Old Persian was the language used by the Persians during the time of the Achaemenian era (c. 600 BCE to 300 BCE) and is known to us to a large extent through the inscriptions (especially the inscriptions at Behistun) of Darius I, the Great, who employed the cuneiform script.
Old Persian is considered to be a Western Iranian language, while the languages of the Avesta are considered to be Old Eastern Iranian languages and considerably predate Old Persian.
Old Persian evolved into Middle Persian, the language of the Parthian and Sassanian eras (3rd century BCE to 7th century CE) and eventually into Modern Persian.
The transition from Old Persian to Middle Persian is evident after the fall of Seleucid occupation (the Seleucids were descendants of the Macedonian Alexander's generals) (312-129 BCE) and the liberation of Iranian lands by the Arsacids / Parthians (c. 247 BCE - 229 CE). The dates of the two rules overlap since pockets of Seleucid rule continued until their final expulsion.
The transition from Middle Persian to Modern Persian was gradual, and in the 10th-11th centuries CE, Middle Persian texts were still being written and read by speakers of early New Persian.
Mysteries Surrounding Old Persian
By the time of the fall of the Sassanian era, knowledge of the Achaemenians as a dynasty and knowledge of Old Persian had been lost to Iranians. Persepolis, a capital of the Achaemenians, was called Takht-e Jamshid, the throne or capital of the mythical King Jamshid, and there existed all kinds of fantastic stories to explain the existence of the Behistun monument (for further details, please see our page on Behistun).
Rediscovery of Old Persian
We owe the rediscovery of the Achaemenian dynasty and the Old Persian language they used, to European curiosity and dedication to the decipherment of the Old Persian inscriptions, a process that took nearly a hundred years and much frustration. This page, and the notes that follow, are a testament to that persistence and dedication.
However, Western interest was not always helpful. British soldiers stationed in Iran during the Second World War, used the Behistun monument for target practice and badly damaged some of the inscription.
With discovery comes attention and misplaced enthusiasm. Many of the ancient monuments have been looted, severely damaged by very poor archaeological practices, and damage by the elements. Some of the monuments were better protected when they were buried in the sand.
Around 1764 CE, Carsten (or Karsten) Niebuhr (1733 - 1815), a German mathematician, cartographer, and explorer, visited the ancient site at Behistun and made copies of the cuneiform inscriptions. He visited Persepolis in March 1765, and in three weeks and a half copied all the texts. This reproductions were prepared so diligently, the few changes have been made to them since.
[Records indicate that the earliest European who visited the Persepolis site south of Behistun - around 1320 CE - was a wandering friar named Odoricus. Odoricus does not make mention of the inscriptions at Persepolis. Rather, it was Josaphat Barbaro, a Venetian traveller, who visited the site about 1472 CE and made mention of the inscriptions. In 1621 CE, the ruins were visited by Pietro della Vallee, who copied a few of the signs, facsimiles of which he sent in a letter to a friend in Naples. Then in 1711, Jean-Baptiste Chardin (later to become Sir John Chardin) who visited Persepolis, known then as Chehel Minar (forty columns) on three occasions in 1667, 1673, and 1674, published in Amsterdam, a carefully and accurately reproduced facsimile of one of the small inscriptions he had seen in the ruins of Persepolis. cf. A Journey to Persia: Jean Chardin's Portrait of a Seventeenth-Century Empire by Sir John Chardin, Ronald W. Ferrier and Travels in Persia 1673-1677 by Sir John Chardin. Chardin, however, could not decipher the inscriptions.]
The task of deciphering the inscriptions at Persepolis and Behistun was undertaken by Carsten Niebuhr after his return to Denmark. He concluded that the inscriptions were to be read from left to right, and confirmed the earlier theories that the inscriptions were in three different systems of cuneiform that were always kept distinctly separate in the inscriptions which he classified as classes I, II and III. However, he did not conclude these classes were three different languages. He focused on the inscriptions in class I and isolated forty-two signs and concluded that the words were made up of alphabets. Later scholars have made but a few changes to this original list. Niebuhr was frustrated in his attempts to transliterate or recover the meaning of the words. He had however paved the way for others to continue the process of translating the texts. Two such individuals were Olav Tychsen of Rostock and Friedrich Miinter of Copenhagen.
Tychsen observed that in the inscriptions of the Class I, there occurred at irregular intervals, a wedge that inclined diagonally. This he correctly concluded was the dividing sign used to separate words. This was a simple but critical observation. Tychsen then identified the alphabetic signs for a, d, u and s, but he failed in his attempts to decipher an entire inscription, perhaps because he assumed that the text was written during the Parthian dynasty (246 BCE - CE 227).
