop to earth beneath. From here the way up was comparatively easy to the right-hand side of the Persian inscription. After we had evolved this route together, happily without native help, pegs and a rope-rail were fastened along it, making the daily climb a trivial matter.
Rawlinson, "Archaeologia," xxxiv., 1853, 74, says: "Notwithstanding that a French antiquarian commission in Persia described it a few years back to be impossible to copy the Behistun inscriptions, I certainly do not consider it any great feat in climbing to ascend to the spot where (Page 766) the inscriptions occur. When I was living at Kermanshah fifteen years ago, and was somewhat more active than I am at present, I used frequently to scale the rock three or four times a day without the aid of a rope or ladder: without any assistance, in fact, whatever. During my late visits I have found it more convenient to ascend and descend by the help of ropes where the track lies up a precipitate cleft, and to throw a plank over those chasms where a false step in leaping across would probably be fatal." The Babylonian overhang, however, he did not copy himself but, as is mentioned above, sent a Kurdish boy up to take squeezes. "The craigsmen of the place . . . . . declared the particular block inscribed with the Babylonian legend to be unapproachable."
Beneath the fifth Persian column was a ledge of some six feet which narrowed almost to nothing near the first column, beyond which, on a salient face, were the three columns of the Susian, of the same height as the Persian, but across a chasm, of which Rawlinson had spoken. In front of these, too, was a ledge, which we found could be easily reached by swinging across on our ropes. The Babylonian, written on an overhanging boulder twelve feet above this, was a more difficult problem. From a vantage-point high above the inscription our men could raise or lower the cradles to the right height on the face of the inscription, or to the sculpture above the Persian columns; after they had made fast the ends above, we climbed into the cradles and thus sat, collating and photographing the inscriptions and sculptures for the next sixteen days. We were able to reach and collate the Babylonian overhang by swinging across to the Susian ledge and then climbing the ropes to a ledge above the Susian, and thence, again sitting in the cradles, working our way round the inscribed face of the boulder by hands or knees. The great sculpture was photographed with a hand camera either from here at an angle, or piecemeal direct at five feet distance by pushing the cradles away from the rock with our feet. The results were published by the Trustee "The Inscription of Darius the Great at Behistun," where full details and photographs will be found.
Throughout, what was most striking was great accuracy of Rawlinson's copies. The Persian columns alone contain more than fifteen thousand characters, and his work showed surprisingly few errors, considering the difficulties of every kind with which he had to contend.
The inscription itself tells the ancient glory of Persia at its zenith, before Darius had challenged (Page 767) the Greeks and had been defeated in 490 at Marathon. It begins with the genealogy of Darius, traced direct to Achaemenes, and then refers to the reign of Cambyses, who had preceded Darius, the murder of Smerdis (the brother of Cambyses), and the revolt of the Persians during the absence of Cambyses on his campaign in Egypt. At this moment Gaumata, the Magian, seizing his opportunity, declared himself to be Smerdis, the son of Cyrus, with a claim to the throne. Cambyses hastened homewards, but died on the way, and Gaumata, as the Babylonian contract tablets show, held sway for a brief period.
It was Darius, the son of Hystaspes, who challenged the usurper, and, marching against him with a small force, slew him and took the throne. But revolts broke out in many of the provinces, and the first years of Darius were spent in subduing them. Nidintu-Bel seized Babylon, claiming to be Nebuchadnezzar; Martiya headed a revolution in Susiana: in Media Phraortes gave himself out to be Khshathritha, of the family of Cyaxares, and led another revolt. These were dealt with successfully, and the unfortunate pretenders are to be seen with several others, equally unsuccessful, on the sculptured panel above the inscription. The king stands with his arm raised and his foot on Gaumata; behind him are his generals or satraps. Before him, roped one to another, come the recalcitrant chiefs in the following order: Atrina, the first Susian pretender; Nidintu-Bel, of Babylon; Fravartish (Phraortes), of Media; Martiza, the second Susian pretender; Citrantakhma, of Sagartia; Vahyazdata, the second pseudo-Smerdis; Arakha, the second Babylonian pretender; Frada, of Margiana; and subsequently, at the cost of destroying part of the Susian inscription, Skunkha, the Scythian, in his high peaked hat was added.
It is a nice point whether the inscription is a finer memorial to the Persian, Darius, who wrote it, or to the Englishman, Rawlinson, who deciphered it.
