Iran is the birthplace of some of the most ancient civilizations with a rich history and precious heritage. Without a doubt, the most celebrated and valuable element of Iranian heritage, among other ancient artifacts ornamenting the prestigious museums and intuitions worldwide, are the tablets and inscriptions discovered on Iran plateau. The unique significance of these inscriptions comes from their primary purpose to outlast their creators and deliver a message to future generations; just like Herodotus, the father of history, who intended to be the witness of a piece of history for posterity. Inscriptions, however, are created as single copies, unlike textual documents.
|An Elamite inscriptions
Prior to the development of a writing system, logograms were utilized to register human thoughts. These signs were representing a concept or a meaning rather than a phoneme or a consonant. Some evidence of logogram inscriptions was also discovered in Iran. With advancements and the growth of humankind over time, the need for an updated and flexible writing system became undeniable. A slick and simple writing system capable of more extended concepts and relations was required to transfer the new and more comprehensive concepts with adequately fast speed.
Traces of such writing's evolution are visible from ancient times up to the present time. On the contrary, no grand palace had ever been built as a communication means but to show the magnificence of the empire of the time, no tradition or culture was established to be handed over to the next generations and no tool or jewelry was made for any other reason than meeting the demands of people. It is only the inscriptions and tablets which were intended to leave a message for us, one of the most notable examples is the golden and silver tablets of Darius, discovered in Apadana Palace in Persepolis and installed on palace walls, in order to deliver
his memorandum after 2,500 years.
Darius, well aware of the doomed destiny of all the empires, used gold and silver, the most resistant metals, as a medium to carry his message and achievements to future generations. The evolving nature of language and writing has made the ancient tablets and inscriptions hard to comprehend and it was intended by linguistics and archaeologists to decipher and decode the underlying message.
Deciphering each ancient language and writing, unlocked a new door to shed light on another obscure part of history. The efforts and hard work of skilled scientists made it possible for us to hear the voice of our ancestors through signs and lines carved in rocks and metal.
|Gold foundation tablets of Darius I for the Apadana Palace, in their original stone box. The Apadana coin hoard had been deposited underneath.
Another extremely important point about Iranian inscriptions is the content of these inscriptions. In the following, we will discuss the unique characteristics of Iranian inscriptions and present two important samples with their translation.
The diversity of cultures residing within current Iranian borders during the past millennia has led to a great deal of variety in inscriptions and tablets, including Urartian inscriptions (mostly in northwestern regions), Elamite inscriptions, Assyrian inscriptions, Akkadian Inscriptions, and Iranian inscriptions (containing Old Persian, Parthian Middle Persian, and Sassanid Middle Persian).
-Classification of Ancient Iranian Inscriptions Several classifications have been proposed for the ancient Iranian inscriptions. By their geographical origin, they can be divided into eastern and western inscriptions which are based on Iranian linguistic (a subset of the Indo-Iranian languages) divisions. The eastern inscriptions include Bactria and Sogdian inscriptions. The western inscriptions mostly remained within the current borders of Iran, east of Iraq and Turkey, southern Caucasus, and southern Turkmenistan; mostly contained Sassanid and Parthian inscriptions. Note that the western part is also divided into northern regions or Parthian and southern regions or Sassanid Pahlavi.
|These inscriptions are relics from the period of 'Darius' and 'Khashayar Shah' of the Achaemenian era.
Other types of classifications include division based on linguistic features such as monolingual, bilingual, and trilingual; division based on social rank and context such as rayal, religious government officials, and private inscriptions, or division based on inscriptions typeface which can be Lapidary or Cursive. Another proposed classification is based on the materials and medium used
1. Inscriptions carved on durable materials such as stone and metal such as steles, epigraphs, or inscriptions, example: vessels, seals, and coins.
2 Manuscripts on other materials such as monuments' walls, leather, Papyrus, Bast, or papers. The content of these texts typically contains administrative, legal, economic, religious, private, or literary concepts. The most ancient samples of this group in Iran are the parchment and papyrus writings in Pahlavi (Middle Persian), dating back to the late Sassanid and early Islamic periods. Other examples are the administrative and economic documents on ceramics and clay tablets, such as the Parthian Ostraca discovered in the Nisa region in current Turkmenistan, written in Parthian Pahlavi.
|One of the two gold deposition plates. Two more were in silver. They all had the same trilingual inscription
1. Old Persian was used from the Achaemenid period until the end of the Seleucids period.
2. Made Persian from the Parthian period until the end of the Sassanid period.
3. New Persian, beginning from the early Islamic period up to the contemporary period.
However, the above categories are defined in order to simplify the research efforts, in fact, Middle Persian continued in Pahlavi writings in Iran until the 10th century AD.
