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About 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Kermanshah, in the direction of Hamadan, the road passes under a tall cliff, which bears one of the most famous bas-reliefs in Iran. This is the site of Bisotun (or Behistun), looking especially majestic when approaching from Sahneh. Just before the town, there is a Safavid bridge on the right, but drive on to the large lay-by on the left.

The modern road is on a much higher level than the original Royal Achaemenid road that ran from western Turkey across the Zagros Mountains to Hamadan and then south to Susa.

Bas-relief Carvings

At Bisotun the cliffs are inscribed with a series of world-famous bas-relief carvings dating from 521 BC. They were awarded UNESCO recognition in 2006.

Among these are two Parthian carvings accompanied by Greek inscriptions. The left one, unfortunately badly damaged by a XVII century Persian inscription, represents king Mithridates II (123-87 BC) receiving four dignitaries. This is the oldest known Parthian carving and still reflects the traditional Achaemenian manner of presenting figures in profile rather than face on. The right-hand carving commemorates the victory of Gotarzes II (AD 38-51) over his rival Meherdates and shows the king on horseback brandishing a spear and accompanied by a winged Victory. The style in this much later sculpture is closer to the Roman.

On the far right of the site, protected by a metal covering, is a Seleucid carving (148 BC) in high relief showing a reclining Heracles. Nearby, on an isolated block of stone, is a further Parthian carving showing a priest or a nobleman carrying out a ritual at an altar. The inscription accompanying it mentions the name of Vologases, the name of five Parthian kings who ruled between 51 and 228 AD.

The most famous carving at Bisotun is set about 60 metres above the road. It was sculpted by order of the Achaemenian king Darius I in 520 BC to commemorate his victory over the Magus Gaumata and the subsequent consolidation of his power. In 522 BC, it was claimed that Gaumata rebelled against Cambyses II and usurped the throne. He was executed a few months later by Darius who then proclaimed himself king. However, his legitimacy to the throne was contested by 8 other pretenders who began a series of rebellions. In this relief, Darius is represented on the left, standing over the body of Gaumata. Facing him are the 8 rebel chiefs chained together. The last figure, wearing a pointed hat, is Skunkha, king of the Scythians, whose portrait was added to the bas-relief at a later date after Darius' victory against the Scythians in 518 BC. Behind Darius, on the left, stand his allies, Gobryas and Artaphernes. Above the prisoners hangs the winged symbol of Ahura Mazda, the all-powerful god, in whose name the Achaemenian kings ruled. Although this relief of Darius is the first great art work of his reign, the representation of the figures surpasses that of the time of Cyrus the Great. The inspiration for this carving appears to have come from the Lullubi relief at Sar-e Pol-e Zahab: the composition is very similar and makes use of size to indicate the relative importance of the figures.

Around the relief are inscriptions in three languages, Elamite, Neo-Babylonian (or Akkadian) and Old Persian, which give the official version of Darius' fight for power and his final triumph. The importance of this text lies in the fact that it is the only one by an Achaemenian ruler to relate the historical events of his reign and those that preceded it. Darius recounts Gaumata's rebellion against Cambyses II in detail, followed by the rebellions of each of the 8 provinces and their final defeats. He ends with an acknowledgement of Ahura Mazda's invaluable assistance in his struggle - thereby justifying the legitimacy of his claim to the throne - and appeals to future rulers to preserve the monument and spread his message. The Elamite text, which appears to have been carved first, is in two sections, one to the right of the relief and the other below, to the left. The Babylonian text is carved on the left, and the Old Persian text directly below, the figures. It was thanks to these inscriptions, which are comparable in value to the Rosetta stone, that a British officer, Henry Rawlinson, was able, to decipher Old Persian cuneiform.

In 1835, eccentric British army officer Henry Rawlinson bemused locals by dangling for months over the abyss to make papier-mache casts of these texts. It's hard to know how his superiors gave him the time off to attempt so life-threatening an eccentricity, nor why Rawlinson didn't just tootle up to Ganjnameh and copy those inscriptions instead. Nonetheless, his transcriptions later allowed the deciphering of the cuneiform scripts, a thrilling breakthrough that renders Bisotun as significant to Persia-philes as the Rosetta Stone is to Egyptologists.

Darius' decision to carve his message to the world on the Bisotun cliff was hardly an arbitrary one: the cliff is directly above the road that lead from his summer capital, Ecbatana, to Babylon. The message itself was addressed as much to posterity as to his subjects. Indeed, the inscriptions are placed too high to be read from the road and access to them was deliberately rendered almost impossible, on the king's orders, by smoothing down the surface of the rock beneath them. But copies of the inscriptions were sent to each province of the empire, including Babylon, thus ensuring that the king's message was made known to all.

To reach the carvings, jump out of a savari from Kermanshah where the road entering Bisotun's swings 90 degrees right (east). Then walk through a large car park following the mighty cliffs west. You will pass a club-wielding little Hercules statue from 148 BC (albeit with recently replaced head) sitting on a rocky ledge. A little further is a very eroded Parthian relief of Mithrades II, partly overwritten by a XVII century Arabic inscription by Sheikh Alikhan. The main reliefs face east, high above this, requiring a good zoom lens and early-morning sunlight for decent photos.

Farhad Tarash

Some 200m beyond the main bas-relief site is the huge, smooth Farhad Tarash rock face, popular with climbers who consider it among Iran's greatest challenges. In fact it was artificially smoothed in the VII century AD for an inscription that Khosrow II never got around to scribbling. Walk 10 minutes' further west, crossing some lumpy archaeological diggings, to find a well-restored but unused 1685 caravanserai.

Getting There & Away

The savari stop for Kermanshah and for Sahneh (and thence Hamadan) is a 10-minute walk east through Bisotun town, just beyond Bank Keshvari.