Bodleian J2 fol 175 Y 28 1.jpg

Avestan writing, Bodleian Library, MS J2 fol. 175 

Ancient Iran was a land of many languages and multiple writing systems. Although developed as a spoken language by the second millennium BC, Persian was not written until the Achaemenid period, when scholars at the court of King Darius (r. 522-486 BC) developed a script based on a simplified form of cuneiform. Later forms of Persian were written in different scripts derived from Aramaic, including the Avestan script shown above, which was used for recording Zoroastrian teaching.

Alongside these different forms of Persian written in multiple scripts, other languages also flourished in the world of Ancient Iran. Some, such as Elamite, lay entirely outside the Iranian language family, while others were Iranian languages that were never written down.

The polyglot nature of Ancient Iran is prominently on display in one of Iran’s most famous monuments: the victory relief of King Darius carved into the cliff at Behistun in the Zagros mountains of western Iran. The relief’s inscription is written in three languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian.

Behistun Inscription featuring three languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian

In a similar fashion, during Parthian Empire, court officials sometimes deployed Aramaic and Greek alongside Parthian.  This pattern of multilingualism endured to the end of the Sasanian Empire, when Middle Persian was the dominant but not unique language of the court.

In many respects, Ancient Iran also remained deeply committed to the primacy of the spoken word, leaving behind only a scant documentary trail. Although the rulers of Ancient Iran commissioned inscriptions on steles, coins, parchment, and other media, the total volume of epigraphic evidence is often frustratingly thin. Single villages in Greco-Roman Syria have yielded more surviving inscriptions than the whole of the Parthian or Sasanian empires.  As a result, study of Ancient Iran has always required attention to reports written by “outsiders” - especially Greeks and Romans – and minorities, including Jews and Syrian and Armenian Christians.

In the menu on the left, you can read about some of the major languages of Ancient Iran and view some of the diverse alphabets and scripts deployed to write these languages.  You can also listen to audio clips that will give you a sense of the sound and rhythm of these languages.