Biblical Archaeology: The Behistun Rock The Behistun Rock was a very significant discovery because it revealed the key to deciphering the ancient Babylonian language.
Deciphering the Inscription on the Behistun Rock
Deciphering the inscription. Rawlinson found that it was
actually a threefold inscription, like the
Rosetta Stone. The one language was old Persian, the
second was Median, and the third,
Babylonian. Rawlinson began a long and earnest attempt in
solve the riddle of the unknown
Babylonian language. His knowledge of modern Persian was
a great help to him in coming to
understand the old Persian. Then he worked on the Median
language, and finally deciphered the
He discovered that the inscription and relief were
ordered done by King Darius I of Persia
around 515 B.C. The bas-relief pictured the king leading
his army in triumph over a revolt which
he put down, and the writing tells the story of his
success. The results of Rawlinson`s discovery
were printed in Europe in 1847.
Ten years later authorities of the British Museum gave
copies of a cuneiform inscription to four
scholars, including Rawlinson, for them to read. The
translation work done by all four agreed so
substantially that all doubt was removed that the old
Babylonian language had been certainly
Discovery of the Behistun Rock
The discovery and copying of the inscription. Shortly
before the middle of the nineteenth
century, when archaeologists were beginning to uncover
ancient Assyrian palaces and many
inscriptions were made available to scholars in the old
cuneiform language of Babylonia and
Assyria, it was providential that an important discovery
led to the deciphering of this formerly
In the year 1835 Henry Rawlinson, a young English army
officer who was traveling in the region
of the Zagros Mountains of Persia, saw a great bas-relief
and inscription located high up on a
cliff. The almost perpendicular side of the hill had been
smoothed, and the inscription stood 350
feet above the base of the hill. Other travelers had seen
this remarkable work of man, but
Rawlinson proceeded to copy the inscription. Natives of
the land helped him to reach the 14-inch
ledge which extended along the bottom of the inscription,
although it was now broken in places.
By the help of a ladder held steady on the ledge by an
attendant, he managed to copy the
columns of writing.
Further Expeditions to Analyze the Behistun Rock
Perfecting the text of the inscription. The text of King
Darius` mountainside writing has been
perfected by several more recent efforts to climb the
precipitous cliffs. In 1903 Professor A. V.
Williams Jackson, of Columbia University, climbed the
rock to check the passages that were in
doubt by scholars, and he for the first time took
pictures of the relief and inscription.
In 1904 the British Museum sent an expedition to the rock
under the direction of Leonard
William King and Reginald Campbell Thompson. They made
use of a rock shelf above the
inscription to enable them to get closer to it. Their
copy of the text became the standard of
publication for many years.
But in the year 1948 the Baghdad School of the American
Schools of Oriental Research
sponsored another expedition to the Behistun Rock.
Professor George G. Cameron, of the
University of Michigan, was director. The purpose was to
check portions of the inscriptions
about which uncertainties and difficulties still
remained; to attempt to read sections of the
inscription which had never been copied because the ledge
below it was broken at those places;
to photograph both the relief and inscription and make
molds of the former; and to determine, if
possible, how the ancient Persians reached the place on
the rock to do their work.
Cameron had at his disposal the modern skill and
engineering methods of the Anglo-Iranian Oil
Company, whose riggers reached the shelf located two
hundred feet above the inscription. There
steel pins were cemented into holes that had been drilled
in the rock. Then by means of cables
and a scaffolding the professor was able to begin the
tasks of examining and copying the
inscription and of taking pictures.
He was able to check various disputed places in the text,
and thus he was able to settle longstanding
difficulties. He also succeeded in copying the hitherto
uncopied portions of the
inscription. Some of these were identical with the known
parts. He made a mold of a portion of
the relief in order that a cast could be made and a
representation of old King Darius be presented
to the English-speaking world.
An oblique gash was discovered providing a pathway around
the mountain, and below the end of
the path was a platform with two steps leading down from
it. Holes in the top step indicated rails
of wood had been used. But below these two steps there
had doubtless been a further stairway
that was chiseled away after the completion of the work.
Thus was revealed how the old-time
workers reached the scene of their operations.
Some Bibliographic Resources for the Behistun Rock
Ira M. Price, The Monuments and the Old Testament, ed. 1925,
J. A. Hammerton,
ed., The Wonders of the Past, ed. 1937, pp. 250, 251.
George G. Cameron, “Darius Carved History on Ageless Rock,”
The National Geographic
Magazine, Dec. 1950, pp. 825-844.