The Lost City of Susa, Iran

Persian guards at Susa, from the Achaemenian period.
Persian guards at Susa, from the Achaemenian period.

On the borders of ancient Mesopotamia on one side and the Iranian plateau on the other are the ruins of one of the greatest and most fabled cities of the ancient world, that of Susa. Susa was once the capital of the mighty Elamite civilization for thousands of years until its eventual demise at the hands of conquering armies and resettlement.

Though little remains of the this once great city and civilization today, history is filled with references to Susa. The ancient Sumerians mentioned Susa in several cuneiform tablets as a city dedicated to Inanna, also known as Ishtar, the patron god of ancient Uruk. The city is mentioned several times in the Old Testament as the capital of the mighty Kingdom of Elam whose people, the Elamites, who though they lived outside of Mesopotamia proper, were known as great artisans and builders. Other ancient Near Eastern civilizations such as the Babylonians and the Assyrians also mentioned Susa, often as one of their chief rivals. In fact, it is the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal who claims in vivid detail to have brought a gruesome end to the Elamite Kingdom and leveled Susa to the ground.

Bas-relief from old Susan temple.
Bas-relief from old Susan temple.

Perhaps though it is the Old Testament of the Bible where ancient Susa is mentioned the most. After all, it was here that the prophet Daniel lived and is reportedly buried. It is also the home of the famous Biblical figure Esther who saved the Jewish people from a fatal plot and eventually became the queen of the Achaemenid King Xerxes, or at least that’s how the story goes. And of course, Susa was known to the ancient Greeks and Macedonians as one of the royal capitals of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. The city was later conquered by Alexander of Macedonia during his invasion of Persia in 331 BCE. Alexander’s empire was short-lived and the city shortly after his death came under the rule of one of his successors, Seleucus. The Seleucid Empire ruled the city until they were overthrown by the native Iranian Parthians. The Parthians ruled over the city for centuries (with the exception of one brief interruption when the Roman emperor Trajan captured Susa in 118 AD) and even made it their capital for a time. The Sassanian Persians who succeeded them also were fond of the city. However the city’s final demise came with the Arab armies who devastated the city in 638 AD, with the eventual deathblow coming with the Mongol onslaught in 1218. After this, whatever was left of the population moved to the surrounding areas. Susa from then onward became a backwater little village whose past was slowly forgotten by the local people who surrounded it.

For this reason, many scholars and historians didn’t even know where Susa was located until the 1800s when Europeans began to take a keen interest in the ancient Near East. The site was first examined in 1836 by Sir Henry Rawlinson, an army officer in the British East India Company who later became a politician. One of Rawlinson’s peers, Sir Austen Henry Layard, also visited and did preliminary research at Susa. However, he didn’t stay too long because his primary obsession was to excavate the Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Nineveh, two sites he is much more well-known for.

The good thing is that since the late 1800s, modern scholars and archaeologists have furthered their study of Susa and Elamite civilization. The results of these studies have been remarkable.

Early Susa

Map of Mesopotamia and Elam
Map of Mesopotamia and Elam

Susa lies at the periphery of ancient Mesopotamia, commonly referred to as the “Cradle of Civilization.” The ancient city and current site lied on a lowland plain that was watered by rivers and streams flowing from the Iranian plateau. As agriculture took firm root and crop yields expanded substantially, the fortunes of places such as Susa grew. This new wealth allowed for advancements in masonry, technology and of course the arts and sciences. With new goods being created, trade with neighboring city-states also expanded. Susa greatly benefitted from its location: it was the gateway for Mesopotamian trade with the Iranian plateau and beyond.

Evidence of trade links with other parts of the ancient world come from the excavation of an ancient cemetery near Susa. Believed to date back to around 4000 BCE, this ancient necropolis of reportedly 2000 graves contains many copper axes and weapons. Copper is not known to have been mined from the region around Susa, thus trade links with other regions must have existed. It is likely that in return, merchants from Susa supplied ceramics, pottery and other non-metal goods to other city-states and nomads of the desert.

The time around 3400 BCE was a period of massive building and construction throughout Mesopotamia. It was also around this time that writing took a more distinctive form, especially in the ancient Sumerian city-state of Uruk. Susa’s close proximity to the city states of ancient Sumer no doubt influenced its development. Though the residents of Susa developed a different written language than that of their contemporaries, they lived in a similar, centralized-ruler society and worshipped many of the same deities as their neighbors

Clay tablets found at both Uruk and Susa depict a centralized society based on rule by a priest-king figure. These tablets also tell of various commercial transactions that took place during this time, such as the barter of wheat for poetry and even the sale of large plots of land, evidence of property rights in ancient Mesopotamia. It also appears that though political rule may have been centralized, the local economy was not, with most of the wealth being controlled by private businessmen, merchants and traders. Merchants from Susa had even set up trading posts far from the city, some as distant as Egypt.