(Page 825) In the imperishable stone of a 4,000-foot Iranian mountain, artisans of Darius the Great carved his vainglorious autobiography almost 2,500 years ago. The achievements of this king of ancient Persia (now Iran) they extolled in three different languages of his realm. This gigantic cliffside boast became, like Egypt's famed Rosetta Stone. a major key to an understanding of long-forgotten languages and the cuneiform, or wedge-shaped, scripts in which they were written. Nevertheless, despite numerous attempts to secure a perfect copy of this important document, there remained to our day tremendous gaps in our knowledge of its wording and thus a failure to appreciate its magnitude. By use of 20th-century tools to gain access to the monument, and modern techniques of field archeology to obtain a more accurate record, I was able to achieve what men had long desired: a better, fuller copy, and hence a greater understanding of the Persian's noble monument.
Darius could have found no better or more conspicuous place for his project than the last peak of a long, narrow range which skirts the plain of modern Kermanshah. At the foot of the mountain springs bubble up into a pool of crystal-clear water and supply a small stream, which flows past the village of Bisitun and away into the plain. From time immemorial caravans have watered their beasts at these springs. Here every army which has marched from Iran into Iraq has camped, for the mountain and its springs lie on the age-old caravan trail between Ecbatana (modern Hamadan), once a center of the Medes and Persians, and fabled Babylon. To the ancients themselves the spot was called it the "Place of God," Baga-stana, or Bisitun. The monument was not unearned, for Darius became king in 522 B.C. only after a series of bloody pitched battles with nine other contenders to the throne. It was carved so the whole world might be informed of his prowess and of his debt to his god, the "Wise Lord" Ahuramazda.
A part of the story is told by a massive relief cut into the limestone mountain 340 feet above the springs and 100 feet above the highest part of the mountain to which man can climb. There today stands Darius, with high brow and straight nose. On his head rests the Persian war crown, carved with exquisite care to resemble the gold band studded with oval jewels and rosettes worn by the Great King himself. Behind him appear two of his officers, the bearers of his bow and lance. Before him floats the winged figure of the god Ahuramazda, who taught Darius to speak the truth and whose left hand grasps the ring which bestows sovereignty on monarchs. Beneath the god stand eight rival contenders, their necks roped together, their hands tied behind their backs; a ninth, the archenemy, lies prostrate under the king's left foot, his own knees and hands lifted in agony. A tenth and subsequent foe was pictured a few years later.
The relief alone was inadequate for Darius. He also commanded that the story be carved in three languages of the empire: Old Persian, the language of the king and court, inscribed beneath the relief in four and a half columns of closely written texts; in Babylonian, inscribed on two faces of a rock jutting out from the mountainside to the left of the relief; and, to the right of the sculptured panel, in Elamite, the language then spoken at Shush, or Susa ("the palace" of the Biblical book of Esther). Somewhat later, the Elamite inscription was recopied to the left of the relief.
So inaccessible was the Great King's handiwork that even the citizens of his empire soon forgot the story that was told. Worse still, as hundreds of years rolled by and the languages spoken in his day were succeeded by others, men even lost the ability to understand these tongues or to read the cuneiform scripts in which they were written. But within the last century Darius's lordly monument itself provided the key by which the riddle of these languages and their scripts was solved.
The story of decipherment began when travelers compared the curious wedge-shaped signs (Page 828) at Bisitun with those appearing on other, more accessible monuments in old Turkey and Persia. Sometimes they brought back copies or even samples of these "writings" to Europe, but no man there could read them. By inference, one of the languages with its system of writing was thought to be of Persian origin, for it was very common within Persia, particularly at Darius's former capital, Persepolis. Another was assumed to be Babylonian, for its script closely resembled the writing on monuments found in what is now the country of Iraq, in the "Garden of Eden"-the land of the Two Rivers, Tigris and Euphrates. The third was totally unknown.
