Epigraphic practices in Persia and the ancient Iranian world

Canepa, Matthew P. 2015. Text, image, memory, and performance: epigraphic practices in Persia and the ancient Iranian world. In Antony Eastmond, Viewing Inscriptions in the Late Antique and Medieval World, 10-35. Cambridge University Press.


From the height of the Achaemenid Empire in the early fifth century BCE to the fall of the Sasanian Empire in the mid-seventh century CE, inscriptions played an important role in the development and expression of kingship in Persia and
the ancient Iranian world. As with many aspects of the long history of Iranian kingship, stunning continuities and deep ruptures mark Iranian epigraphic practices. Invasions of new peoples and the growth of new empires introduced new
scripts and languages, which often displaced those of the previous regime. New visual and architectural traditions modified the ways in which patrons deployed texts and viewers experienced them. Although such cultural discontinuities often
rendered the texts of fallen empires’ inscriptions incomprehensible or even alien, the inscriptions themselves continued to be powerful visual and topographical features of the landscapes of Persia and the wider Iranian world. Their very presence made the sites where they were carved popular and powerful, with some accumulating inscriptions from multiple dynasties as new regimes responded to their presence, if not their content. Inscriptions played an important role in articulating Iranian culture’s sense of space and became a focal point for struggles over cultural memory and Iranian royal identity. As illustrated by the parallels between the Middle and Old Persian royal inscriptions that open this chapter, the content of late antique inscriptions attests to stunning cultural continuities in Persian kingship. Both of these inscriptions were carved at the same site: the Persian necropolis and ritual centre at Naqsh-e Rostam near Persepolis. However, by late antiquity, the Old Persian script and language had long fallen out of
use, and Shabuhr I and his subjects could not read and compare the content of their late antique inscriptions with the ancient predecessors, even if their contents might attest to great continuities. As explored later in this chapter, what made
Shabuhr I’s statement significant was the fact that it was carved onto an ancient Persian structure located at the necropolis of the Achaemenid kings, capitalizing on the visual presence of the Achaemenid inscription nearby. The inscribed and sculpted landscape of the Iranian plateau presented a reservoir of royal precedent that transcended centuries and was arguably more important than its content for establishing connections with the past. With or without cultural and
linguistic continuity, an inscription’s very visual and spatial presence presented a  constant inspiration and precedent for aspiring rulers to take control of the symbolic landscape of Iran and negotiate a relationship with their predecessors and