The Kingdom of Anshan: Ancient Persia Before Cyrus the Great

Before they established their great empire, the Persians and ancestors of Cyrus the Great inherited the lands of another great kingdom, that of Anshan.

Ancient Persia Before Cyrus

The plains of Anshan. Photo by Jona Lendering
After the defeat of the Elamites by the mighty Assyrian Empire, what was left of the Kingdom of Elam was gradually absorbed into what later the Greek writers and historians called the “Kingdom of Persis.” However, at least initially, the Persians and Cyrus himself called this land by the name it had been for centuries throughout the ancient Near East, Anshan. The area that this kingdom contained is roughly the same as that of the modern Iranian province of Fars.

The Kingdom of Anshan

Territory of Elam in History
When dealing with history so remote in the past, it’s hard to know exactly what is fact and what is legend. It’s even harder given the fact that for the most part, the Persians either didn’t really keep a lot of written records or, as often is the case, they were lost and destroyed. However, you know who did keep a lot of written records on basically everything? Elamites, the original rulers of Anshan before the Persians arrived onto the scene. Well, also the Babylonians but we’ll get to that another time. The earliest tablets that we have from Anshan were written in Elamite sometime around 2000 BCE. These tablets tell of the existence of Elamite kings and their authority over the southern Zagros mountains. 1

Art from the Elamite period; photo courtesy of the Louvre

Like most civilizations, the Elamites waxed and waned through centuries of prosperity and turmoil. At its height, the Elamites were raiding cities deep into Mesopotamia and carrying off wealth, women and slaves. In fact one of the world’s most famous archaeological finds, the Code of Hammurabi, was not unearthed in Babylon, but several hundred miles away in the Elamite city of Susa.

Around the 800 – 700s BCE, the then Elamite Kingdom (a period known as the Neo-Elamite era) began to rapidly decline. The causes were probably internal dynastic struggles and wars with other Mesopotamian states. What also seems to have happened is that the Elamites were no longer unified into one single state but instead into several smaller kingdoms, each with their own ruler. Recently discovered Elamite texts tell not only of one royal center of power, but three: Susa, Madaktu and Hidalu. 2 Also by this time Anshan, though once one of the capitals of Elamite civilization, seems to have fallen out of the political orbit of greater Elam. Perhaps this was a good thing. After all, the western parts of ancient Elam, especially Susa, were constantly embroiled in the wider politics of greater Mesopotamia. Sometimes they were in conflict with the Babylonians; other times they allied with them against the Assyrians. Eventually, the latter decided to end Elam’s meddling in Mesopotamia once and for all. In 646 BCE, the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, at least according to his account, all but destroyed Susa. His not so humble account of the situation is as follows:

“Susa, the great holy city, abode of their Gods, seat of their mysteries, I conquered. I entered its palaces, I opened their treasuries where silver and gold, goods and wealth were amassed…I destroyed the ziggurat of Susa. I smashed its shining copper horns. I reduced the temples of Elam to naught; their gods and goddesses I scattered to the winds. The tombs of their ancient and recent kings I devastated, I exposed to the sun, and I carried away their bones toward the land of Ashur. I devastated the provinces of Elam and on their lands I sowed salt.” 3

While Susa was reportedly razed to the ground and its citizens slaughtered, the Elamites were not extinguished from the face of the Earth. However, this was most certainly a devastating blow, one that they never really recovered from. It was probably around this time that Teispes, the great-grandfather of Cyrus the Great, took control of Susa’s sister city and declared himself “King of Anshan.” His kingdom is what eventually became the land of Persis or Pars (modern Fars). His descendant, Cyrus II, a.k.a. Cyrus the Great, made Kingdom of Anshan and Pars the center of his empire.

Today, the ruins of the city of Anshan rest on (and underneath) an archaeological site called Tall-i Malyan. The city may be gone, but history will always remember it due to the words of its onetime most famous resident: “I am Cyrus, King of the World, Great King, Mighty King … King of Anshan.” 4 Translated from the Cyrus Cylinder.”

Sources and Suggested Reading

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