It was a rare privilege on a snowy winter’s morn­ing to gain permission to ascend the cliff face at Bisotun and come face to face with one of the most significant inscriptions of the entire ancient Near East, witnessing another testimony to God’s hand in world history.

Here in the Kermanshah Province in western Iran, placarded amongst many spectacular monu­ments of the past, we find a remarkable inscription of King Darius the Great, a king who was in har­mony with the religious policies of God’s servant, Cyrus the Great.

Bisotun is situated on the Royal Road, a significant highway built by Darius the Great connecting Sardis, the capital of Lydia (in modern Turkey), to Susa and Persepolis, the capitals of the Achaemenid Persian kingdom. Many routes connect into this Royal Road, and together they formed the major intercontinental trade thoroughfare of its day – the legendary Silk Road. These routes brought enormous wealth to the region through the exchange of commercial goods, culture, art, reli­gion, philosophy, technology, science and architecture. In fact, the Persians invented the courier system, having horses and men posted at intervals of a day’s journey, enabling swift communication throughout their empire (Est 8:10).

The monumental relief of Darius the Great, situated high up the cliff face, is 6.5m long and 3.2m high and was inscribed between 520 and 518 BC. It depicts Darius’victory over the usurper Gaumata, (aka Pseudo Smerdis). Behind the king stand two attendants; in front of him are nine cap­tives with their hands tied and a rope around their necks, representing the nine rebel leaders Darius overthrew and took captive (the ninth figure was actually added later). Gaumata “the pretender” lies under the foot of Darius, with his hands raised in submission to the king; it was Gaumata’s assassi­nation that led to Darius’ rise to power. Above the captives giving his blessing to the event is Farvahar the winged guardian symbol of Zoroastrianism, the symbol of the god Ahura Mazda.

Surrounding this relief is a tri-lingual inscrip­tion in Old Persian, Elamite and a form of Neo­Babylonian called Akkadian. This inscription is one of the most important writings of the entire ancient Near East, being a major key to understanding its languages. It alone made it possible to decipher cu­neiform writing, unlocking the secrets of previously unknown ancient civilisations. Sir Henry Rawlinson is credited with the first successful translation of these inscriptions, having painstakingly deciphered the cuneiform script from his papier-mâché impres­sions, which he took whilst suspended high on the cliff face in 1835. The inscriptions themselves are a political statement by Darius the Great, establish­ing his claim to Cyrus’ throne. Darius outlines his lineage and the many battles of 521–520 BC against the rulers who had attempted to take the empire from Cyrus, including the defeat and assassination of Gaumata. In conclusion, he places a curse on those who try to damage this monumental relief!

The significance of this monument to us is its depiction of the defeat of Gaumata (an imposter who ascended the Achaemenid throne by imper­sonating Smerdis the brother of Cambyses and so became known as Pseudo Smerdis). In his very short reign of seven months, Gaumata issued a decree obstructing the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple (Ezra 4:7–22). After Gaumata’s death, under the reign of Darius the Great, a new decree was issued granting the Jews liberty to continue their work.

This monument graphically illustrates to us the greatness of the Persian Empire, whose kings God raised up as His servants to assist in the return of His people to their land and the rebuilding of His temple.