Working independently, Miinter made the crucial deduction that Persepolis was constructed during the Achaemenian era, that is between 538-465 BCE. He too concluded that the oblique wedge as a word-divider, and also identified the sign for b in the Class I text. He also noted that certain words occured in a short and long forms and that one set meant 'king' and 'kings', i.e., one was a plural form of the other, and that when the two words occurred together the expression meant 'king of kings'.
Both researchers still did not go beyond their attempts to decipher Class I texts and therefore did not have the benefit of cross references in their efforts.
In 1802, German epigraphist Georg Friedrich Grotefend (1775 - 1853), encouraged by the librarian of Gottingen University, took up the baton of decipherment. He worked on the assumption that the three classes were three different languages, one of which was Old Persian, the language of the Achaemenians. The method of decipherment that he used was to place two text similar panels side by side. Miinter's short and long form words which he thought meant 'king', 'kings' and together meant 'king of kings' also appeared in Grotefend's sample texts. Grotefend added the observation that the word-sets occurred in the first line in both the samples, and further that in both samples, they were followed by an identical word that he concluded meant 'great' to give 'king great' or 'great king', a title that was used in the recently deciphered Sassanian inscriptions. He now felt he had the representation for the phrase 'great king, king of kings'. In order for his theory to hold, he would need to show that this opening phrase would be present in the inscriptions of two different kings, that is, where the names associated with the phrase were different.
Grotefend went on to observe that the opening phrase in the first sample appeared on the third line of his second sample in a slightly longer form which he hypothesized was in the genitive or possessive case where the named king was the son of another king, for instance 'Darius king son' or 'son of Darius king'. The first sample could therefore containing the opening phrase, 'Darius, great king, king of kings, son of Hystaspes', while the second sample could contain the phrase 'Xerxes, great king, king of kings, son of Darius'. This observation led to another hypothesis - that the two sample inscriptions contained the names of three kings, grandfather, father and son, that is Hystaspes, Darius and Xerxes.
Grotefend's assumption for the Old Persian form of Darius was Darheush. While this assumption was not entirely correct - the correct form was Darayavaush - he could nevertheless make significant progress in unlocking the secrets of the inscriptions for he was also able to transliterate the letters d, a, r,r, and sh. A complete decipherment would elude Grotefend, but, he had paved the way for others to finish this task.
Rasmus Christian Rask (1787-1832, also see the reference to Rask in our page on Western Authors), continued to search for the key or keys that would reveal to the world the secrets of the inscriptions and finally awake in them the voice that had been silent for so long. His contribution to the decipherment was to find the plural endings.
|Old Persian cuneiform alphabet. Images courtesy of Fereydoun Rostam at
|Old Persian cuneiform logograms|
|Old Persian cuneiform numbers|
Eugene Burnouf (1801-1852, also see the reference to Burnouf in our page on Western Authors), prepared in Paris a list of Persian geographical names found in the inscriptions at Naqsh-e-Rustam, and constructed a complete transliteration of the Old Persian alphabet.
Christian Lassen (1800-1876), a Professor at Bonn, also prepared a similar list and published his results at about the same time as Burnouf's work - in 1836. He argued that using Grotefend's alphabet, some Old Persian would be transliterated as Cprd, Thtgus, Ktptuk,, Fraisjm - with few or no vowels - leaving them unpronounceable. Lassen who hd studied Sanskrit, used this knowledge to make a crucial observation - that the ancient Old Persian signs for consonants were syllabic with vowels attached to the consonants. For instance, the character for b could represent the syllables ba. bi, and bu. He postulated that the sign for the vowel a was only used at the beginning of a word, before a consonant, or before another vowel, and that in every other case it was included in the consonant sign. Thus v-z-r-k should read vazaraka.
The Old Persian Cuneiform script as it was eventually deciphered consisted of of thirty-six alphabet-syllables signs, and eight ideograms for the words 'king', 'country' (two ideograms) 'good', 'God', 'earth', and 'Ahuramazda' (3x). In addition, a slanting wedge (\) is used as a word divider and there are several symbols for numbers that are counted using a base of ten.
|Henry Creswicke Rawlinson|
The stage was now set for a young British army officer and Orientalist, Henry Rawlinson (1810 - 1895), to complete the process of unlocking the secrets of the Old Persian inscriptions, of which those authored by Darius I were amongst the most prolific. In 1827, at the age of seventeen, he went to India as a officer cadet under the British East India Company. There he spent six years as a subaltern and used the opportunity to learn Persian and several of Indian vernacular languages. In 1833, the young Rawlinson left for Persia, to help with the training and reorganization of the Persian army.