The initial step in decipherment was made by a German, Georg Friedrich Grotefend, who chose two short but supposedly Old Persian inscriptions and painstakingly compared them, sign by sign. When, in 1815, he published his results, it was all but obvious that he had succeeded in finding the key to the understanding of these particular inscriptions. But the material at hand for full decipherment was wholly inadequate. No long text was available to check his discoveries. Also, he had investigated only one of the three languages. Since all other inscriptions copied up to that time were too short and limited, it proved impossible to use his probable decipherment of the one language as a key to the understanding of the other two. The inscription on Mount Bisitun gave greatest promise. Here, as we now know, are 515 lines of texts in Old Persian, 141 long lines in Babylonian, and 650 lines in Elamite. Bisitun, therefore, represented a challenge which man must meet and overcome if he would seek the hidden meanings of cuneiform writings.
The first attempt to copy Darius's story was made a little more than a century ago when two Frenchmen sailed from Toulon at the behest of their government and with the support of the two most famous French Academies. They had wonderful experiences; they scrambled with bleeding hands and feet up the rock they had been sent to copy, and regained terra firma by an effort of gymnastics which, to hear them tell it, could be equaled only by the lizard. Their toil and peril here were fruitless, however. In the end, they failed in (Page 832) their purpose because, they said, the inscription was inaccessible.
Unknown to the two Frenchmen, an Englishman, Sir Henry C. Rawlinson, had already succeeded in climbing the precipitous face of Bisitun. His description of the ascent is often hair-raising. He concluded that the climb is one which only an enthusiastic antiquarian could be expected to undertake. However, he was no mere mountain climber. Laboriously, and with infinite patience, he copied the Old Persian text and then set about to decipher it. Repeatedly he returned to the Rock to obtain copies of both the Elamite and the Babylonian inscriptions, upon which he also bent his effort and ingenuity. With his publication of the copies and translation of the Old Persian texts in 1847, and of the Babylonian texts in 1851, the long-sought key to the understanding of the world's oldest writings was made available to all mankind. The challenge of Bisitun had been met and overcome.
But the elements have exacted a heavy toll from the ancient inscriptions. The winds and sands of time, autumn rains, and winter's chill have played havoc with line after line of the texts and made them difficult to read. (Page 833) Further, despite his monumental achievement, Rawlinson was engaged in making the first copy, and in the earliest stages of decipherment, when often he had no way of knowing what to look for. His copy, naturally, was defective. More than that: although he copied nine and a half columns of texts, four additional columns containing 323 lines defied him, for underneath these four columns there is no ledge on which a man can stand.
In an effort to clarify some of the more dubious or difficult readings of the Old Persian text, an eminent American professor at Columbia University, A. V. Williams Jackson, climbed the Rock in 1903. He checked or collated many passages and secured photographs of the inscriptions for the first time. But the full story of Bisitun had not yet been told.
So again, in 1904, an expedition sponsored by the British Museum set out for Bisitun. Since Leonard William King and Reginald Campbell Thompson, who labored for the Museum, could profit from more than a generation of good scholarship in the ability to read and understand ancient writings, it was only to be expected that they should improve enormously on Rawlinson's readings. Also, by a fortunate discovery, they were enabled to use a rock shelf high up the mountainside, thus coming closer to the inscriptions they sought to recopy. Where Rawlinson had been forced to stand upon a tiny ledge immediately beneath the texts, they dropped a rope from the shelf above and, sitting in a kind of boatswain's chair, swung back and forth across the face of the vertical Rock. Carefully they reworked the nine and a half columns that Rawlinson had copied. Their success is indicated by the fact that theirs is today the standard publication. The last secrets of Bisitun, it would seem, had been solved.
Yet they, too, made mistakes. They were unable to read the signs in innumerable passages, and they made a number of surely erroneous or impossible restorations. The fault was by no means wholly theirs, for any three men reading a worn and eroded inscription may interpret it in three, if not more, differing ways. A succeeding generation of scholars had advanced (Page 834) suggestions and emendations which needed to be checked, by improved archeological techniques, against the original inscription upon the fabulous Rock.
Other problems likewise called for a solution. Would a closer examination of the enormous relief which accompanied the inscriptions reveal any new details of Persian art? And how had Darius's workmen succeeded in carving the relief and the lengthy texts high up a mountainside on a spot which is today all but inaccessible? A final question involved the four columns of inscriptions which had defied the efforts not only of Rawlinson but also of King and Thompson. If these columns could be read, what secrets would they tell? Some hitherto unknown detail of Darius's attack on Greece, or some unpolished facet of the religion of these one-god-worshiping Achaemenid Persians? Yet no man even knew the language in which these four columns were written.