We will review the script and language of two great eastern empires, both originated in Iran or Persia, and more precisely in Fars province. First is the Achaemenid Empire which had a great deal of ethnic diversity and various nations with their own language and writing systems influencing the official administrative writing and language. Despite the fact that the native language of the Achaemenids was Persian, they were using the Aramaic language as the official language. This influence explains the imperial linguistic branch of Aramaic as one of the Aramaic language subcategories, which refers to the Aramaic language used by Achaemenids. Note that Aramaic writings had been used mainly in administrative correspondences on leather and papyrus, and not on the royal inscriptions which are mostly written in Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian.
The second great Persian Empire was Sassanid, which established its empire in Fars province; the same as the Achaemenids' origin. Their native language was Persian as well, although it had been through centuries of syntactical and morphological alterations and changes since the fall of the Achaemenids. The expansion of the Sassanid Empire led to the use of other important languages spoken in the lands under their rule, alongside the Persian language. Moreover, the written Persian language was also changed into Pahlavi writing which was inspired based on Aramaic writing.
After the decline of the Seleucids, who ruled after the Achaemenids, Iranians regained power and Aramaic writing was still practiced. However, it was gradually replaced by the local languages and regional writings. The new alphabet which originated from Aramaic was mainly divided into two main categories of Parthian Pahlavi and Sassanid Pahlavi and the latter was also in two forms of book writing and the writing style of the inscriptions and early Sassanid.
In the late Sassanid period; however, the inscriptions' writing style was abolished and replaced by the book writing style in the books and coins. Another type of Middle Persian writing during the Sassanid period was the Christian Middle Persian, developed by the Christian minority of Iranians.
Despite the replacement of Aramaic writing with the middle Persian language and writing, several Aramaic terms and words were still used with the local pronunciation but written in the Aramaic alphabet. These are known as Huzwäres (Ideograms).
Unique features of Iranian inscriptions
In this section, we will take a glimpse of a few remarkable samples of ancient Iranian inscriptions, in order to emphasize their importance and influence in the history of mankind. These examples show that Persian inscriptions, from the ancient centuries to the contemporary era, were always a source of wonder and interest for voyagers, linguists, ordinary people, and those who are interested in the history of writing and language.
1. The decipherment of Old Persian cuneiform inscriptions
According to Walther Hinz, the decipherment of cuneiform writing was one of humans' great achievements. The term "cuneiform" was initially proposed by Engelbert Kaempfer, and it was the Italian Pietro Della Valle who first reported the Persian cuneiform inscriptions to Europe and made a copy of it. He wisely found out that this writing should be read from left to right. However, the decipherment of Old Persian cuneiform writing is attributed to Georg Friedrich Grotefend. He, son of a shoemaker in Hannoversch-Münden, could correctly guess the words "king" (in Persian: shah) of a short inscription from Persepolis, which turned to be an anchor point for him in deciphering several other words and letters in the text. His work was continued by other linguists to make the decoding of the Old Persian language complete, especially Sir Henry Rawlinson who had a major role in reading the great inscription of Bisotun.
Since most of the Achaemenid inscriptions were trilingual, the decipherment of Old Persian texts helped in decoding the two other texts in Akkadian and Elamite languages; just like the Greek inscriptions of Rosetta Stone which facilitated the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Rosetta Stone was discovered in a village with the same name, in the late 18th century. This inscription was one of the great archaeological discoveries of that time, dated back to 196 BC, the upper and middle parts of the inscription were in hieroglyphics and Demotic writings (the later Egyptian period), and the lower part of the inscription was in Greek. Greek writing was one of the keys to decoding the rest of the inscription, which was successfully deciphered by Jean-François Champollion. The same process held true for the role of Old Persian, which resulted in the decipherment of two other languages in Achaemenid inscriptions, Akkadian and Elamite.
