Ancient Persian Writing - Influences and Examples

Sara Morrow, Christopher Muscato
  • Author
    Sara Morrow

    Sara has a B.A. in archaeology from the University of Virginia, and M.A. in anthropology from the University of Notre Dame. She is a licensed teacher in grade 6-12 social studies, and has over 10 years of education experience. She is currently an Apprentice Harpsichord Maker at Colonial Williamsburg.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

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

Study the Old Persian writing system. Explore the Farsi language origin, review the Old Persian cuneiform, and find examples of ancient Persian language scripts. Updated: 06/02/2022

Table of Contents


Old Persian Writing

Old Persian society flourished between the reign of Cyrus II (550-530 BCE) and the fall of the Sassanian Empire in 651 CE. The ancient territory of Persia is primarily in modern-day Iran, and the Persians settled in what is called Persis, giving them their name. The Persian Empire followed the defeat of the Assyrian Empire and inherited much of their culture, including cuneiform writing. Cuneiform was a system of writing that used wedge-shaped symbols carved into clay.

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  • 0:04 Writing in Ancient Persia
  • 0:36 Written Old Persian
  • 2:09 Major Examples
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Farsi Language Origin

Farsi was the native language of the Persian Empire, and it originated as a branch of the Indo-European languages. As such, it is related to many languages throughout Europe and western and southern Asia. The Proto-Indo-European language that is the ancestor of all Indo-European languages emerged in the Caucasus region around 34000 BCE. The Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language includes languages in modern India, Iran, and Pakistan. The oldest evidence of Indo-Iranian languages dates to roughly 1300 BCE. Old Persian can be found within this branch, and dates from as far back as the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BCE.

Old Persian Cuneiform

Cuneiform is the written language system that developed in Mesopotamia sometime between 3500-3000 BCE. All of the great Mesopotamian empires, including the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians, used cuneiform symbols until the invention of an alphabetic script around 100 BCE. The ancient Persians also used cuneiform, and the Old Persian cuneiform is believed to have been developed during the reign of Darius I (522-486 BCE). The oldest example of Old Persian cuneiform, the Behistun Inscription, dates to around 522 BCE.

Attempts to decipher Old Persian cuneiform first began in the early 17th century when a Spanish ambassador to Persia noted the text at the ancient capital of Persepolis. Other European travelers illustrated the texts, and they were first published in 1711. After a visit to Persepolis in 1764, German mathematician Carsten Niebuhr identified three types of alphabet within the cuneiform writing, and this is regarded as a turning point in deciphering the text. It was not until further investigation by another German, epigraphist Georg Friedrich Grotefend, that the cuneiform was fully deciphered in the 1820s and 1830s. His summary, published 1837, includes the following conclusions, along with many others:

  • Old Persian cuneiform contains 3 different forms of cuneiform
  • The characters are alphabetic, not syllabic
  • It is read left to right
  • The alphabet consists of 40 letters

Georg Friedrich Grotefend was the first to decipher Persian cuneiform and created this translated alphabet.

Persian Cuneiform Script and Translation

Ancient Persian Symbols

Old Persian cuneiform is made of horizontal, vertical, and angled wedges. While these are similar to Mesopotamian cuneiform, they are slightly different due to the fact that Old Persian was first cut into hard stone rather than soft clay. Because of this, scholars believe that it may have developed independently from cuneiform. The script includes three vowels and twenty-two consonants. While Mesopotamian cuneiform was syllabic, Persian cuneiform was both alphabetic and syllabic. It also included logograms, which are singular symbols that represent a whole word or idea. For example, one symbol represents the word "king," one symbol means "country," and one symbol represents "god."

Examples of the Old Persian Script

Old Persian script, in cuneiform, can be found at sites across the former Persian Empire. One of the earliest examples dates from the reign of the first Persian king, Cyrus the Great, who ruled between 590 and 529 BCE. Cyrus founded the first Persian Empire and raised news of his victory over Babylon on a cylindrical clay tablet covered in cuneiform writing. Darius I, one of Cyrus's successors to the throne, continued the tradition of recording his history in what is known as the Behistun Inscription. Two notable archives were discovered at the Persian capital at Parsa, known to the Greeks as Persepolis. Persepolis, which is located today in modern Iran, was founded in 518 BCE by Darius I. There he built an elaborate palace and administrative buildings. The two archives of cuneiform tablets are the Fortification Tablets, and the Treasury Tablets. Both archives include records of taxes, payments of silver for workers, and stores of food for the city.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What was the official script of the Persian Empire?

The official script of the Persian Empire was Ancient Persian cuneiform, which developed during the reign of Darius I. Persian cuneiform was adopted from the Ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform before it.

What was the writing system of ancient Persia?

The writing system of ancient Persia was both alphabetic and syllabic. The alphabet consisted of 40 consonants and 3 vowels written in vertical, horizontal, and diagonal slashes.

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