The Elamites and the Kingdom of Elam

Elam and the Elamites, the first historically known civilization of Iran.

Prehistoric Iran

Most scholars of ancient Iranian history concur that overall, the Indo-European peoples who were the ancestors of today’s Iranian-speaking peoples didn’t arrive onto the Iranian plateau until about the middle of the second millennium BCE. In fact, there is a lot of evidence indicating that what we today know as Iran consisted of a multitude of peoples before the arrival of the Medes and the Persians. It is likely that there will primative humanoid peoples somewhere in Iran during paleolithic times. However, Archaeological discoveries of something resembling some sore of organized society or civilization start to appear around the 6th millennium BCE. Evidence of such societies consists of stone huts, primitive farming and the domestication of animals.

For the purpose of our discussion here, we’re not going to go over this period. This’s not because it lacks importance. It’s actually a really interesting period of history. The main reason for skipping over this topic is honestly due to time and my desire to focus on the history of my people – the Iranians, Kurds and others who inhabit the country of Iran and its outlying regions today. However before we delve into that, we have to know something about the geography of the country and also another great civilization of Iran, the Elamites.

The Land that Became Elam

Map of Mesopotamia and Elam
Map of Mesopotamia and Elam

The majority of the land that makes up the country that we call Iran has been mostly desert since the beginning of human history. Then as today, the terrain of the country held few rivers and even less naturally fertile areas for farming. Perhaps this is why inhabitants of the Iranian plateau were mostly nomads, unlike their neighbors in Mesopotamia. The latter lived alongside mighty rivers and believed to have founded the first large permanent urban settlements, i.e. cities.

Unlike other parts of the country, the southwestern part of Iran below the Zagros mountains was relatively well-suited for permanent human settlement due to the Kârun and Karkheh rivers. Today, much of this area makes up the Iranian province of of Khuzestan, one of the most oil-rich areas of Iran. However over 5,000 years ago, it was the area where the first known historical kingdom of Iran was established: Elam.

Ancient Elam

Art from the Elamite period; photo courtesy of the Louvre
The word Elam means “mountain” in the ancient Assyrian language and was probably given to this region due to it being south of the Zagros mountain range. This area was also known as Susiana by classical Greek and Roman geographers due to its principal city, Susa. Though no one knows for sure, it is believed that Susa was founded sometime around 4000 BCE. The Elamites themselves called their homeland Haltamti.

The names “Susa” and “Elam” are also mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible. Other prominent cities in the region included Madaktu, Khaidalu and Anshan.

The Elamites were ruled by priest-kings called patesis. They were the stewards of the god Inshushinak. Though they also worshipped other gods, Inshushinak was considered to be the most important of them all.

Chogha Zanbil, also called Dur Untash in the Iranian province of Khuzestan
Chogha Zanbil, also called Dur Untash in the Iranian province of Khuzestan

Elam was close enough to the early Mesopotamian civilizations to be able to trade and interact with them, but just far enough to develop their own and independent and distinct culture. For this, the Mesopotamian civilizations held the Elamites in disfavor and with distrust, considering them to be less civilized and dangerous. As early as 3000 BCE there are texts written in Sumerian describing a band of Elamites marauding territory on the outskirts of the city of Lagash, in today’s southeastern Iraq.

Dur Untash Napirisha, Kuzestan, Iran
Dur Untash Napirisha, Kuzestan, Iran

Though they may have not liked the people, the city-states of Mesopotamia prized the land due to its wealth of natural resources including copper, stone, timber and gold. Thus, these city-states tried to subdue the Elamites or at least force them to pay some sort of tribute. The first king to do this was Enmebaragesi, king of the Mesopotamian city-state of Kish. A few centuries later the famous king Sargon of Akkad conquered Elam around 2300 BCE. The area then passed into the hands of the Sumerians who ruled from Ur, but they were soon kicked out and Elam became independent once again around the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE.

Elamite lapis lazuli art found at Susa
Elamite lapis lazuli art found at Susa

The kingdom of Elam expanded to include areas stretching from the Tigris River to the modern-day Iranian province of Fars. Wars between Elam and its neighbors persisted for centuries until 12th century BCE when Elamite civilization and military power began to decline. The death knell finally came in 640 BCE (some sources claim 640 BCE) when the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal conquered Elam and razed Susa and the surrounding areas to the ground.

Bas relief of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal
Bas relief of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal

Ashurbanipal was not modest about the destruction he inflicted:

“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.” 1

Elam thereafter became a shadow of its former self. It was also around this time that Indo-European (Aryan) tribes from the northeast began populating the Iranian plateau, including the former lands of the Kingdom of Elam. One of these tribes was the Parsu, first mentioned in Mesopotamian texts around 840 BCE. This is the group of people whom we now refer to as the Persians.

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