3. The great Bisotun inscription and its role as the main source for the history of Achaemenid and the region
This great inscription was placed on the main route connecting Iran plateau to Mesopotamia, commanded by Darius I to be carved on the Bisotun Mountain. The text begins with a description of Darius and his family tree and continues with the story of how he gained power and the throne by suppressing the rebels. The inscription is written in three languages of Old Persian, Akkadian and Elamite. The comparison between this source and other historical texts in Greek, such as Herodotus, reveals some mismatches; however, due to the lack of Iranian historical texts, the inscription of Bisotun is a valuable source of information for Near East history.
Karsten Niebuhr's travelogue is of great importance for understanding the history of Iranian inscriptions. He managed to depict a precise image of historical monuments in Fars province and made a copy of Iranian inscription, which paved the way for their decipherment in 1802 when the cuneiform writing was decoded, thirty-eight years after Niebuhr's visit to Persepolis.
During his travels to Iran, he visited the city of Shiraz and Persepolis, and in 1764 he traveled to western Iran to visit the Bisotun inscription. The following is an excerpt from his travelogue, where he mentioned the inscriptions in Fars province and copied them. During his visit to Persepolis, Niebuhr says: "Right above the four huge beast creatures, there are three sections of inscriptions. All of the letters are arranged in straight lines."
Following the visit and describing Apadana palace's columns, he says: "According to some explorers, the forty minarets is a temple and some others believe this palace had been the capital of a worldwide empire. In my opinion, it is more like a temple, like the great temples in Egypt which were probably contemporary with this monument".
The ancient Iranian inscriptions were not deciphered at his time, so there was a lot of ambiguity about the site. However, Niebuhr's efforts and the derivations from the inscriptions paved the way for other European researchers to mostly decipher the content of the inscriptions. In another part he states. I hope in the near future, European visits the Persepolis and makes a copy of the inscriptions: in a detailed fashion such that like the inscriptions themselves, the letters would be recognizable from one another.
One of the most important Iranian inscriptions after the Bisotun inscription is the inscriptions of Shapur, discovered on the walls of a cube shape monument known as Ka'ba ye Zartosht located in the ancient necropolis of Naqsh-e Rostam, which and about 12 km northwest of Persepolis. The content structure is very similar to Darius I inscription in Bisolun, and after the king's introduction, there are descriptions of his battles and victories against the Romans.
Among the significant features of these inscriptions as a universal heritage, is the use of the Greek language in one of its three versions which indicates the importance of this language during the early Sassanid period. Another great feature is a detailed list of territories in the eastern part of the Roman Empire which is mentioned in the trilingual inscription of Shapur in Greek, Parthian, and Pahlavi, and plays a significant role in studying the historical geography of that period. Shapur provides a precise description of various Roman constituent units and legions which is a great source for Roman military history. The third feature is the equivalents of vocabularies between Greek and Middle Persian, which also makes these inscriptions remarkable in terms of comparative linguistics. The following is the transcription and translation of the first part of the inscriptions in the Parthian language, which is the most intact:
|The place of the inscriptions of Kartir and Shapur I (the Sassanian Middle Persian version)
on the walls of Ka'ba-ye Zartosht
The first paragraph of the Shapur inscription at the Kaba-ye Zartosh (SKZ), the Parthian version: Transcription:
|Az mazdên bay Sabuhr AhAn Ah Eran ud Aneran kè èihr al yazdan puhr mazdézn bay Ardasir Sahan dan Eran ke Cihr az yazdan puhrepuhr
bay Pabaq sah Eranšahr xwaday shem
I, the Mazda worshipping Lord Shapur, king of kings of Persia and non-Persia, whose lineage is from the gods, son of the Mazda worshipping divinity Ardashir, king of kings of Iran, whose lineage is from the gods, grandson of king Papak, am the ruler of Iranshahr
Inscriptions as the featured element in the history of Iran still demand more precise and profound studies. The decipherment of the text is not sufficient by itself, while there are many other possible aspects to be considered. Inscriptions and historical texts are efficient means for the cultural interactions between East and West, considering Shapur I's inscription as an example. In the way that the Parthian and Pahlavi versions can represent the eastern culture and the Greek version can be the representative of western culture. Their coexistence and role in the recovery of the worn-out sections of each version in the inscription, reveals a union of some sort and can be a symbol of collaboration in the mutual cultural and political world. It can lead to unity and common understanding among the civilized worlds of the East and the West and the appropriate symbolism to replace bilateral conversations instead of long-standing hostilities.