All these things I knew when, in March of 1948, I was named Annual Professor of the Baghdad School of the American Schools of Oriental Research, an institution whose corporate members are the outstanding universities, colleges, theological seminaries, and rabbinical schools in America. Because of the international situation in 1948, it appeared unlikely that the Annual Professor would be able to make any substantial contribution to the work of the schools within Iraq. I proposed, therefore, an expedition to the Rock of Bisitun, an expedition which would attempt to solve some, if not all, of the problems I have outlined and thus bring to an end more than a century of work upon this truly historic monument.
Within a few months I reached Kermanshah, (Page 835) which was to be our base of operation. My wife and two sons accompanied me. Five miles northeast, at Taq-i-Bustan, are the remains of a walled park or "paradise" used by kings of Sassanid Persia 1,500 years ago. Carved in the mountain walls near by are two grottoes and a bas-relief illustrating hunting and other scenes from the lives of the same Persian sovereigns.
Modern methods of transportation and communication had doomed the town to moribundity, but with the discovery of Iran's natural underground wealth, oil, and the establishment here of a refinery, Kermanshah has blossomed into new life and vigor. Now its dusty streets, some even paved, teem with surging groups of Kurds and Persians; buses, trucks, and private cars vie for honors with horses, camels, donkeys, and the heavily laden human back. An American hospital helps to serve the major medical needs of the growing city, and with its directors, Dr. and Mrs. Russell Bussdicker, we found friendly lodging.
First stop was the office of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company's very cooperative local manager, who assured us that the skill and methods of 20th-century oil engineers would be at the service of the linguist's learning and the archeologist's desire. Guided by shepherd boys around the rear of massive Bisitun, his experienced riggers ascended to the shelf 200 feet above the inscription; there they drove holes into the solid rock, placed steel pins in the holes, and cemented them in. Now we were ready for a frontal attack on the remaining secrets of Darius's noble memorial.
Carefully we dragged a scaffolding up the mountainside as high as man can climb, to a comparatively level spot beneath the inscriptions. Again we went behind the mountain, climbed to the now familiar shelf, lowered ropes to the base of the massif, and one (Page 836) by one pulled up the ends of two cables. These we anchored solidly to the pins already in place. Then we returned to our scaffolding and attached it to the cables. As we looked up, however, we saw that it was going to be no easy matter to raise and lower the scaffolding daily over the face of the mountain. Tremendous outjutting and overhanging rocks would certainly interfere with our upward or downward progress. Thirty feet above our heads was a little shelf. If we could leave our scaffolding near that shelf at the end of each day's work and descend the rest of the way by ladder, our task would be easier. So we placed a long ladder to reach this shelf against the rock wall. Now, in truth, we were ready.
Up to this point we had had a large crowd of sight-seers and willing native workmen. Three only were needed upon the scaffolding, one to man each of the two winches, and one to fend it off from the rocky wall. I would be one of the workmen, and so only two others were required. I turned to two men who had appeared to be most competent. "Will you come up top with me?" In unison they replied, "Not us!" "Why not?" I asked. "Too dangerous," replied these Kurdish villagers, who have long been noted for their headstrong daring! Shocked, I asked for volunteers, offered prize money, and had for answer only low negative murmurs. My project faced disaster if these men failed me! Finally, one of the riggers, on loan to me for this day only, stepped forward and, following him, a slight lad, named "Servant of Ali." Here were my workmen for this day; perhaps tomorrow would take care of itself.
Ours was a hard task, for time after time one or both of the winches were jammed up into the numerous overhanging rocks. But little by little we raised our scaffolding higher and higher; we fought not only the outjutting boulders and our own weight on the scaffold, but also the weight of dozens of men clinging down below to ropes by which they too were trying to hold our (Page 837) platform away from the mountain's face.
We passed the little shelf 30 feet above them, against which our ladder rested; we passed an oblique gash, the significance of which at first escaped us; and we passed solid rock scarped by thousands of chisels. At long last our scaffolding rested securely on the ledge immediately beneath the inscription, which now, for the first time, my hands and eyes caressed.
It was a triumphant moment. All past worries, over the arrival of the materials and the feasibility of my method of attack, disappeared. All obstacles, including the mountain itself, had been overcome. Nothing remained but to apply a new technique of copying inscriptions and the knowledge gained from 20 years of study to the age-old memorial. The expedition, I knew in that moment, would succeed.
