How Cuneiform Script was Deciphered? The Answer is Behistun Inscription

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Rosetta Stone of Babylon

Millions of clay tablets have been found in ancient Mesopotamia region and all were written in ancient cuneiform script. Today we know a lot of things about an ancient Mesopotamian culture by reading these clay tablets. But do you know how cuneiform script first deciphered? How much effort did it take? And most importantly how it could have been possible?

The story of the decipherment of cuneiform script is almost the same as the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics which could have been possible by the discovery of Rosetta stone.

The Rosetta Stone, which was found by the soldiers of Napoleon at the time of his attempted conquest of Egypt, gave the key to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Rosetta Stone contained the same inscription, both in Greek and in the strange hieroglyphics which had been used by the Egyptians. Starting from the known, slowly the hieroglyphs were made to yield their valuable secrets.

In cuneiform’s script case, something of the same kind happened. Travelers had noticed several inscriptions sculptured on rocks in Persia. Each inscription was repeated three times, in what we now know to be three separate languages: Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite.

What is Behistun Inscription?

The Behistun Inscription is a multilingual inscription and large rock relief on a cliff at Mount Behistun established by Darius the Great 522–486 BC. It was crucial to the decipherment of cuneiform script as the inscription includes three versions of the same text, written in three different cuneiform script languages (Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian). This inscription is equivalent to Rosetta Stone for the decipherment of old lost scripting language known as Cuneiform.

Where is the Behistun Inscription?

Behistun Inscription was found on the main caravan route between the city of Baghdad and Rock of the Persian capital of Teheran, at a distance of about 65 miles from Hamadan, which is built upon the site of the ancient city of Ecbatana, stands the famous Rock now known as ” Bisutun” or “Behistun”. The name of the Rock is derived from that of the small village of Bisitun or Bisutun, which lies near its foot.

Details of Inscription

The height of the sculptured panel from the ledge on which Darius and the prisoners stand is 10 ft., and its total width, including the additional figure on the right, is about 18 ft. The figure of Darius is 5 ft. 8 in. high; the figures of the two attendants are each 4 ft. 10 in. high; the height of each prisoner is 3 ft. 9 in. The height of Auramazda, from the crest of his head-dress to the bottom of the rays, is 3 ft. 9 in., and the greatest width of the figure is 4 ft. 2 in.

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King Darius the Great

Darius I (c. 550–486 BCE), commonly known as Darius the Great, was the fourth Persian King of Kings of the Achaemenid Empire. He ruled the empire at its peak when it included much of West Asia, most of the Black Sea coastal regions, Central Asia, as far as the Indus Valley in the far east and portions of north and northeast Africa including Egypt (Mudrâya), eastern Libya, and coastal Sudan.

Details regarding can be found in column 1 which has been inscribed in all three scripts. Below is the translation from column 1.

Darius the great

I am Darius, the great king, the king of kings, the king of Persia, the king of the provinces, the son of Hystaspes, the grandson of Arsames, the Achaemenian. (Thus) saith Darius, the king: My father is Hystaspes; the father of Hystaspes was Arsames; the father of Arsames was Ariyaramnes; the father of Ariyarainnes was [Teispes]; the father of Teispes was Achaemenes. (Thus) saith Darius, the king: On that account are we called Achaemenians; from antiquity are we descended; from antiquity hath our race been kings. IV. (Thus) saith Darius, the king :

Eight of my race were kings before (me) I am the ninth. In two lines have we been kings. (Thus) saith Darius, the king: By the grace of Auramazda am I king; Auramazda hath granted me the kingdom. (Thus) saith Darius, the king: These are the provinces which are subject unto me, and by the grace of Auramazda became I king of them: Persia, Susiana, Babylonia, Assyria, Arabia, Egypt, the (Islands) of the Sea, Sparcla, Ionia, [Media], Armenia, Cappaclocia, Parthia, Drangiana, Aria, Chorasmia, Bactria, Sogdiana, Gandara, Scythia, Sattagydia, Arachosia, and Maka; twenty-three lands in all.

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What is that Behistun Inscription Written About?

Behistun Inscription
From Left to write
I. First two – Attendant, II. Darius the Great, III. The prostrate Gaumata
IV. Ashina, V. Nidintu-Bel, VI. Phraortes.
VIL. Martiya, VIII. Citrantakhma, IX. Vahyazdata
X. Arakha, XI. Frada, XII. Skunkha.

The sculptures represent Darius, accompanied by two of his officers, receiving the submission of the leaders of rebellions against his authority in various parts of his empire during the early years of his reign. The king stands with his left foot planted on the body of the Pseudo-Smerdis, Gaumata the Magian, who lies on his back and has his hands raised in entreaty to Darius. The king has his right hand lifted to Auramazda, who appears amid rays of light and lightning, and in his left hand, he grasps a bow.

In front of him stand nine rebel leaders roped together by their necks and having their hands bound behind their backs.

