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By A. J. Cave

Good Things Come in Threes

According to the unofficial “rule of three” in media many stories, from comic strips to dramatic epics, are structured in threes. Blockbuster movies spawn sequels and prequels.

In the popular American game of Baseball, when the three bases are loaded in the bottom of the ninth innings, the winning homerun is just a swing away.

And the triad of Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds are the pillars of the Zoroastrian religion.

Hold that thought.

Guess who is coming to dinner?

The Cyrus Cylinder.

The Cyrus Cylinder is arguably the world’s second most famous cuneiform text after the “Flood Tablet”-an ancient clay tablet written in Akkadian with a story of how a Babylonian great god unleashed a destructive flood to wipeout the mankind, predating the biblical flood story of Genesis by a few millenniums.

Making its debut in the United States, the Cyrus Cylinder and a handful of antiquities from the Persian Achaemenid Period housed at the British Museum will be on special exhibit at 5 American museums, starting in the east and ending in the west. They will be passing through San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum in the Old Persian month of Karbasiyas (August/September). Each venue will have its own public and private events to celebrate the touring exhibit.

Millions of Americans will have a chance to see the famed object-no bigger than a small loaf of bread-up close and personal and learn more about the ancient Persian history. And looking at those neat little wedges on the clay cylinder some might wonder (as I did) “how do we know? how can we tell?”

Cuneiform script was considered oriental decorative zigzag until the mid to late 19th century when a handful of brilliant scholars cracked the codes of 3 long lost languages that used cuneiform script: Old Persian (or Arya in Persian), Akkadian (Assyrian and Babylonian dialects), and the impossibly difficult Elamite. And later the Sumerian language. Sumerians might have been the first people who invented writing-a useful invention that enabled not just the preservation of knowledge from one generation to the next, but the creation of new things like literature.

The subsequent decipherment of hundreds of thousands of clay tablets-mostly fragments-turned them into an unexpected treasure trove for the study and appreciation of some of the world’s oldest civilizations.

We can think of writing as the mother of all information technologies.

The reason the scholars known as Assyriologists can now read the Akkadian cuneiform script on the Cyrus Cylinder with confidence is thanks to another Persian Great King-Darius I, who ordered the court scribes to carve his words on the rock-face of Bagastana in 3 languages. A novel idea back then.

The royal proclamation was also written in a fourth language-Aramaic-the common language (lingua franca) of the royal administration and sent to the governors (called satraps by the ancient Greeks) managing the Achaemenid royal provinces.

So when it came to unlocking the mysteries of the cuneiform texts, good things did come in three-the famed “Behistun” trilingual royal inscription.

And when it comes to the ancient Persian Achaemenid history the “rule of three” holds.

Unlike their friends and foes, the imperialist Persian Achaemenids were notoriously minimalistic when it came to writing about themselves. Theirs was a culture rooted in the oral tradition.

The “Persian Triad” of cuneiform text that is now helping modern scholars to shed light on the ancient Achaemenid history are (listed chronologically):

  1. Cyrus Cylinder written around 539-538 BCE in Babylonian dialect of Akkadian language
  2. Rock of Darius written between 520 and 516 BCE in 3 languages of Elamite, (Old) Persian and (late) Babylonian dialect of Akkadian
  3. Persepolis Administrative Archives, written mostly in Elamite between 509 and 457 BCE, covering roughly a span of a little over 50 years

There are other cuneiform sources on Persian Achaemenids, but these are the ones that are directly tied to the Great Kings and their sprawling administration.

Who is on first?

The Rock of Darius.

The key to cracking the code of the cuneiform script was the awesome royal commemorative inscription of the Persian King Darius I, the Great (Persian: Darayavhaus, 522-489 BCE). It is the only text of an Achaemenid King that contains a narrative of historical events.

