The Paikuli monument is perhaps best known for its long inscription—one of the key primary sources for the early history of the Sasanian empire. Given the inscription’s disintegration along with the collapse of the monument, its translation has posed an enormous challenge for scholars. Indeed, the process has spanned over a century, and work continues to this day. In 1844, Henry Rawlinson laid the groundwork by making drawings of 32 of the inscribed blocks; he passed the drawings on to E. Thomas, who published the first tentative transcription. However, it was Ernst Herzfeld who made the first systematic translation. Herzfeld analyzed the distribution of the blocks as they had fallen to suggest that there were two versions of the same inscription on either side: Middle Persian (“Pársik”) on the west, and Parthian (“Pahlavík”) on the east (see historical photographs of exemplary blocks from the west and east).
More recent scholars have confirmed that Herzfeld was also generally correct in his reconstruction of the arrangement of the inscribed blocks. The inscription’s layout covered eight courses for the Middle Persian version and 7 courses for the Parthian. The inscription is rendered in low relief; the letter size varies according to the course. The later lines on the lower courses, presumably set around eye level, are smaller (characters ca. 30–40 mm); the earlier lines, set on higher courses and thus at a greater distance from the viewer, are larger (characters ca. 50–60 mm).
There are numerous gaps in each version of the inscription—in Herzfeld’s time, roughly half of the inscribed blocks. However, it is clear that the two texts run in parallel, a correspondence that allowed Herzfeld to compensate, to some degree, for the lacunae on each side.
Herzfeld’s study was a crucial step in elucidating the inscription’s content, but scholars have made a number of revisions to his readings; moreover, new blocks have come to light—30 of them in Herzfeld’s own time—which were not included in his 1924 monograph. Many of these additions appeared in the translation of Helmut Humbach and Prods Skjærvø (1978–1983), which remains the standard reference edition. Scholars have continued to fill in the gaps as further blocks—more than 20 as of 2020—have come to light.
The inscription provides Narseh’s account of the events by which he acceded to the Sasanian throne, along with introductory and closing passages. The following summary draws mainly on the translation of Humbach and Skjaervø:
Narseh provides his genealogy in accordance with the conventions of Sasanian royal inscriptions, and reference is made to the raising of the monument. After this introduction, the inscription moves on to the chronicle of events leading to Narseh’s coronation. These begin with the death of Narseh’s nephew, Bahram II, and the crowning of his son, Bahram III, by the noble courtier Wahnām. Following this, an opposing faction of nobles met in council and wrote to Narseh asking him to depart from Armenia (the vassal state he had been ruling on behalf of his nephew), overthrow the usurpers, and take his legitimate place on the imperial throne.
Narseh indeed set out for Persia Ctesiphon, sending an offer of truce to Bahram and Wahnām, as well as an advance notice to the nobles that he would accept their offer. An important passage is found in line 32, narrating that as he crossed into the Persian dominions, Narseh and his adherents met at “the place where this monument has been made.” This meeting is presumably the reason why Paikuli was chosen as the site for the monument.
Meanwhile, Wahnām and Bahram enlisted the support of other notables and set out on their campaign against Narseh. Nevertheless, their troops began to desert in favor of Narseh. At this time, Narseh wrote a letter admonishing Bahram for his inappropriate seizure of the throne, and Bahram surrendered; Wahnām saw that his cause was lost and fled, but he was captured by a party sent by Narseh. Narseh also punished the larger body of rebels.
The inscription then turns back to the correspondence between Narseh and the loyal nobles over the issue of the succession. Narseh reminded them of the traditional procedure for determining who was the most suitable to be king, and the dignitaries confirmed that Narseh was indeed the most appropriate successor. Narseh was formally invited to take the throne, which he accepted.
The concluding portion of the inscription notes the state of peace and friendship with Rome before moving on to the list of kings and lesser rulers who acknowledged Narseh as King of Kings. Finally, Narseh refers to his just rule after claiming the realm anew.
A noteworthy recent addition to the translation, deriving from a recently discovered block, is an early passage that refers to the monument as “Pērōz-Anāhid-Narseh” (possibly to be read approximately as “Narseh victorious by the grace of Anāhīd”); because it is formulated as a proper name, this may even have been the name of the monument itself. Anahid is the same goddess who presides over Narseh’s investiture at Naqsh-i Rustam.