Heracles at Bisotun

Bisotun World Heritage Site

On Thursday morning I went with my driver Milad to the Bisotun, about a 40 minute easy ride from Kermanshah. Bisotun is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This was to be the highlight of my trip to Kermanshah.

We drove first to Sahneh (صحنه) so I could see a smaller town in Kermanshah. On the way, near Bisotun, we passed an old bridge (پل /pol/), numerous pretty fields of sunflowers (آفتابگردان /āf’tāb’gar’dān/), flocks of sheep (گله گوسفند /gal’leh goos’fand/) and their shepherds (چوپان /choo’pān/) with sheepdogs on both sides of the road, and overloaded small trucks (کامیون /kā’mi’yoon/) carrying farm produce of all sorts.Then we returned to Bisotun.

The site has good information in both Farsi and English on panels and signs all around the site.


Heracles the son of Zeus, and the greatest of all the Greek heroes (or Hercules in the Roman tradition, though this carving is unmistakably Greek) is carved into this rock. There is a club, and the top of a bow and quiver of arrows.

Behind him there is a Greek temple-like structure which is carved with Greek writing. Apparently, according to this inscription, it was carved in the year 164 of the Seleucid Era, corresponding to 148BC. This sculpture has had a somewhat troubled history. The head was stolen more than once, and it has suffered some deliberate damage and restoration over the years.

Inscription of Darius

The inscription is set high up on the rock face, and there is a scaffold platform to reach it. Alas the platform was closed and its floor was obscuring the inscription, as can be seen in the first photograph below. I tried to clamber a small way up the rock face opposite but it was a futile task, and probably not allowed anyway.

I would assert that most visitors go to the site to see the Darius inscription. One can imagine the disappointment of arriving there and finding the platform closed. I am not sure why the platform was closed, and couldn’t see a guide or warden to ask. I considered possible reasons in my mind: the platform was unstable or dangerous; the inscription was being damaged by visitors. I couldn’t think of a third reason. But either of those two reasons is easily surmountable.

At a considerable distance, under the trees on the far side of the pond, there were some people with telescopes mounted on tripods and they were looking at the inscription through those. To me that is not much different to looking at a photograph in a web browser, and it is not a suitable substitute for looking up close with one’s own eyes. I have seen some photographs taken from up-close, and I wanted to experience that for myself.

I took a few photographs with my small zoom lens (Panasonic 12-35mm MFT, so 24-70mm full frame equivalent). I would like to show better photographs here. However on cropping in the photographs quickly lost resolution and definitio, and the inscriptions turned to a blur. One would need a long telephoto lens (perhaps 1000mm) to get useful results. Or perhaps one could put a Nikon P900 to good use.

To highlight this issue further, one can see the pictorial part of the inscription from a distance. The faravahar is visible. But the apparently bare flat panels contain the actual inscriptions in three languages: Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite. It is this feature which made and makes this site so important for the understanding and translation of cuneiform.

I feel compelled to offer some constructive criticism here. The inscription is wide open to the elements, and though it has lasted well there is inevitable erosion from the rain and the wind. There should be, at the very least, a roof constructed above the inscription to minimise the effects of rain. Otherwise it is only a matter of time before the inscription is lost, even if that is a relatively long time. But once it has gone, it has gone for good. Other carvings at this site testify to that.

Farhad Tarash

I had seen this on my way to Kermanshah. Even from the road it is clearly visible. Getting up to the rock face was a small struggle. There is a steep slope covered with many small loose rocks, and it requires a little nifty footwork to climb. It is not difficult, just a little scrambling.

The rock face is about 200 metres long, and is pretty smooth. This was, without any doubt, a large undertaking. There are different views concerning its purpose and its date. One of the views is that this going to be a wall of a palace. However, given the other inscriptions at this site, I would favour an alternative view that this was to be a monumental inscription. One has to be careful making such a conjecture, but it seems very appropriate. Perhaps a king liked what he saw of the Darius inscription and wanted something even more impressive and, at the same time, accessible and more visible. There are large rocks spread all over the front of the site, some of which appeared to have been worked on rather than just debris.

There is a mythological story by Nezami Ganjavi about Shah Khosrow and Princess Shirin, and the sculptor Farhad. Ganjavi’s version is the most famous, but the story existed before him.

