The bas-relief at Bisitun


This bas-relief is carved out of one of the limestone faces of Mount Behistun in western Iran and shows the Achaemenid King Darius I (c. 550–486 BCE) overcoming his enemies. Although he correctly understood the large figure (third from left) to be a king, and the scene to show a victory, Porter misidentified the relief as a representation of the victory of Salamaneser V (r. 727–722 BCE) over the lost tribes of Israel, which he believed were signified by the 10 captives. Accompanying the relief, but not included in Porter’s drawing, is the Behistun Inscription, often likened to the Rosetta Stone in terms of its important role in the deciphering of cuneiform script. The relief suffered damage during the Second World War when it was used for target practice by Allied soldiers. Since 2006 it has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Porter’s description of his drawing of the sculpture reveals that he  used a telescope or spy-glass to get a better view: ‘I was farther from the object…than I had hoped; yet my eyes being tolerably long-sighted, and my glass more so, I managed to copy the whole sculpture with considerable exactness’ (Travels, II, p. 154).

Full title:
The bas-relief at Bisitun
September 1818
Watercolour / View
Sir Robert Ker Porter
© British Library
Usage terms
Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial licence
Held by
British Library
Add. MS 14758, f.126

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Sir Robert Ker Porter's accounts of his travels in the Middle East gave a glimpse into a region that was largely unknown to most Europeans. His original watercolours provide a compelling visual source and are both descriptive of their settings and beautiful works of art in their own right. Christopher Wright recounts Porter's journey into an unfamiliar and enchanting landscape.

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