Our first day's work ended on this note. As we prepared to descend, I realized the meaning of the oblique gash which we had passed on our ascent, and which we could now see slanting sharply downward just below us. It was an ancient pathway, now partially blocked by fallen rocks. We left our scaffolding where it was and followed the path down. Forty-eight feet of it still remained. Then the path ended, in scarped rock, still almost 50 feet above the watchers below. Five feet below its end, however, there was a little semicircular platform about 9 feet long and from 18 inches to 5 feet in width. We dropped to this platform and looked down again. There, 12 feet beneath us, was the top of our ladder, just resting against the edge of a tiny triangular shelf.
Cautiously we lowered ourselves once more, our hands and feet seeking purchase in a fissure which ran down to the shelf below. Our bodies were taut as, one by one, we gained the shelf and descended the ladder. Difficult and dangerous though this method of descent and ascent might be, here was our easiest way of access to the inscriptions. From that time on, we knew, ropes could help our progress up to the scaffolding, which itself would be used only as our platform at the height of the inscription and relief.
Our first day's work was done, but I needed a workman to replace the company's rigger. Once again I asked for volunteers, this time for the morrow. Encouraged by our day's success, a young boy ranged himself behind Servant of Ali. (Page 838) "What is your name?" I asked. "Hussein," was his reply. The humor of the situation struck me at once. There are two patron "saints" to the Persian Moslems. Their names? Ali and Hussein! For three days these boys worked with me upon the scaffolding, but unfortunately Abdul Ali soon found other interests. When I tried to replace him, again my pleas for assistance, regardless of the wages offered, fell on deaf ears. The work was still "too dangerous." In these straits my son Thomas, not yet 15 years old but eager to contribute to the project, volunteered. From that day on, the Persian Hussein, Tom, and I worked from the scaffolding, made our copies, and fought the winds, rain, and cold that all too soon began to interfere.
A major goal was to recheck all previous readings of the copy of Darius's story which is written in Old Persian. This is carved directly beneath the relief in five vertical columns, each of which, except for the last, measures about 12 feet high. At first sight, this portion of the monument appeared to be infinitely more unreadable than it had been more than 100 years ago when Rawlinson copied it, and even more damaged than when King and Thompson worked upon it. A horizontal fissure above the columns, but beneath the relief, was obviously responsible for part of the damage, for this was actually the exit of an underground "river." After a rain lasting less than seven hours, for instance, water issued from the fissure and washed down across the face of the inscription for more than 52 hours. Since the rock itself was limestone, centuries of tumbling water had eaten it away to a depth at times of five or six inches - and of course all the writing upon such spots is now gone.
But all inscriptions beneath its path had not disappeared. Although the water has dissolved the limestone at the top of each column, that limestone has itself been deposited, upon the face of the inscription, lower down! Where once there had been wedges or signs carved into the rock, signs long thought to be destroyed, there was now a solid deposit of rock. This was not "destruction" at all, but preservation! It was a stalactite (geologically speaking, a (Page 840) tufaceous) formation over the surface of the original inscription.
We were in a position somehow to "erase" this sedimentary deposit, but how were we to remove it without damaging the signs beneath it? Acid was certainly not the solution. Acid would eat away not only the deposit left in each cut wedge, but also the solid rock itself. A hammer and plain water was our answer. By delicate hammering through the surface deposit I could reach the original rock surface. Then I could rub a moistened cloth across the face of the invisible wedges. As the water evaporated, there was a difference in coloration between the original rock and the filled-in wedges. Sign after sign, word after word, thus became evident!
Sometimes our problems were solved in a disconcerting manner. For instance, there was a phrase in one line which for two generations had been the subject of debate among scholars. It was quite clear that Darius was saying something about one of his henchmen, but no one had been able to read it. When the passage came clear in our work, we were reminded only of the "vanishing Yehudi, the little man who wasn't there." For Darius merely says, "At that time my servant was not there at that place"! Thus some gains are in reality small or insignificant.
Others, however, contribute more to our knowledge, such as a new reading in which the King declares, "Now do you believe what I have done, [even] this [story]; to the people tell it, do not conceal it." This passage, also long fought over by orientalists, intrigued us much, for we were indeed endeavoring to carry out Darius's wishes.