The inscription was over 1,300 lines carved on the face of the ancient Rock of Bisotun (meaning: without columns). The ancient name of the place is reconstructed Old-Persian word Bagastana, meaning: place of god (or gods), and Middle Persian: Beh-stan (variation: Behistun), meaning: lovely place. It is about 340 feet [roughly 100 meters] above the ground. The actual height of the royal monument and all the inscriptions around it is about 60 feet wide by 22 feet high, roughly 18 by 6 meters. The sheer rock rose some 1700 feet (roughly 520 meters) above the old caravan road connecting the Highlands of Persia to the Lowlands of Babylon.

The royal inscriptions were carved in sequence: first Elamite, then Babylonian, and finally in the newly-minted (Old) Persian.

While professional royal scribes were probably multi-lingual and could read Akkadian and Elamite as well as Aramaic, Old Persian script was too new to be meaningful to anyone outside of the small circle of scribes who had created the script to gratify the Great King.

From the road below the royal inscription was and remains a blur.

The mountainous place was believed to be sacred. They say since ancient times women used to hang their votive pieces of cloth or rags or ribbons on the bushes beneath.

The exact date of the royal monument is not known. According to the scholars it was probably created between the end of the first full regnal year of Darius (521/520 BCE) and completed after the end of his third regnal year (519/518 BCE).

Interestingly enough, while the trilingual royal inscription of Persian Great King Darius opened the doors to other great civilizations of the ancient Near East under his rule, he left the account of the Persians shrouded in mystery.

This monumental royal inscription is as close as we get to the formidable Persian Great Kings and their powerful inner circles.

In 2006, the Rock of Darius was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

What is on second?

The Persepolis Administrative Archives.

The Persepolis Administrative Archives-consisting of the Persepolis Fortification Archive and the Persepolis Treasury Archive-roughly 30,000 or so pieces from a single archive, is a surviving fraction of the (no doubt) massive administrative archives of the imperial Persian Achaemenids, written in cuneiform script in the Elamite language for a mostly Aramaic-speaking administration.

Now how is that for multi-ethnicity?

Of course, the Persians themselves thought of it as ruling over many lands and many peoples.

When the German Archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879-1948), excavating at Persepolis under the sponsorship of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in the early 1930s, found two small rooms filled with cuneiform tablets and fragments in 1934, he might have thought of the great cuneiform archives from the more distant libraries of the Assyrian kings and the archives of the Babylonian temples.

The tablets recovered from the ruins of a building designated as the “treasury” were shipped to Tehran and the tablets recovered from the fortification wall were packed and shipped to the Oriental Institute for further research, by permission of the Persian royal authorities.

The fortification tablets arrived in Chicago in 1936 and except for a break during the Second World War (1939-1945), a handful of scholars have been working on these tablets-now called the Persepolis Fortification Archive-ever since.

Hopes were high in the beginning that these were the historical records written by the elusive Persian Achaemenids themselves, as mentioned in the biblical and classical sources.

But the tablets turned out to be mundane administrative accounting records.

Ancient bureaucratic paperwork in duplicates and triplicates!

Being the new kids on the imperial block, the Persians might have upgraded to lighter-weight writing materials to efficiently and effectively connect their far-flung royal provinces to the central chancelleries, without breaking the bank and the back of the messengers and horses galloping between the Great Kings and their various royal provinces.

So most of the imperial administration paperwork might have been in more perishable materials, like animal skins-leather and parchment-and some papyrus from Egypt.

Thank God those die-hard royal scribes at Persepolis (PÔrsa in Persian) had kept up the old ways of writing on clay tablets using cuneiform script for at least a few decades, before switching over to Aramaic on skins.

These humdrum administrative archives from the Persepolis chancellery are considered new materials by the specialists: the details of the storage and distribution of foodstuffs and livestock from the lands around Persepolis. They were recorded on clay tablets, archived, stored, and fire-baked when Persepolis was torched in 331 BCE as the symbol of Persian power.

Clay was practically indestructible, especially when baked by fire. So these records miraculously survived the fiery destruction of Persepolis by the Makedonian King Alexander III (336-323 BCE, called Alexandri Magni, Alexander the Great, by the Romans) and lived to tell about a small part of the vast Persian way of life in and around the Persian heartland.