The last figure of the series who wears a high, pointed cap was added to the group at a later period; it represents Skunkha, the Scythian.

Behistun Inscription Full Coverage

How did Behistun Inscription help in Deciphering Cuneiform Scripting?

Below the sculptured panel are five columns of cuneiform text in the old Persian language, which records the suppression of the revolts.

Behistun Inscription column wise detail

To the left of the Persian inscription are three columns of cuneiform text, written in the Elamite character and language, and containing a translation of the first four columns of the Persian text.

On two faces of an overhanging rock, above, the Elamite version, and to the left of the sculptures, is a single column of cuneiform text, written in the Babylonian character and language, containing a translation of the first four columns of the Persian text.

To the right of the sculpture were four columns of supplementary cuneiform texts, which probably referred in part to the events described in the fifth column of the Persian text.

So here, four columns which are written in the old Persian script is the key as Elamite and Babylonian Cuneiform text is the copy of Persian text. Once the Persian text is deciphered, it is easy to decipher the other two.

Who Translated or Deciphred Behistun Inscription?

The Inscription was first copied and translated by the late Major-General Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, Bart, G.C.B., whose study of it enabled him to bring to a successful issue the decipherment of the Cuneiform Inscriptions. His edition of the Persian text, accompanied by a Commentary, appeared in the tenth volume of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1847.

How Did Cuneiform Script Decipher?

It had been called to the attention of a German high-school teacher that the writings of later Persian kings always began with the phrase, “So-and-so, the great king, the king of kings, son of So-and-So.

He observed that in the simpler version of one of the inscriptions, groups of signs occurred more or less in the expected order. He began to fit the name of a king with what he thought should have been the Persian reading of the signs, and succeeded in reading “Darius, the great king, king of kings, son of Hystaspes.”

The decipherment of the Babylonian version presented many more difficulties because the writing was not at all alphabetic.

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Test of Decipherers

A test was staged and four top scholars were given the very same inscription to translate. While the four translations differed in some details, still it was evident from the many points of agreement that translation done by all four are more or less the same and context can be drawn from this translation.

Weight Stone with three different languages might have used during the test
The weight stone developed in three languages, Old Persian
Elamite and Babylonian that might have used for the test

The Historical Narrative


After Smerdis, brother of Cambyses (the son of Cyrus) death, it was long believed by the Persians that he was living in close confinement.

Gaumata, the Magian made good use of this belief, and during the absence of Cambyses in Egypt appeared on the scene, and declaring himself to be Smerdis, the son of Cyrus, claimed the Persian throne.

On hearing of the revolt, Cambyses hastened to return to Persia but died on his way.

Gaumata succeeded in ascending the throne of Persia is proved by the fact that Babylonian contract-tablets, dated in his reign, have been discovered.

Darius, accompanied by six Persian nobles who had sworn to support him, marched his small force against Gaumata and attacked him in his stronghold. The pretender was slain, and Darius succeeded to the throne of Persia (B.C. 521) and promptly abolished all the innovations which Gaumata had inaugurated.

Comparative Analysis of Three Text

Translation of a Few Inscription

Behistun Inscription Translation
From Left to write
I. First two – Attendant, II. Darius the Great, III. The prostrate Gaumata
IV. Ashina, V. Nidintu-Bel, VI. Phraortes.
VIL. Martiya, VIII. Citrantakhma, IX. Vahyazdata
X. Arakha, XI. Frada, XII. Skunkha.

Follow translation from top to bottom. Inscription related to individual revels prostrate figure is present below the individual portrait.

This is Gaumata, the Magian, who lied, saying: “I am Smerdis, the son of Cyrus.”

This is Ashina, who lied, saying: ” I am the king of Elam.”

This is Nidintu-Bel, who lied, saying: ” I am Nebuchadnezzar, the son of Nabonidus.”

This is Phraortes, who lied, saying: ” I am Khshathrita, of the race of Cyaxares.”

This is Martiya, who lied, saying: ” I am Ummannish, king of Elam.”

Behistun Inscription translation
From Left to write
I. First two – Attendant, II. Darius the Great, III. The prostrate Gaumata
IV. Ashina, V. Nidintu-Bel, VI. Phraortes.
VIL. Martiya, VIII. Citrantakhma, IX. Vahyazdata
X. Arakha, XI. Frada, XII. Skunkha.

This is Citrantakhma, who lied, saying: ” I am of the race of Cyaxares.”

This is Vahyazclata, who lied, saying: ” I am Smerclis, the son of Cyrus.”

This is Arakha, who lied, saying: “I am Nebuchadnezzar, the son of Nabonidus.”

This is Frada, who lied, saying: ” I am king in Margiana.”


The Scriptures and Inscription of Darius the Great. This book contains all the details and translation of all the Cuneiform script present on the Behistun hills.

Book – They Wrote on Clay

All the above translation and study were done by great scholars. None of the above research is done by me. All the credit goes to great scholars who spent the endless time to deciphered ancient script.

I hope you read something new today. Share your views in the comments section below.

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