While stationed in the Hamadan, Rawlinson was drawn to the Behistun monument, and in 1835 studied the inscriptions using a field-glass and used his notes and drawings to start his process of deciphering the inscriptions. Since he could not copy all of the inscriptions using this process, in 1837, he scaled the rocks to reach the monument and copy the Old Persian portion of the monument's inscription. Since the Elamite inscription was across a wide cleft in the rock, and since Babylonian inscription was about four meters above the ledge at the base of the inscriptions, Rawlinson could not make a copy of these portions of the inscriptions at that time. We do not know to what extent he had access Burnouf's Old Persian syllables or Lassen work, but Rawlinson nevertheless completed a decipherment of the first two paragraphs of the Old Persian inscriptions by 1838, and presented his results, including the name, titles and genealogy of Darius, on March 14, 1838 to the Royal Asiatic Society in London and in the following month to the Société Asiatique in Paris, securing him an honorary membership in that august body.
After his presentations to the Asiatic Societies , he received or procured copies of all the European publications of the subject including the works of Burnouf, Niebuhr, le Brun and Porter. His work on the inscriptions now made rapid progress and in the winter of 1838-1839 his Old-Persian alphabet and syllables was almost complete.
|Behistun inscription fragment translation example. Image courtesy of Fereydoun Rostam at
In an article published in a 1839 edition of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (x. pp. 5, 6) he wrote of his method he employed in deciphering the text of the inscriptions. " When I proceeded... to compare and interline the two inscriptions (or rather the Persian columns of the two inscriptions, for, as the compartments exhibiting the inscription in the Persian language occupied the principal place in the tablets, and were engraved in the least complicated of the three classes of cuneiform writing, they were naturally first submitted to examination) I found that the characters coincided throughout, except in certain particular groups, and it was only reasonable to suppose that the grounds which were thus brought out and individualized must represent proper names. I further remarked that there were but three of these distinct groups in the two inscriptions; for the group which occupied the second place in one inscription, and which, from its position, suggested the idea of its representing the name of the father of the king who was there commemorated, corresponded with the group which occupied the first place in the other inscription, and thus not only served determinately to connect the two inscriptions together, but, assuming the groups to represent proper names, appeared also to indicate a genealogical succession. The natural inference was that in these three groups of characters I had obtained the proper names belonging to three consecutive generations of the Persian monarchy; and it so happened that the first three names of Hystaspes, Darius and Xerxes, which I applied at hazard to the three groups, according to the succession, proved to answer in all respects satisfactorily and were, in fact, the true identification."
1839 saw Rawlinson stationed in Bagdad. He had intended to publish his preliminary memoir in the spring of 1840, when he received word of his transfer to Afghanistan as a political agent stationed at Kandahar. That work so occupied his time that he could not devote himself to completing his studies until his return to Baghdad in 1843. There he received updated copies of the Persepolis inscriptions made by Westergaard. Later in 1843(?) he returned to Behistun in order to copy those texts that had hitherto been beyond his reach. In 1846, he published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, his memoirs on the ancient Persian inscriptions that included at almost complete translation of the Behistun texts.
In 1846, Rev. Edward Hincks of Killyleagh, County Down, Ireland, presented and read a paper before the Royal Irish Academy. The paper included criticisms of Lassen's work and the transliteration of the Old Persian alphabet-syllables.
In 1844 by Niels Louis Westergaard, published an essay on the decipherment of the second language (later known to be Elamite / Susian in the trilingual inscriptions. In this task, Westergard employed a method similar to the one used by Grotefend in the decipherment of Old Persian. He selected names such as Darius and Hystaspes, and compared them with their equivalents in the Old Persian texts. He called the language Median and classified it in "the Scythian, rather than in the Japhetic family." He estimated the number of its characters at eighty-two or eighty-seven and concluded that the writing was partly alphabetic and partly syllabic, conclusions that were criticised by Hincks.
Another researcher, de Saulcy, made further advances but was hampered by the inaccuracy of the copied texts. Edwin Norris, based his studies on Rawlinson's more accurate copies of the Behistun inscriptions, and published his results in 1852 in a paper presented to the Royal Asiatic Society. Later, Mordtmann identified the second language as Susian (Elamite).
The decipherment of the third of the three languages found at Persepolis and Behistun followed the decipherment of the Elamite texts. Researchers, Isadore Lowenstern, Hincks (in 1846 and 1847) and Longperier (in 1847) made significant advances. Then in 1851, Rawlinson brought the process to fruition when he published his transliteration in Roman characters, as well as his translation of one hundred and twelve lines of Behistun's Babylonian text column into Latin.
Some of the translations of the Behistun inscriptions include those by:
- L. W. King and R. C. Thompson, who led an expedition sponsored by the British Museum, and titled The Sculptures and Inscription of Darius the Great on the Rock of Behistun in Persia (1907 London),
- Herbert Cushing Tolman and published by Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1908.