So, instead of poetry and prose, the Persian Achaemenids left us their version of corporate credit card receipts.

A handful of pioneering American scholars, including George Cameron and Richard Hallock, worked patiently over decades editing these obscure Elamite texts, establishing their underlying scribal practices, methodically interpreting them and in the process partially reconstructing the difficult and still obscure Elamite language.

These records have led to an understanding of the imperial administrative infrastructure of the Persian Achaemenid Empire that was unknowable from the biblical and classical sources.

The challenge with archives like the Persepolis Administrative Archives is getting both the little pieces and the big archive synchronized to allow at least a partial reconstruction of the underlying economic system.

And on the third base?

The Cyrus Cylinder.

There is a lot that has been said and written about the Cyrus Cylinder and everyone has a personal and passionate opinion about the famed object.

The cylinder was found during the first decades of excavations in the Near East before the methods of scientific excavation were developed. It was broken during the diggings for Near Eastern antiquities and cuneiform tablets and its findspot was not recorded. It was sent to the British Museum along with other clay tablets and was formally acquired by the museum in 1880 and has been there ever since.

According to a letter from the Assyrian-British archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam (1826-1910) to the British Museum dated 20 November 1879, he found the cylinder while excavating at the site of the temple of great god Marduk in Babylon in 1870. That is now the official version, even though it was probably made up to fill in the gap.

While the Cyrus Cylinder was initially important to the biblical and classical scholars by confirming the historical existence of “Cyrus”, it was not until 1960s when it started to become well-known in Iran.

True celebrity status arrived when the late Muhammad Reza Shah (1941-1979) of the Iranian Pahlavi Dynasty chose the Cyrus Cylinder as the symbol of 2,500 years of Persian/Iranian monarchy and the rest is history.

The iconic Cyrus Cylinder is now the most famous royal inscription of the Persian Achaemenid Period and a part of modern Iran’s cultural identity.

The Jewel in the Crown

To many ancient Near East historians the Cyrus Cylinder is the legitimation text of a new ruler to justify his rise to power in a traditional royal and religious context and to appeal to the Babylonian elites and priests.

To the Assyriologists it is a traditional Babylonian foundation deposit.

To the biblical scholars it is the corroborating evidence of the royal decree of “Cyrus the Persian” to release the Judaeans from their Babylonian exile and allow them to return to Judah

To modern Iranians the royal inscription of Cyrus the Great is the first proclamation of human rights-even though as modern scholars have noted, “human rights” is a modern construct and such a concept was quite alien to Cyrus the Great and his contemporaries.

It is now the bottom of the ninth and the bases are loaded.

And the winner is?

Wait for it!

Getting back to the “rule of three”, the Cyrus Cylinder is one of those rare historical objects that has transcended time and place and has acquired three distinct meanings in the last fifty years or so (since mid-1970s):

  1. the historical cylinder is a source of genealogy of the Ansanite King Cyrus the Great [Akkadian: Ku-ras, Persian: Ku-rus, 559-530 BCE], and his claim to legitimate kingship over Babylon as the chosen one by the great god of Babylon, and if you are biblically inclined, the only “pagan” king in the Hebrew Bible to receive the same title as the Messiah: “my anointed”-the divinely designated deliverer
  2. the physical cylinder is a typical Near Eastern foundation deposit
  3. the virtual cylinder is a symbol of Iranian national identity and a hope for international peace

Good things sometime do come in threes!


A. J. Cave ( is an Iranian-American writer based in San Francisco Bayarea. Her new book, An idol-worshiper’s Guide to god-stan: a Trilogy in 7 Parts, is the story of the decipherment of the ancient cuneiform script and its modern global theological and political impact.

An idol-worshiper’s Guide to god-stan: a Trilogy in 7 parts: when Above
Paperback: ISBN 13: 9780980206173
e-Book: ISBN 13: 9780980206166
Publication date: 29 October 2012
order from amazon

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