By Max R. Miller
This Behistun Rock looms up above a spring-fed pool of water on the old carven
road from Ecbatana to Babylon. The rock is really the last peak (3,800 feet
high) of a long, narrow range of mountains that skirt the Plains of Keneanshah
on the East. The name Behistun Rock is derived from the village of Besitun located
at its foot. High upon the face of the rock, perhaps five hundred feet above
the level of the Plain, Darius I carved a large relief panel of human figures
accompanied with columns of inscriptions. Travelers have known the presence
of this mysterious scene for centuries. Many have sought but were unable to
identify the figures.
It was described by one as "a city situated on a hill, where there is a pillar and statue of Semiramis, a mythical Assyria goddess." Ibn Hawkal, Arabian geographer of the tenth century, A. D., supposed the scene represented "a school house with master and the boys; in the schoolmaster's hand is an instrument like a strap wherewith to beat." Another, in the nineteenth century, thought that a winged figure of the monument was a cross, and that Darius and his officers and prisoners were the Twelve Apostles. Ker Porter identified the minor figures as "representatives of the Ten Tribes" standing before a "King of Assyria and of the Medes." He surmised the one with the "dunce cap" was of the priestly tribe of Levi.
The Persian Empire was consolidated by Cyrus the Great. His son, Cambyses, followed him to the throne. Following Cambyses, an imposter claimed rightful title to the throne as a son of Cyrus---Smerdis (Skunka) by name. This Pseudo-Smerdis controlled the throne, ruling with power. At length, some of the principal nobles, convinced of the imposture, counseled together and discussed the measure proper to be adopted under the circumstances. However, nothing was done until the arrival at the Capitol of a personage felt by all to be the proper leader of the nation in the existing crisis. This was Darius I, or Darius the Great (522-486 B.C.), the son of Hystaspes. He was a prince of the blood royal, who stood in the direct line of succession, failing the issue of Cyrus. He was about thirty-eight years of age, a seasoned warrior and at a time in life suited for vigorous enterprises.
In the first years of his reign, he proved himself worthy of the crown by crushing rebellions that broke out in many parts of the wide realm of Persia. Elam, Babylonia, Media and Armenia revolted. A new false Smerdis arose. Darius fought nineteen battles to quell these agitations. From the Caucasus to the Indus "his armies had no stain on their glory," Aeschylus wrote. Darius then recorded for future ages the successes of his first years with the inscription on the lofty rock on the upper course of the River Choaspes. The inscription dates from approximately 516-515 B.C., the fifth or sixth year of his reign.
The early nineteenth century was the beginning of the scientific study of archaeology. The Rosetta Stone had been discovered in 1798 and Champollion (1790-1832) was able to decipher it before his early death. His achievement formally opened up the science of Egyptology. Scholars were now able to read Egyptian monumental inscriptions and reliefs from that time to the present. Egyptological studies have gone steadily forward. In Mesopotamia a similar situation developed in the decipherment of the Behistun Rock and the beginning of Assyriology.
There was a great deal of scientific inquiry among the English before the nineteenth century. There developed more than casual interest in the tales recently authenticated by scholars who traveled the ancient lands of Mesopotamia. It was an important turning point when the East India Company ordered their resident in Basrah to obtain specimens of inscribed brick that were discovered at Babylon. Specimens were sent, carefully packed, to London. These, with a small case of antiquities, for the moment, represented all the known remains of Babylon and Assyria. They were the forerunners of the many hundreds of tons of antiquities, which were to reach Europe during the following century.
Claudius Rich, an English Archaeologist, and a few other European travelers, had seen and endeavored to copy some of the inscriptions, particularly those in the vicinity of Persepolis at the Tomb of Cyrus. Attention was directed to the inscriptions at Behistun. Investigation revealed the inscriptions were trilingual. The same cuneiform text was repeated in three different languages, the old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. The Rosetta Stone with its parallel inscriptions in Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphs served as a clue for the decipherment of the Pharaonic pictographs. Now, the trilingual inscriptions in Persia were to fulfill something of the same role in deciphering the languages of the Behistun Monument.
Notable among these early archaeologists was an Englishman named Henry Creswicke Rawlinson (1810-1895). At the age of seventeen Rawlinson departed England for India. Aboard ship was a fellow-passenger, Sir John Malcomb, a soldier, diplomat and Oriental scholar of distinction. Lord Roberts suggests in an introduction to Rawlinson's biography, "It was, without doubt, an enormous advantage to the lad of seventeen to be so closely associated with the 'Historian of Persia,' whose tales of his battles with the Mahrattas and his experiences among the Persians probably fired Rawlinson's youthful imagination and gave that bent to his tastes which resulted in his subsequent choice of a career."
In 1835, Rawlinson was transferred to Kermanshah, Persia (within twenty-two miles of the rock), to reorganize and discipline the Shah's troops so as to restore them to that state of efficiency to which they had formally attained under the supervision of British officers. Rawlinson possessed great physical strength and stamina. On one occasion, when it was necessary to warn the British Ambassador at Teheran of dangers of the Russian agent at Hermit, Rawlinson rode seven hundred fifty miles in one hundred fifty consecutive hours. This was indicative of his determination to accomplish that which he set out to do. He worked on the translation of the message for a decade before he was able to publish it in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.
