It’s important to find out that the Persians did not, at this period, use writing for their own language.. Darius's Bisitun inscription was an exception – only a few royal and religious inscriptions used a written form of the Persian language. We are therefore reliant on the Greek Herodotus – who wrote in the 440s BC.


The early Persians had three kinds:

1. Inscriptions on rocks or stones - for very important official records, nearly always ordered by the kings. Ordinary people were illiterate, and wouldn't be able to read them anyway - so it didn't matter if they were high up on cliff faces. The important thing was to create a record - so the gods could see and recognise. Usually refer to god in a flattering way. Cyrus cylinder was not an exception - it was buried in the wall - for the gods and posterity. Official languages known to only a few were used - Elamite, Babylonian -along with Persian - although all used cuneiform script, as used in the Middle East for centuries. The Cyrus cylinder is in Akkadian, the old language of Babylonia. Darius' inscription is trilingual.

The inscription from Van, illustrated, is trilingual, like Darius's at Bisitun - in Akkadian (Babylonian), Elamite, and Old Persian - why when so far from Persia?

It says:

A great god is Ahura Mazda, the greatest of gods, who created this earth, who created yonder sky, who created man, created happiness for mankind, who made Xerxes king, one king of many, one lord of many.

I am Xerxes, the great king, king of kings, king of all mankind, king on this earth far and wide, the son of Darius, the Achaemenid.

Xerxes proclaims: King Darius, my father, by the favour of Ahura Mazda, made much that is good, and he ordered this niche to be cut; as he did not have an inscription written, then I ordered this inscription to be written.

We have no clue as to what Darius intended his inscription to be!

2. Official records on clay tablets, such as the Persepolis Fortification Archive (PFA) - see pages 30 - 31) These were archives intended to be kept "for ever" - most important are the ones found in their thousands at Persepolis. They use cuneiform script, but nearly all are in Elamite (a language in use in Persia before the Persians arrived) or Aramaic (the usual “civil service” language of the old Assyrian empire. It was widely spoken – and the language that Christ would have used in Judaea); there are a few in Greek, and one very puzzling on is in Persian; no one has yet come up with a convincing explanation for it (it's the one illustrated on page 12). 

3. Day to day records used leather - which might also have been used for recording stories and poetry. But as nothing survives we have no way of knowing. Stories don't need to be written down. This PFA tablet suggests that the treasury needed a lot of leather!

Tablet PF 847
11 adult males, 6 adult females, total 17 cattle were slaughtered. The cowhides were delivered to the treasury. Rauzazza and Irdurtiya received them … in the 18th year in the seventh month.

Important to stress that the narrative of the "history of Persia" is only recorded by non Persians - Greeks and Babylonians. The only Persian sources are as in 1 and 2 above - we have no stories or narratives from the Persian point-of-view. Non-written sources are very important, but not always easy for a non-specialist to interpret. (Try researching "Iran DNA" and you'll see my point!)


Writing in Cuneiform? Not difficult for students to attempt! See various websites and youtube demonstrations (writing cuneiform, how to write cuneiform etc.).

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