The Kingdom of Elam

Susa_gold_statue Around 3000 BCE a strange thing occurred in that Susa seems to have been abandoned for quite some time. Whether this was due to war, famine or drought is still not certain but what is known is that the new Elamite inhabitants of Susa somewhat differed from their predecessors. It is this civilization, that of ancient Elam, which is recorded in the Old Testament, Babylonian chronicles, Persian, Greek and Roman sources.

Being a mixture of cultures from the surrounding region, the Elamites were in a sense a more cosmopolitan group than Susa’s earliest inhabitants. In many ways they were closer to the kingdoms and peoples to their northeast on the Iranian plateau than those of Mesopotamia proper. In fact, their chief trading partner was the nearby kingdom of Anshan and it appears that the two city-states were both linguistically and culturally very similar. In fact, early forms of Elamite writing have been found at both sites.

Foreign Conquest and Change

The region in 2300 BCE went through great change with rise of Sargon of Akkad. Sargon was both king and a warrior from unidentified ancient Mesopotamian town of Azupiranu. Legend has it that he was the cupbearer of the King of Ur before he rose to power and created one of (if not the) first empire in the Middle East. His capital was the city of Akkad, a site which has still not been identified with certainty. Sargon’s kingdom encompassed much of what is today’s Iraq, Syria, Turkey and parts of Iran. He also added Elam and Susa to his realm, replacing the local Elamite language with that of the Akkadians. Susa was important for the Akkadians because it served as a conduit for the high-desired goods from the East such as wood, metals, textiles, silk and precious stones. Evidence of trade with Susa and Mesopotamia has been found as far east as China and parts southern Russia.

This bronze piece from around 1150 BCE depicts the Susan "Rite of the Rising Sun." It is believed to have been commissioned by the Susan ruler Shilhak-Inshushinak.
This bronze piece from around 1150 BCE depicts the Susan “Rite of the Rising Sun.” It is believed to have been commissioned by the Susan ruler Shilhak-Inshushinak.

Mesopotamian domination of Susa ended in 2004 BCE with the fall of the last Akkadian king, Shar-Kali-Sharri. Susa was united with Anshan by a man named Kindattu, who established a new, local Elamite dynasty. It was during the reigns of Kindattu and his descendants that the urban area around Susa expanded and suburbs of the city sprung up. These suburbs contained small houses with central kitchens and drainage systems. Houses of wealthier families contained large courtyards, servants quarters, religious altars and underground tombs where their ancestors were preserved.

In the 13th century BCE, a new dynasty known as the Anzanite’s came to power. This dynasty, which was somewhat nationalist, brought back the language of ancient Anshan (until then Akkadian was still being used) and began a massive building and art program in Susa and the other cities of Elam. One of the most famous artifacts to be found from this region is the headless statue of the Elamite Queen Napirasu. This statue is the largest of its type to have been found from the ancient Near East. The other site from this time period, Al-Untash-Napirisha (known today as Chogha Zanbil), is one of the largest temple complexes of the ancient world.

Headless statue of Queen Napirasu. The statue without its head weighs over 2 tons.
Headless statue of Queen Napirasu. The statue without its head weighs over 2 tons.

The Anzanite Dynasty didn’t last for too long and was overthrown by the Shutrukids. The second king of this line, Shutruk Nahhunte, was extremely ambitious and overthrew the Babylonian dynasty of the Kassites. He captured an invaluable amount of treasure from his campaigns including religious relics from various temples and the fullest surviving text of the famous Code of Hummarabi, the first known code of written laws in human history. Many of these relics were brought back to Susa and were kept there in Elamite temples.

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

The Shutrukids reign for too long and soon the Babylonians regained their supremacy and attacked the Elamites. When they arrived at Susa, they burned the city to the ground. Archaeologists have found a thick layer of ash that covered the entire site of Susa, implying that the death and destruction inflicted upon the Elamites must have been terrible beyond compare. The Elamites never fully recovered from this defeat and their civilization began to decline until about 1000 – 800 BCE when Indo-European peoples from the steppes of Central Asia began making they way across the Iranian plateau. They established themselves around Anshan and for many years there was some peace and prosperity due to increased trade. However, this didn’t last long, at least for Susa as in 646 BCE, the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal attacked and devastated the city in a seemingly crushing blow. He was not very modest about his deeds:

“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

With its temples looted, royal tombs and palaces desecrated and wealth plundered, Susa again fell almost into complete ruin. However, with the arrival of the Persians in the 6th century BCE, Susa’s fortune’s again began to turn, though instead of becoming an independent city of Elam, it became one of the administrative and most prosperous capital cities of the first Persian empire.

Though conquered and taken over by various peoples (Macedonians, Greeks, Parthians, Sassanians), Susa’s real end came with the Arab conquest of Iran. After that, the city was mostly abandoned with the vast majority of its remaining inhabitants moving to other areas of what is today’s Khuzestan province in Iran. Susa today is known as Shush and though it may be little more than a village today, it is preserved in the annals of history as one of the greatest cities of the ancient world.

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