The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: Charting a New Empire

June 20–August 4, 2013

A New Form of Writing and New Colloquial Language

Part of Column Base with Old Persian (right) and Babylonian (left) Inscriptions. Gray limestone. Found at Hamadan, Iran, before 1885. Achaemenid, Artaxerxes II (404–359 B.C.). British Museum, London (90855). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

During the reign of Darius I Old Persian cuneiform script was devised for writing Old Persian, an indirect ancestor of modern Persian. While cuneiform (or wedge-shaped) script had been used from about 3000 B.C. to write various languages spoken throughout the ancient Near East, new signs with different values were invented for the Old Persian language, which had not previously been written down. The forty-four signs of the script comprised a mixture of syllables, vowels, and ideograms with a word divider. Inscriptions were often multilingual, written in Old Persian, Elamite, Babylonian, and sometimes Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Ostracon with Aramaic Inscription on Both Sides. Baked clay. Probably from Elephantine, Egypt. Achaemenid, ca. 475 B.C. British Museum, London (45035). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

Aramaic—a northwest Semitic language related to Phoenician and Hebrew—was written in an alphabetic script comprising twenty-two characters. Easier to read and write, this script began to be used for administration and communication in the Assyrian and Babylonian empires alongside cuneiform. Aramaic was often written on parchment or leather. During the Achaemenid period it became the lingua franca of the empire, echoes of which are in the Bible: "in the days of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel, and the rest of his associates wrote a letter to Artaxerxes (about the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem). The letter was written in Aramaic script and in the Aramaic language" (Ezra 4:7).