The way rocks might fall from the cliffside was indicated when, one day, Hussein was sent to the shelf high above, while I remained upon the ledge. At a given signal he was to swing the cable over a projecting rock, and I was to do the same on the ledge below. The signal was given, we swung in unison, and I heard a sinister rumble above me, that of a falling boulder. For me upon the ledge, as for my wife and sons below, there was no shelter. I gave a cry of urgent warning and flattened myself against the face of the inscription. The large boulder hurtled by, hit the ledge, and seemed to explode. All of us were struck by some of the tiny fragments; but the overwhelming relief that flooded us, as hurriedly each responded to the other's call, can well be imagined. We never tried to move the cables in just that way again.
The ledge beneath the Old Persian version varies in breadth from 5 to 6 feet; to the left it continues beneath the Babylonian and the second Elamite copies, although it is not quite so broad. To the right of the Old Persian text there is at present no ledge whatsoever. Above this portion of the monument at the height of the sculptured panel, are the four columns of texts never before copied, and of which not even the language was known. Carefully, from the shelf above, we adjusted the positions of our cables and then, returning to the now familiar ledge, raised the scaffolding so that it stood in front of a part of this hitherto unknown text What would it tell us?
First glance showed that this text was frightfully weathered, damaged in part beyond recovery. Yet here and there signs came clear, and they were Elamite signs. I began to read, "And Darius the king says: a man named Phraortes . . ." and realized that the text was duplicating what, in a much better state of preservation, appeared beneath the Babylonian version below and to the left of the relief! We moved from the first to the second column, from the second to the third, and continued to read in Elamite. Finally we moved to column four - and there was no change in language or in phraseology; sign after sign, word after word, this text was a duplicate of the other well-known Elamite inscription!
Naturally, I was disappointed, for my hope of finding a new inscription of Darius was gone. Still, there was certain gain: by determining what was here written, we had unlocked a door that, until opened, would always be tantalizing. Furthermore, by copying this text also we could unquestionably improve the reading of the known Elamite text which had been copied by others and which was still to be secured by us.
Our copying technique involved photography, our eyes and hands, and a latex solution. Photographs were easily made from the scaffolding. On paper my hands copied what my eyes could see. With the latex compound, however, we were able to make molds which any scholar could read and trust, and which reproduced every sign as it was made by the ancient sculptors, or, rather, as it appears today. We first cleaned the rock surface with soft (Page 841) brushes, then applied successive coats of the liquid. The first, very thin, dried within 10 or 15 minutes. Over a second coat we laid thin strips of gauze and painted this again with a third coat, which was dry in less than an hour. Upon a thicker, fourth coat, to give body to our mold, we laid strips of burlap bags or sacking, which we then painted for the fifth and last time. After 24 hours we loosened the edges, peeled our mold from the rock, rolled it up, and carefully lowered it to the ground.
This hitherto uncopied text extends for 22 feet across the face of Bisitun. Our scaffolding measured but 16 feet long, but three feet in from each of its ends was the winch by which the platform could be raised or lowered. Necessarily, then, we often found ourselves working on one of the outside ends, beyond the winches, where there was no guardrail. The position was not automatically dangerous, except when we reached out beyond the end itself, although we were always fully aware that a slight slip would project us onto the rocks far below. One day, as Tom and I were so engaged, he pulled me back just in time and made the soothing and quite truthful remark, "Dad, if you fall, I'll never speak to you again!"
Down below us, as frequent glances assured us, were my wife Frances and son Douglas, who daily rode with us from Kermanshah in our jeep. Promptly at noon each day, Hussein, Tom, and I descended the path and ladder to eat a family lunch with them on the mountainside; otherwise, they watched and waited hopefully for the safe and successful ending of each day's work. They cut our rolls of gauze and bags of burlap into thin strips for easy application, and tied them to ropes by which they could be pulled up to the scaffolding. Later, for the gauze, we substituted woven native cloth which could be bought in the colorful bazaar of Kermanshah.
(Page 842) Each of us was heavily laden as morning after morning we trudged up the mountainside and climbed over massive rocks to reach the foot of the ladder. We carried up Mount Bisitun water, latex, brushes, food, extra clothing and blankets, as well as a dangerously fragile but important bottle of concentrated ammonia for thinning the latex solution.
