Tinco Lycklama meets up with cuneiform history at Bisotun.

Almost everything we know about the ancient civilisations of the Middle East relates to the decipherment of cuneiform script. At Bisotun, Tinco explores the reliefs and carvings that date back to the time of Darius the Great. But, not before having coffee at the Shah Abassi caravanserai.

Bisotun Caravanserai Shah Abassi.jpg-large
Caravanserai Shah Abassi, at Bisotun

Tinco Lycklama left the city of Kermanshah on June 29, 1867. He spent a most interesting fortnight in the company of the Turkish consul, and made new friends at the Qajar court. On his way to Hamadan, Tinco makes a stop at Bisotun. From a cultural perspective, a most interesting one.

By way of comparison, out modern knowledge about ancient Egypt owes everything to the decipherment of hieroglyphs – one of the oldest writing systems in the world. This was made possible by the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, a piece of rock that not only contains a text in hieroglyphs (dated to the year 196 BCE) but also its translation into Greek.

Cuneiform script, which predates hieroglyphs by a couple of centuries in the 4th millennium BCE, remained a total mystery until the full decipherment of the texts at Bisotun (also called Behistun), in 1857. Like with hieroglyphs, its decipherment was made possible by the fact that the carvings at Bisotun contained the same text in three cuneiform variants – Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite.

Bisotun Cuneiform Inscriptions - Closeup
Cuneiform inscriptions at Bisotun

Tinco spent the night at the local chapar khaneh, the courier station where he got fresh horses and provisions for his team. The station has disappeared today, unlike the nearby caravanserai of Shah Abassi, where Tinco went for coffee with an Englishman named Fowl. A happy encounter, but Fowl’s principal reason for staying at Bisotun was business, as he was a telegraph engineer. He did not share Tinco’s interest in the cuneiform inscriptions, located at the foot of the Bisotun mountain.

The inscriptions at Bisotun where carved between 522 BCE and 486 BCE, during the reign of Darius the Great. They contain historical information about the dynasty and the Persian empire. Though the inscriptions were known for centuries, it was Sir Henry Rawlinson who, in 1835, made transciptions and casts and proceeded with the first full decipherment of the Old Persian texts. Understanding these texts, and of the other two writing systems, took another two decades. (See a history of the Behistun inscriptions on Wikipedia…)

Bisotun Reliefs and Inscriptions
Reliefs and cuneiform inscriptions, from the reign of Darius the Great.

Hence, when Tinco Lycklama visited Bisotun in 1867, the world’s knowledge of cuneiform script – and the secrets it was holding – was still at a very early stage. The translation of clay tablets and rock inscriptions only progressed slowly, and full-scale scientific research only took off in the early 20th century.

Rawlinson, Henry Creswicke
Sir Henry Rawlinson (1810-1895)

As a result, Tinco Lycklama couldn’t tell us too much (and certainly not with full certainty) what the inscriptions meant at the ruins and monuments of these ancient civilisations. He could only admire the craftmanship of the people that produced these carvings, thousands of years ago, and provide insights in the general knowledge that was available about these civilisations through other sources such as oral transmission and ancient Greek chronicles.

Who knows what the cuneiform tablets in Tinco’s collection hold? They have never been translated.



Stone with cuneiform inscriptions (Lycklama Collection, Musée de la Castre, Cannes)

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