Sir Henry Rawlinson
THE ROCK OF BEHISTUN - IRAN
The first serious attempt to examine the Rock of Behistun relief was made by Henry Rawlinson in the summer of 1835.
He must have been a skilled mountaineer, because he managed to climb the cliffs several times in order to make a squeeze of the cuneiform texts.
This writing system was still unintelligible, but Rawlinson had already recognized the word Dârayavauš (Darius) somewhere else, and was soon able to recognize the same letters in this monument.
When he received some notes by the German scholar Georg Friedrich Grotefend, who had booked some progress in the decipherment of the Persian cuneiform alphabet, Rawlinson was able to break the code.
In 1837 he returned to Bisotun, where he and an agile Kurdish boy made a new squeeze of half the Persian text, a dazzling feat of mountaineering which cost the two a year. Since Rawlinson knew the Persian language and had read the age-old sacred book Avesta, he was soon able to read the entire text and to understand grammar, syntax and vocabulary of the language of one of the three texts at the monument. In 1838 he handed over his first results to the Royal Asiatic Society in London and the Société Asiatique in Paris. Eight years later, he started to publish on the 'Persian Cuneiform Inscription at Behistun, Deciphered and Translated' in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.
The Safavid bridge at Behistun, made from stones cut in the Sasanian age.
The translation caused a sensation. It told how a Magian had occupied the Persian throne after the death of king Cambyses (Persian: Kambûjiya), claiming to be his brother Smerdis (Persian: Bardiya). Seven conspirators had discovered it and Darius, who was a relative of Cambyses, had killed the man. This confirmed one of the most unbelievable and romantic stories told by Herodotus (Histories 3.61-79). In the Behistun inscription Darius also told how he had suppressed several rebellions against the Persian hegemony and how he had defeated the nomads of the Central Asian steppe against whom the legendary Persian king Cyrus the Great had fought in vain.
The Behistun monument
In 1844, Rawlinson and three colleagues again climbed the cliffs at Bisotun, now making a complete squeeze. Using this copy, the scholars Niels Westergaard and Edwin Norris managed to decipher the 131 characters of the Elamitic script and to read the old language: an impressive achievement since Elamite is a dead language, related to no known spoken tongue. Rawlinson started the decipherment of the complex cuneiform script of Babylonia (which has some 500 characters) and the Akkadian language. He succeeded in 1852; from now one, scholars were able to read the flood of clay tablets coming from the excavations at Nineveh. These opened the way to a new discipline: assyriology.
The relief was damaged during the Second World War, when soldiers used the figures as targets. The face of Ahuramazda is now completely destroyed.