It was getting pretty hot by this stage, and I was beginning to wish that I had brought a bottle of water with me.

Ilkhanate Caravanserai

In the distance and also visible from the road, there is an Ilkhanate era caravanserai (کاروانسرای /kā’ra’vān’se’raye/). This is a type of travellers’ inn from years gone. They were all over Iran, and were particularly important for the Silk Road carrying valuable items such as jade and silk on camels (شتر /sho’tor/) and pack mules from China to eastern and southern Europe. In addition to that function they were also important staging posts within the Iranian empire itself. They were not forts but they were important as a means of reliable communication and supply.

I didn’t visit this caravanserai as I have been to numerous caravanserais in Iran, and so it would not be a new experience for me. I supposed that I am admitting being a bit lazy. Later in the evening I regretted not going there. One never knows what one misses. This could have been the best example of a caravanserai anywhere, or it could have some special feature or point of knowledge which I have not yet learned. But now I would never know.

Sasanian Palace

From Farhad Tarash one can gain a bird’s eye view (نمای چشم پرنده /na’mā’i’ye chash’me par’an’deh/) of the remains of this old building. Up close it appears to be stone walls of low height, and trying to discern its general layout is more difficult. According to tradition, this is the palace of Shirin, the wife of Khosrow II.

By one corner of the Sasanian building there is a tea house. We went inside and it was very cool and comfortable. Alas the tea was being served outside. So we left after a couple of minutes.

The Lake

Heading back towards the entrance we stopped by the small lake for a short time (درنگ /de’rang/). The trees (درخت‌ها /de’reakht’hā/) offered welcome respite from the sun (خورشید /khor’sheed/), and it was here that some telescopes were positioned to look at the Darius inscription.

I don’t know if the lake it is a natural spring or if the source is elsewhere. Whatever the water is crystal clear and clean, and there were some shoals of large fish swimming about.

Sunflower fields

On the return journey to Kermanshah we stopped by a sunflower field. There is nothing special about the one we chose, it was typical of the fields we saw. The sunflowers were reached perhaps from 6 feet to perhaps 8 feet at their highest.

Safavi Bridge of Bisotun

We stopped by the old bridge for half an hour or so. There is an information sign nearby naming this as the Safavi Bridge of Bisotun (پل صفوی بیستون /pol’e’ sa’fa’vi’ye bee’so’toon/). On the same sign it states that the bridge was originally constructed in the Sasanian Era (224-651) and has been repaired until the modern time. That last point was clear – there is a modern brick wall on both sides on the top of the bridge. The bridge is mainly used my villagers and farmers.

The river was flowing well but wasn’t deep. Apparently in spring the water level is much higher. According to Google Maps the name of the river is Dinoorab (دینورآب /di’noor’āb/). I don’t think that is correct. I think it should be pronounced /di’na’var’āb/. In any event, the locals refer to this as the Gamasiab (گاماسیاب /gā’mā’see’āb/). There were tadpoles and very small fish swimming about.

On the right bank and also in the river there were some large rocks. These may have been the ruins of something. It seems possible.

A tale of two tickets

I’ve have had a small bee (زنبور /zan’bur’) in my bonnet (سرپوش /sar’poosh/ or کلاهک /ko’lā’hak/) for a while about the entry tickets which are issued at some of the museums and tourist sites in Iran.

The two tickets below exemplify the point. The first ticket from Taq’e Bostan is about as interesting as a receipt from a supermarket. Also the time is wrong: I was not even in Kermanshah by 12.34. There is no sense of grandeur or occasion about it, although it is a ticket for an important site. The second ticket for parking at Bisotun is a bit more interesting. It has a lot of waffle about parking regulations, but it is by itself a small souvenir of a visit to an important site.

In the pursuit of computer-controlled efficiency entry tickets have become boring.

Final thoughts

Bisotun was a bit of a swizz. I really wanted to see the Darius inscriptions up close. I would like to come back here in the near future, perhaps in the spring time, and take another walk around.

I wonder how much more of Iran’s history and legacy is hidden here at Bisotun and nearby. Iran is a large country and I feel that much is still to be rediscovered.

About the author: Sadface