Soon after his arrival in Kermanshah he began to survey the rock. He was soon aware that in a space approximately twenty-five by fifty feet carved on the rock "worth more to history than any equal space in Asia," he was dealing not with one language, but with three, in the twelve hundred lines of inscriptions which he copied. The threefold Persian, Elamite and Babylonian--were written in cuneiform characters. Knowing modern Persian, Rawlinson was able to decipher the old Persian cuneiform. He centered his attention on the personal names--Darius, Xerxes and Hystaspes--much as the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone had been done in the demotic Egyptian portion of that monument.
On Rawlinson's examination of the face of the rock he found that the whole prepared area (about twelve hundred square feet) had been carefully smoothed and the unsound portion of the stone replaced with better material, embedded in lead. After this, the whole face had received a high polish which could only have been accomplished by mechanical means. After the figures and inscriptions had been cut, it was coated with a coat of hard, siliceous varnish to protect it. A mystery out of ancient times: How did they polish the face of the rock? What kind of "machinery" was used?
In 1835 Rawlinson began copying the Persian and Elamite inscriptions, without the help of ladders or ropes, simply by climbing down to the ledge beneath the panel. However, the intentional inaccessibility of the location chosen by Darius for the sculptures made the area to be reached in this way very small. In Rawlinson's return visits in later years, ropes and ladders had to be used to read the more remote panels. Even so, Babylonian inscriptions remained inaccessible until 1847, when a chance circumstance enabled Rawlinson to obtain "squeezes." He says:
At length, however, a wild Kurdish boy, who had come from a distance, volunteered to make the attempt, and I promised him considerable award if he succeeded, . . .so that it cannot be approached by any of the ordinary means of climbing. The boy's first move was to squeeze himself up a cleft in the rock a short distance to the left of the projecting mass. When he had ascended some distance above it, he drove a wooden peg firmly into the cleft, fastened a rope to this, and then endeavored to swing himself across to another cleft at some distance on the other side; but in this he failed owing to the projection of the rock. It then only remained for him to cross over the cleft by hanging on by his toes and fingers to the slight inequalities on the bare precipice, and in this he succeeded, passing over a distance of twenty feet of almost smooth perpendicular rock in a manner which to a looker-on appeared quite miraculous. When he reached the second cleft, the real difficulties were over. He had brought a rope with him attached to the first peg, and now, driving in a second, he was able to swing himself right over the projecting mass of rock. Here with a short ladder he formed a swinging seat, like a painter's cradle, and fixed upon this seat, he took under my direction the paper cast of the Babylonian translation of the records of Darius.
The sculptured panel represents Darius himself, standing in judgment upon nine rebel chiefs. At the end of the row, the king is treading underfoot a figure representing the usurper, Smerdis, while two attendants, standing behind, and the god Ahuramazda in his winged disk complete the group.
The linguistic achievement deciphering the Behistun inscription, as great a feat of ancient philology and history as the discovery of radio, television or atomic fission in the realm of physics in our modern day, was an important event archaeologically. This event was destined to resurrect vanished nations of antiquity from the vast cemetery of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, the grave of Earth's most ancient civilization, in which they have lain for millennia. Now enabled to read the innumerable inscribed clay tablets dug out of the mounds of buried cities, the scholar can reconstruct the story of the ancient past, make it live again and shed its light on the message and meaning of the Old Testament.
The magnitude of the discovery of deciphering cuneiform is increasing with every decade. Assyriology has become an important branch of research in every great university. The excavations of the last century, moreover, have brought to light great libraries of cuneiform literature. At Nineveh, two great libraries were unearthed which contained thousands of clay tablets. The library of Asherbanipal (669-626 B. C.) containing some twenty-thousand tablets and constituting the main body of recovered literature dealing with the civilization of ancient Mesopotamia, its culture and achievements, provides a great mass of material illustrating innumerable aspects of Old Testament history. Understanding of those histories and cultures helps one relate to and understand the role God's people Israel had to these great nations of the past.
Among the tablets unearthed and sent to the British Museum from the royal palace and library of Asherbanipal discovered at Nineveh by Howard Rassam in 1853, were Assyrian copies of the Babylonian creation and flood stories. The identification and decipherment of these particular tablets by George Smith in 1872 produced an archaeological sensation; but cuneiform literature was to prove a more far-reaching arm of biblical studies than even the most sanguine optimists of the day dared hope.
Not only in Babylonia, but elsewhere as well, large bodies of cuneiform literature were to be uncovered. The much-publicized Amarna Letters from Egypt, discovered in 1886 at Tell-el-Amarna, about 200 miles south of modern Cairo, furnishes examples. In its great library have been recovered hundreds of clay tablets in Akkadian cuneiform, the lingua franca of the day. These represent diplomatic correspondence of petty princes in Palestine in the fourteenth century B. C. with the Egyptian court at Amarna. Other important bodies of cuneiform literature have been retrieved from Boghaz-Reui and Kamsh in Asia Minor, from Susa in Elam (Code of Hammurabi), from Mari on the Middle Euphrates, from Ras Shamra and from other sites within and without Babylonia. -10726 Hwy. 59 W., Burlison, TN 38015.
EDITOR'S NOTE: In a departure from his assigned theme of church history, Max Miller has written an informative piece on one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of modern times. This great discovery unlocked the Assyrio-Babylonian system of cuneiform writing. -Dennis Gulledge
When architect Frank Lloyd Wright was asked at age eighty-three which of his
works he would select as his masterpiece, he replied, "My next one."
... You are not really successful until someone claims he sat beside you in
school...If you really want to succeed, form the habit of doing the things that
people who are failures don't like to do.
"Think on these things..." (Philippians 4:8).