Languages of Ancient Iran


Linear Elamite inscription from silver “Gunagi” vessel, located in the Mahboubian Collection in London


Elamite is the oldest written language of Ancient Iran. Developed in the region of Elam, roughly equivalent to the modern Iranian provinces of Khuzestan and Ilam, Elamite endured as a written language for nearly three millennia, from ca. 3100 BC until the 4th century B.C. The earliest stages of written Elamite are poorly understood. “Linear Elamite,” a cryptic logographic script used up to the mid-3rd millennium BC, remains undeciphered. The problem is compounded by the fact that Elamite is a language isolate, with no demonstrable relationship to any other language. Later forms of Elamite, written in cuneiform script, are less obscure, although the number of experts who can read Elamite texts remains very small.

Avestan prayer #1

Avestan prayer #2

Avestan prayer #3


Avestan is the oldest surviving form of the Iranian language, and its survival is solely the result of Zoroastrians’ commitment to memorizing the earliest layers of their religion’s hymns and rituals.  As a spoken language, its heyday extended from the dawn of the 2nd millennium (or earlier) to the Achaemenid period. Place-names in early Zoroastrian texts suggest that Avestan arose in the eastern Iranian world, roughly corresponding to modern Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The early Zoroastrian texts also reveal two distinct phases of the language: the Old Avesta and the Younger Avesta. Preserved through priestly transmission and thus “frozen” as a ritual sacred language, Avestan remains primarily the preserve of scholars and Zoroastrian priests. Its closest linguistic relative is the archaic form of Sanskrit preserved in the Vedas.


Darius in Old Persian cuneiform script - from his tomb in Naqsh-e Rustam

Old Persian

Old Persian, a direct ancestor of modern Persian, was one of the official languages of the Achaemenid Empire. Introduced to the Iranian Plateau sometime in the early 1st millennium BC, oral forms of the language became widespread with many regional dialects. Under Darius the Great (r. 522-486 BC), a writing system was developed for the language based on the ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform style of arranged wedges. Although widely disseminated within the Achaemenid Empire, Old Persian never spread far beyond elite and administrative circles.  After the empire’s fall to Alexander of Macedon, knowledge of the language quickly dissipated only to be recovered in the mid-19th century with the decipherment of the Behistun inscription.


Aramaic is an ancient Northwest Semitic language, first spoken in the second millennium BC (or earlier) by the Aramaeans, a collection of tribes indigenous to the Levant and western Mesopotamia. During the late first millennium BC, Aramaic became an important writing system at the Assyrian court, deployed alongside the Mesopotamian languages written in cuneiform. The spread of Aramaic across the Middle East accelerated under the Achaemenid Empire, when Aramaic was used alongside Elamite and Old Persian for administration. Imperial promotion of the language also resulted in the spread of the Aramaic script from Palestine to Central Asia, where alphabets derived from Aramaic was used to write regional East Iranian languages (e.g., Khwarezmian) for the first time. Later forms of Aramaic, developed in mercantile centers such as Palmyra, Hatra, and Edessa, provide a vital source for information about the Parthian Empire. Finally, late antique forms of Aramaic became the mainstay of Christian, Jewish, Manichaean, and other religious communities of the Sasanian Empire. 

Ancient Greek conversational speech

Ancient Greek

Ancient Greek is an essential language for the study of Ancient Iran.  Greek intellectuals wrote extensively about Iran both before and after the Greco-Persian Wars of the early fifth century BC chronicled by Herodotus. Greek spread more widely across the Iranian world in the wake of Alexander of Macedon's conquests in the 330s BC. The Seleucid Empire, which arose from the fragmentation of former Achaemenid lands, continued to promote the use of Greek as a language and settled Greeks and Macedonians in newly established cities throughout the region. Use of the Greek language faded during the Parthian period, but Greek-speaking physicians, philosophers, and artists retained a small but influential presence at the Sasanian court.


Ratabak inscription written in Bactrian, 2nd century CE


Bactrian is an East Iranian language, now extinct, but once widely used in the area of modern Afghanistan and neighboring regions. Written in a modified Greek script adopted from Seleucid Greek colonies, Bactrian became a court language under the Kushan Empire, which controlled the region for nearly four hundred years (ca. 30-375 CE).


Coin of Ardashir I (r. 224 - 242) with Pahlavi legend

Pahlavi (Middle Persian)

Pahlavi - also known as Middle Persian, since the language evolved from Old Persian - was the primary language of the Sasanian Empire. Deployed for both administration and religious instruction, Pahlavi is much better attested than earlier phases of Persian and other Iranian languages, such as Parthian and Bactrian. In addition to the numerous short Pahlavi texts preserved on coins, seals, and (often longer) stone-cut inscriptions, we have a sizable corpus of texts preserved on papyrus, leather, and paper.  The vast majority of these manuscripts are preserved through Zoroastrian transmission, but Pahlavi was also used by Manichaeans, Christians, and Jews (although the last is attested only indirectly). Knowledge of Pahlavi gradually faded after the Islamic conquest, although learned Zoroastrians continued to copy and compose in the language into the modern period.

Armenian audio #1

Classical Armenian

Armenia was a lynchpin in the geopolitical affairs of the ancient Persian empires, and Armenian sources are vital for study of the Parthian and especially the Sasanian periods. The cultivation of Armenian as a Christian language during the early medieval period ensured the survival of numerous texts that offer vivid insights into the social, military, economic, and cultural life of late antique Iran.


Georgian inscription at Bolnisi Church, located at the Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia in Tbilisi

Old Georgian

The historical territory of ancient Georgia lies north of Armenia in a geographic zone often in close contact with Ancient Iran. Unlike Armenian, however, Georgian is a Caucasian language and thus unrelated to Persian and other languages in the Indo-European language family. First attested in a written form in the 5th century CE, Georgian was transmitted primarily through Christian monasteries. Georgian inscriptions and chronicles offer an intriguing window into Iranian involvement in the Caucasus during the late Sasanian empire.

Languages of Ancient Iran