Occasionally, as the wind shifted, it wafted to our nostrils a delicate perfume from tiny clusters of mountain flowers wedged in shallow crevices high up the spongelike rock. Sometimes we interrupted our lunch or labor to watch the antics of foot-long lizards clinging to the vertical rocks, or to observe the startled birds into whose nesting places, in crags around the sculptures, we were intruding.
Even more interesting was the pageant that unrolled below us, where the road wound along the foot of the mountain and twisted and turned through the plain. There we could see the tea and coffee houses, police post, and school groups around the life-giving springs whose waters nourished a clump of trees and fed the half-fertile soil. Down the road from the near-by village came Kurdish women, gracefully erect, shy, yet proud, each head crowned by a jar to be filled with water. There too herds of sheep and goats wended their way along the road to distant pastures, or patient donkeys laden with farm produce plodded wearily to market.
Buses and private cars, Baghdad-bound, spilled their passengers out for a stretch, a cup of tea at the near-by teahouse, and, for some, a climb partway up the mountain to see what these "foreigners" were doing. One - and an American, at that - whom we later met (Page 843) in Baghdad, unwittingly asked us if we knew who the "fools" were who, when he passed Bisitun, had been clinging to the precipitous sides of the mountain!
Far across the plain, another mountain range lifted its rugged and soon snowy crest. For 10 of our 21 days at Bisitun the weather was delightful, and crowds often gathered to watch our progress. After that, however, we had to fight the elements. First came the winds, buffeting our little scaffolding so hard that at times we felt like circus performers, flying through the air with great ease. One grievous day a page torn from my notebook scudded across the 52-foot length of ledge, and then, at terrific speed, began to go straight up the mountain. It was thousands of feet to the peaks above, and we seemed to see it go over the top. It was at one of these times, I believe, that Tom and Douglas gave Superman's urgent cry, "Up, up, and away!"
Then came clouds, rain, and cold-clouds that blanketed Bisitun in mist, with snow on top, and rains that drenched us, slowed our progress, and made our work almost a nightmare. One bitterly cold day, when Hussein appeared for work dressed only in a thin shirt and pair of trousers, we lent him a coat and a blanket, and still the brave lad's teeth chattered. Thereafter, as often as possible, I worked alone upon the scaffolding, although there seemed to be no way that one could keep warm. In addition to underwear and socks, two pairs of trousers, shirt, and sweater, all of wool, I wore an army coat and a native sheepskin jacket and still needed, thrown round my shoulders, an army blanket, which the wind was loath to leave in place.
After completing our examination of the Old Persian and first Elamite texts, we moved cables and scaffolding to the left of the relief to recheck readings of the second copy of the Elamite inscription. This done, we prepared to raise the scaffolding above the huge outjutting rock which, on two faces, bears the story of Darius as written in Babylonian. This, we knew, was a dangerous undertaking.
It was next to impossible to prevent the upper part of the winches from jamming up into the overhang. Also, as Rawlinson correctly noted a century ago, the mass of rock on which the inscription is engraved bears "every appearance . . . of being doomed to a speedy destruction, water trickling from above having almost separated the overhanging mass from the rest of the rock, and its own enormous weight thus threatening very shortly to bring it thundering down into the plain, dashed into a thousand fragments." Inch by inch we tried to ease the scaffolding up over the "hump," and time after time the overhang foiled us. Once, when the scaffold was sharply tilted, a cable somewhere above slipped over another overhang, and we were tipped at an even more alarming angle. Slowly we righted our fractious "craft" and made a fresh and, this time, a successful ascent. With the latex solution we were then able to obtain a new and better copy of this portion of the inscription.
Our work was nearing a close, but we had still to examine the reliefs and to follow the ancient path to its onetime end. Viewed from the ledge or from the ground below, the sculptures appear to be carved roughly and without much skill. This is by no means true. In fact, they compare favorably with the famous reliefs executed at Darius's royal capital, Persepolis, 450 miles to the southeast. Those at the capital were intended for public gaze; past them, on every New Year's festival, marched kings and princes bearing tribute from lands near and far. Those at Bisitun, on the contrary, are placed high up the mountainside where the life-size figures of the King and his guards appear diminutive, almost infinitesimal. Nevertheless, these same figures are excellently conceived and carefully executed: fingernails, beards and mustaches, bracelets, bows, even shoes are skillfully delineated.
