Visiting Darius and Ahuramazda at Behistun Inscription was
as close to a religious experience that I have ever had
August 11, 2005
In the summer of 2003 I had the privilege of visiting Kermanshah
and viewing the Behistun inscription of Darius the Great. The inscription
is important for many reasons, not least for being the key to the
decipherment of the cuneiform script which was used for the Old
Persian, Babylonian and Elamite versions of the inscription. I
always have my students in the introductory course to Ancient World
History, as well as my Ancient Persia class read parts of the inscription
This is a magnificent work of governmental propaganda, covering
up a coup d’etat by Darius who, regardless, should certainly
be called “the Great.” Many revolted after Gaumata,
says was the pretender to
the throne was killed. These included Açina (Elamite); Nadintabaira
Martiya (Persian); Fravarti (Median); Ciçantaxma (Asgarite); Fravarti
(Margianian); Vahyazdata (Persian); Araxa (Armenian); Aamaita (Elamite); and
Skunxa (Scythian). Darius himself states
that he fought nineteen battles and captured nine kings.
all, it was Darius who organized the Achaemenid Empire which was
to last for two centuries. Furthermore, the inscription, as
the great late historian Arnolodo Momigliano mentioned, is the
earliest personal biography known in the ancient world. It may
very well be that the Persians were interested in such matters.
After all, the earliest textual biography written in the ancient
is about Cyrus the Great, i.e., Cyropaedia. Lastly, the inscription
demonstrates the religious conviction of Darius and his devotion
to his god, Ahuramazda, the “Wise Lord.” It is by the
grace of Ahuramazda that Darius became
king; it is Ahuramazda who bore him aid in defeating his enemies,
and it is Ahuramazda who made him king.
As I got to climb the scaffolding which was in a decrepit state,
I had a feeling of excitement. This was not because the head of
the Behistun project had told me that if the scaffolding breaks
and I die, it is not her responsibility, but rather, I was one
of the few fortunate souls who were able to get close to Darius
and his inscription. Some two centuries before (1835) Sir Henry
Rawlinson, the man who made the important decipherment Old Persian
script had flung himself from the mountain to copy the inscription
and several times he almost fell and died.
I was very much aware
of these matters and it ran through my mind as the wood beneath
my feet cracked as I went up further. The relief is several hundred
feet above the ground and so it was a chance of a lifetime to
see the inscription and the relief.
I climbed up until I was face
to face with Darius, king of kings.
My heart was beating evermore faster as I looked into his eyes,
and saw the details of his beautifully curled beard, the earlobes
and his golden crown. It was a magnificent work of art, but it
was much more than that. It showed a confident king of kings, at
ease and at peace in the face of a great revolt which shook his
Then there were the nine
captive mutineers who
were bound and brought before the king of kings. They were standing
before Darius who was holding a bow, the symbol of authority and
power in the Achaemenid world. We know what Darius did to them,
as he says: “I did as I pleased with them”. But the
most exciting moment of my life was when I TOUCHED GOD.
Before going further, I know that I am going to get a series
of responses that the image is not that of Ahuramazda, but either
Xwarrah “Royal Glory,” or Frawahar “Guardian
Spirit.” There are competing theories and based on the Egyptian
and Assyrian material but I agree with those who see the winged
figure as Ahuramazda.
I am not religious, but this moment was as
close to a religious experience that I have ever had. Just above
Darius hovered Ahuramazda.
You have to be there and be looking at both to understand what
Darius’ devotion to Ahuramazda is, not in words, but in distance
between the two on the relief. I had to spread myself sideways
on the scaffolding and only then I was able to touch Ahuramazda.
My heart was not beating anymore, it had almost stopped and
I kept touching God and in disbelief telling myself, am I really
I kept closing and opening my eye just to be sure that I was there.
I had met Ahuramazda in all his glory at the top of one of the
most famous mountains of the Iranian Plateau which at the time
of Darius the Great was probably known as baga-stana “place
of gods” based on the Greek attestation of
It was then that I remembered parts of Yast 1, known as Ohrmazd
“I am Protector and Creator
I am Protector and Knower
And I am Spirit and Most Beneficent”
Dr. Touraj Daryaee is Professor of
History of Ancient Persia at California State University, Fluerton.