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Ancient Persian Writing

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ancient Persia was one of the great powers of the world, with a complex civilization. In this lesson, we're going to explore how writing influenced this civilization and check out a few notable examples.

Writing in Ancient Persia

Today, many people only know where Iran is because of its relation to major struggles in the Middle East. That wasn't always the case. Long before it was Iran, this region was known as Persia, and it was the center of some of the greatest empires the world has ever known. Highly sophisticated in math, engineering, art, and warfare, the ancient Persians played a pretty important role in the ancient world. Of course, it would have been much harder to do this without a system of writing. Yep, the Persians had that, too.

Written Old Persian

The Persians lived in a world that was full of diverse languages, and as they formed the Achaemenid Empire and stretched across the region, they had to interact with these languages. The official language of the empire was what we call Old Persian. It was written onto government decrees and monuments, generally alongside two or three local languages in the region where that monument was placed.

This meant that Old Persian had to have a written form, and it did. The Old Persian written language, sometimes called Persian cuneiform, was based on the cuneiform writing systems of Mesopotamia. Cuneiform is the world's oldest writing system, in which symbols were created by pressing triangular rods into clay. Various combinations of these shapes represented sounds or words.

An example of the Old Persian cuneiform script
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The Mesopotamian version of cuneiform, developed in the city of Sumer for the Akkadian language, was syllabic, meaning each symbol represented a syllable sound. Persian cuneiform, however, represented a combination of symbols for both syllables and individual letters, making it one of the earliest attempts at an actual alphabet. There were 36 of these symbols in Persian cuneiform, as well as additional symbols for numbers and 8 logograms (symbols that represent an entire word) for the common words 'king', 'god', 'earth', 'country', and 'Ahura Mazda' (the supreme deity). The combination of syllabic signs, alphabetic signs, and logograms make Persian cuneiform a very unique written language.

Major Examples

To fully appreciate Persian cuneiform, let's explore some of the most important examples that archeologists have found.

The Behistun Inscription

Let's start with the most famous: the Behistun Inscription. Located near the Iranian village of the same name, this inscription is part of a 15x25 meter relief carved 100 meters up the side of a cliff by Darius I, or Darius the Great, (r. 522-486 BCE). The lower side of the mountain was actually removed after the inscription was completed to make it both more visible, and largely unreachable. Generally considered the greatest of the Achaemenid emperors, Darius ruled the empire at its greatest extent. His inscription at Behistun, made around 515 BCE, boasts of his rise to power and victory over rebellions and opposing armies in over 400 lines of text. That same message is repeated again in the Babylonian cuneiform, as well as in Elamite. For archeologists, the Behistun Inscription is something of a Rosetta Stone — a key to unlocking other ancient languages.

The Behistun Inscription
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Not only is this widely considered the most important example of Persian cuneiform, it's also considered to be the oldest. Most scholars believe that Darius I actually had his scholars create the Persian cuneiform script around this time, possibly even for the creation of this monument. If that's true, it indicates an impressive amount of foresight, as Darius realized that a consistent and unique written language would be needed to spread a uniform authority across his growing empire.

The Persepolis Fortification Tablets

In the 1930s, archeologists were excavating an ancient Achaemenid palace used by Darius and his successors in Persepolis, one of the empire's most important cities, when they stumbled across something interesting. In two small rooms of the city's fortification wall were literally tens of thousands of inscribed clay tablets. Called the Fortification Tablets, these records detailed countless articles of administrative life in the ancient Achaemenid Empire, mostly dating to the time of Darius.

Cuneiform-covered tablet from Persepolis
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