With royal disdain, Darius stares at the nine rulers whom he conquered, and tramples with one foot his archenemy, Gaumata. The King's beard, frizzled and curled, is a separate block of stone set into the rock; it is held in place by two iron pegs, leaded in. One peg, thrust into a hole bored in the living rock, starts in his neck and ends in the inset block; the other begins in front of his mouth. All the orifices or openings were once filled with lead. Other inset pieces add detail and beauty to the shoulder and the bow of Darius, to the bow of one of his guards, and to the crown of the figure of the winged god, Ahuramazda. Jutting out more than three inches from the (Page 844) god's crown may still be seen an iron peg, encircled with lead; once, no doubt, the peg was surmounted by a silver or gold ball which glittered in the sun to indicate deity. Above the relief, an inscription bears Darius's proud boast of his kingship and royal descent. The wedges by which the names of his ancestors were cut into the rock were themselves filled in with lead so that they too could add luster and dignity.
The local villagers may even preserve some faint memory of the brilliant ornaments that once made of this monument a still more magnificent spectacle, for an interesting rumor fanned out over the countryside as we worked upon the relief. The rumor arose when, one day, my wife appeared at the Rock wearing a dress trimmed with gilded buttons and a braided goldlike belt. "The American," it was reported, "has given to his wife a gold belt from one of the figures of the nine dervishes"!
Here and there we could see signs of willful mutilation in the relief, all done in modern times by the bullets of passing riflemen. Because of this, and because of damage to the inscriptions caused by the underground streams of water, the Iranian Government has most properly sought some method by which the life of the sculptures and writings at Bisitun might be preserved. In times past, when queries of this sort have been directed to scholars, the only answer they knew to give was, "We must preserve them by recording them as accurately as possible." Our expedition, however, managed to preserve a portion of the relief in even better fashion: by making a mold of the noble figure of Darius, a guard, and the "liar" Gaumata. From that mold, in time, a cast will be made, and so the Great King may stand before peoples in America or elsewhere just as he has stood for almost 2,500 years on the Rock of Bisitun.
At long last, we were ready to trace the full course of the old path by which Darius's sculptors reached the spot on the mountainside almost inaccessible today. Slowly, cautiously, Hussein and I moved across the deliberately smoothed or scarped surface 60 feet around the mountain's face to the point where, perhaps, that path might once have had its beginning. A pleasant surprise awaited us: here was a level platform, with two steps leading downward. In the top step holes had been cut, doubtless for the purchase of wooden rails. Below the second step there was nothing but a vertical descent, for the stairway also had been chiseled away completely. But now we knew almost the full explanation of the method by which the Persians themselves had attained the heights.
All four goals were thus achieved: we had copied the four hitherto uncopied columns; we had checked all three texts which had previously been copied (and solved many difficulties in each of them); we had photographed, examined, and taken molds of the relief - and we had been able to determine the method by which the Persians had reached the heights to carve their handiwork. Then came the final day when, for the last time, we stood upon the ledge. My hands touched gently a portion of the inscription which our labor had clarified. "Says Darius the king . . . if thou shalt not conceal this edict, but shalt reveal it to the people, then shall Ahuramazda be thy friend, there shall be to thee a large family, and thou shalt live long." It was a pensive moment.
American and British corporations had given of their materials and of their time; the American Schools of Oriental Research and the University of Michigan had granted me the opportunity; and I and my family, with the help of a little Persian boy, had added our energy and skill. We had all been struggling to achieve the same goal - a recording of Darius's monument for posterity - and the Great King's blessing now seemed to be addressed directly to us!
Slowly, Hussein, Tom, and I descended the pathway and climbed down the ladder. As we reached the ground, our hands gave a gentle pat to a low bush beside the ladder, a bush covered with small pieces of cloth tied there by countless prayerful souls beseeching Allah for a son. We too uttered a silent prayer, but one of thankfulness that our labor, now ended, had been successful. For the last time, as a family group, we looked up once more to the majestic figure of the King of Persia. Then, hand in hand, touched by the last lingering rays of the sun, we let our eyes wander over the beautiful panorama of sky and mountains, plain and village below us. As we stood thus, the school bell pealed and the next generation of boys of Iran issued from the door of the schoolhouse far below. Our day, our work here, was done.
Copyright (c) 1996 by Bruce J. Butterfield
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