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History of Elam


The south-west corner of Iran was known in the ancient world as Elam. It was made up of a low-lying plain located in the west, a region which much later in history was called Susiana, a useful term which we shall use here. It formed a kind of extension to the Mesopotamian plain. This was bordered to the north and east by the Zagros mountains. The portion of this range which lies to Susiana’s east, and which forms the modern-day Iranian province of Fars, we will label the Elamite Highlands.

The Proto-Elamite period

Susa and the Susiana plain

The Susiana plain was, like southern Mesopotamia, ideally suited to irrigation agriculture. Also, the Iranian highlands to the north and east provided many of the raw materials lacking in the Mesopotamian lowlands, and the majority of these came down trade routes into Mesopotamia by way of this plain. Unsurprisingly a major urban center developed here at a very early date. This was Susa, whose foundation in c.4000 BCE makes it as ancient as many of the Sumerian cities of Mesopotamia.

Susa was not a Sumerian city; it was inhabited by Elamites who spoke a different language to the Sumerians and worshipped a different pantheon of gods and goddesses. However, the city shared in the developments which gave rise to the Sumerian civilization, the earliest in world history: large walled towns, the appearance of the first true states, complex societies in which different groups were ranked according to status, wealth and power, monumental architecture, a much more sophisticated material culture, and most notably, literacy.

Like the Sumerian cities, Susa’s economy was dependent upon irrigation-based agriculture; and (again like them) it (and its neighborhood) was also a producer of fine crafts, including pottery, stonework, and metalwork; and, as we have seen, a center of long distant trade. Copper, tin and obsidian were amongst the commodities which passed through the city.

Susa, in short, was a key node in the expanding trade and production networks of the Sumerian cities, and it was through the mediation of Susa that Sumerian civilization exerted a far flung influence reaching far into northern and eastern Iran. Evidence for these long-distance contacts comes in the form of cuneiform tablets (mostly containing texts of economic significance), cylinder seals, seal-impressed artifacts, and distinctive pottery types. Modern archaeologists call this cultural influence the “proto-Elamite horizon”.

Susa’s material culture became increasingly Mesopotamian in character. So indeed did its religious culture, with the Sumerian pantheon gradually ousting the Elamite. The city was composed of three parts: an acropolis (the earliest part of the city, dating to c. 4000 BCE), built on a platform and containing a ziggurat of the Mesopotamian kind (in fact some scholars think that the ziggurats may have originated in Iran rather than Mesopotamia); a luxurious residential area with a royal palace complex, surrounded by smaller palaces (dating to the mid-2nd millennium BCE); and an ever-expanding quarter for traders, craft workers and their workshops, markets, laborers and all the other elements that a large city of that time would include. Mesopotamian influences would no doubt have increased during the time when Susa was subject to the empire of Sargon of Akkad.

The Elamite Highlands

When southwest Iran begins to emerge into the light of history, in the mid-3rd millennium BCE, the label “Elam” in fact refers only to the Elamite highland area. This remained largely cut-off from the advances in civilization discussed above. The land could not be intensively farmed on a large scale, with much being best suited to a a semi-nomadic pastoral lifestyle. It was far less accessible than was the plain, and was not on any long-distance trade routes. The inhabitants were more isolated and conservative than the sophisticated urbanites of Susa.

Politically, it was divided amongst different principalities, most of which are perhaps best described as tribal chieftains. The highlands were rich in natural resources which the Sumerian cities lacked (wood, stone, metals), and this attracted the attention of the more powerful Mesopotamian states. The more powerful of these launched campaigns to try and win control of these resources, and it may have been these which prompted the peoples of this area to unite in a loosely organized kingdom, from c. 2400 BCE onwards.

The Early Elamite period (c. 2100 BCE to 1500 BCE)

Elam becomes a major regional power

At the end of the 3rd millennium BCE a king of Elam was able to bring Susa under his control, and then proceeded to raid deep into Mesopotamian territory. His successors, however, were made subject to the king of Ur, the new power in the region. Then, in another turn of fortune, Elam rebelled and sacked Ur (2004 BCE). The Elamites did not follow up this attack by occupying Ur for any length of time,  but this famous event in ancient Mesopotamian history established the kingdom as one of the leading powers of the region.

In the two centuries that followed, several Mesopotamian states tried to retake Susa from the Elamites. However, the kingdom of Elam survived and flourished, and its power spread beyond its borders. In the early 2nd millennium BCE a king of Larsa, one of the leading city-states in Mesopotamia, was an Elamite, and a little later the king of Elam, Siwe-palar-huppak, is recorded as being the most powerful ruler in the region. Even the king of far-away Mari, in western Mesopotamia, addressed him as “father” (i.e. his senior in rank), as did the ambitious king of Babylon, Hammurabi. However, it was Hammurabi who turned the tables and, in alliance with other kings, broke the power of the Elamite king within Mesopotamia (1764 BCE). The Elamite kings became vassals of the king of Babylon until sometime after 1749 BCE, when they shook off Babylonian rule by inflicting a crushing defeat on Hammurabi’s son, Samsuiluna.

