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Bisotun

Bisotun is located along the ancient trade route linking the Iranian high plateau with Mesopotamia and features remains from the prehistoric times to the Median, Achaemenid, Sassanian, and Ilkhanid periods. The principal monument of this archaeological site is the bas-relief and cuneiform inscription ordered by Darius I, The Great, when he rose to the throne of the Persian Empire, 521 BC. The bas-relief portrays Darius holding a bow, as a sign of sovereignty, and treading on the chest of a figure who lies on his back before him. According to legend, the figure represents Gaumata, the Median Magus and pretender to the throne whose assassination led to Darius’s rise to power. Below and around the bas-reliefs, there are ca. 1,200 lines of inscriptions telling the story of the battles Darius waged in 521-520 BC against the governors who attempted to take apart the Empire founded by Cyrus. The inscription is written in three languages. The oldest is an Elamite text referring to legends describing the king and the rebellions. This is followed by a Babylonian version of similar legends. The last phase of the inscription is particularly important, as it is here that Darius introduced for the first time the Old Persian version of his res gestae (things done). This is the only known monumental text of the Achaemenids to document the re-establishment of the Empire by Darius I. It also bears witness to the interchange of influences in the development of monumental art and writing in the region of the Persian Empire. There are also remains from the Median period (8th to 7th centuries B.C.) as well as from the Achaemenid (6th to 4th centuries B.C.) and post-Achaemenid periods.

Brief Synthesis

 On the sacred mountain of Bisotun in western Iran’s Kermanshah province is a remarkable multilingual inscription carved on a limestone cliff about 60 m above the plain. Located along one of the main routes linking Persia with Mesopotamia, the inscription is illustrated by a life-sized bas-relief of its creator, the Achaemenid (Persian) king Darius I, and other figures. It is unique, being the only known monumental text of the Achaemenids to document a specific historic event, that of the re-establishment of the empire by Darius I the Great. Moreover, Bisotun is an outstanding testimony to the important interchange of human values on the development of monumental art and writing, reflecting ancient traditions in monumental bas-reliefs. The inscription, which has three versions of the same text written in three different languages, was the first cuneiform writing to be deciphered in the 19th century.

The inscription at Bisotun (meaning “place of gods”), which is about 15 m high by 25 m wide, was created on the orders of King Darius I in 521 BC. Much of it celebrates his victories over numerous pretenders to the Persian Empire’s throne. The inscription was written in three different cuneiform script languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian. Once deciphered in the 19th century, it opened the door to previously unknown aspects of ancient civilizations. In that sense, the inscription at Bisotun has had a value for Assyriology comparable to that of the Rosetta Stone for Egyptology.

The monumental bas-relief associated with the text includes an image of King Darius holding a bow as a sign of sovereignty, and treading on the chest of a figure which lies on his back before him. According to legend, the figure represents Gaumāta, the pretender to the throne whose assassination led to Darius’ rise to power. This symbolic representation of the Achaemenid king in relation to his enemy reflects traditions in monumental bas-reliefs that date from ancient Egypt and the Middle East, and which were subsequently further developed during the Achaemenid and later empires.

The 187-ha site of Bisotun also features remains from prehistoric times to the Median period (8th to 7th centuries BCE) as well as from the Achaemenid (6th to 4th centuries BCE) and post-Achaemenid periods. Its most significant period, however, was from the 6th century BCE to the 6th century CE.

Criterion (ii)The monument created by Darius I the Great in Bisotun in 521 BCE is an outstanding testimony to the important interchange of human values on the development of monumental art and writing. The symbolic representation of the Achaemenid king in relation to his enemy reflects traditions in monumental bas-reliefs that date from ancient Egypt and the Middle East, and which were subsequently further developed during the Achaemenid and later empires.

Criterion (iii)The site of Bisotun is located along one of the main routes linking Persia with Mesopotamia and associated with the sacred Bisotun mountain. There is archaeological evidence of human settlements that date from the prehistoric times, while the most significant period was from the 6th century BCE to the 6th century CE. The Bisotun inscription is unique, being the only known monumental text of the Achaemenids to document a specific historic event, that of the re-establishment of the empire by Darius I the Great. It was the first cuneiform writing to be deciphered in the 19th century.

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