Internal developments

Within Elam, Susa retained its own Mesopotamian-style culture. Akkadian, the language dominant in Mesopotamia, continued to be widely used in Susa, and the inhabitants of the city continued to worship their Sumerian-style pantheon of gods. The kings began calling themselves “kings of Anshan (their capital in the Elamite highlands) and Susa”, indicating that Susa, initially a conquered city, was now one of the two principle seats of power.  Later, kings adopted purely Mesopotamian titles of rulership. The fact that royal names seem to become more Mesopotamian as time goes by also suggests that the royal family were being absorbed into the Mesopotamian culture of their new capital.

Organization of kingdom

The kingdom seems to have been divided into two parts, with viceroys ruling from Susa (over the city and plain) and Anshan (over the highlands). The viceroys were royal princes, and the heir to the throne would have filled one of these offices. Presumably the king moved between these two centers, quite possibly (as was the case in later times) residing in Susa during the winter and moving to the cooler highlands during the summer

Royal incest

Another development within the royal family at this time was the apparently new practice of incest. Kings married their sisters and daughters, and queens and princesses their brothers and sons. The idea behind this was to ensured purity of royal blood and thus to bolster the legitimacy of the dynasty. Princes born of such unions had a greater claim to the throne than others.

This did not prevent one dynasty from being replaced by another, though whether by violence or because of failure of the royal line is not known. In any event, the new dynasty soon seems to have adopted this habit.

The Middle Elamite period (c. 1500-1100 BCE)

Revival of Elamite culture

The centuries after 1500 BCE are marked by the resurgence of Elamite culture and the consequent submergence of the Mesopotamian-style culture of Susa. This is reflected in the much greater use of Elamite instead of Akkadian in official inscriptions, and the increasing importance of the Elamite pantheon of gods at the expense of the Mesopotamian one. The kings abandoned Mesopotamian royal titles in favor of the older “king of Anshan and Susa”, perhaps to emphasize a renewed political importance for the old capital. All this suggests that a new regime had come to power, with its power base rooted firmly in traditional Elamite highland society.

The culmination of the expression of this new cultural identity was the building the major political-religious  complex at Tchoga Zanbil, in honor of the Elamite gods. This may well have been intended to act as a new capital for the kingdom. In the event it was soon abandoned and Susa resumed its place, both as a seat of political power and as a center of culture. It was embellished with new temples, and old ones were restored. Now, however, these were in honor of Elamite deities rather than the former Mesopotamian gods.

So far as the royal family was concerned, the old practice of incest was still very much in vogue. One remarkable queen bore ten children from four different fathers – her own father, two of her brothers and a son (whom she had had from her father), who all followed each other on the throne.

A great power in the region

This was a period of stability and prosperity for Elam, accompanied by substantial regional influence. The Elamite army raided far and wide over Mesopotamia, and, in alliance with Assyria, carried out a devastating raid on Babylon, at that time under Kassite rule (c. 1160). They carried the statue of Marduk, the famous stele with Hammurabi’s law code inscribed on it, and other historic trophies, back to Susa. In 1158 BCE the Elamites were even able to occupy Babylon and put their own a prince on the Babylonian throne. They thus brought the long-lasting Kassite dynasty to an end.

The Elamite kingdom reached a peak of power and wealth at this time. It was the greatest power in the region for a generation or so before unspecified pressures led it to evacuate Babylon. Then another king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar (reigned (1125-04 BCE), was able to capture Susa and and take many of the trophies – including the statue of Marduk and the stele of Hammurabi – back to Babylon. The king of Elam briefly took refuge at Anshan. Shortly after this Elam virtually disappears from history for several centuries.

The Late Elamite Period (1100-539 B.C.E.).

A dark age

For the next two centuries little is know about the country; the name of none of the kings is recorded and the kingdom may well have fragmented into different principalities. At around this time the region saw the arrival of Iranian tribes from the north, which resulted in reducing the areas ruled by Elamites. In fact, from this time the term “Elam” begins to refer to the city of Susa and the Susiana plain, round about it. Nevertheless, once we start hearing about the kings again (from Babylonian records) they still call themselves “king of Anshan and of Susa”, and do so until the end of the 7th century. Whether this was an empty title harking back to the glory days of Elam’s history or a reflection of a situation in which the kings had brought princes of the highlands into a vassal relationship with them, we cannot say.

Against Assyria

What can be said is that the Elamite kings were by no means a negligible force in the power politics of the time, which argues for some king of control over the highlands. It is at least clear from economic texts recovered from Susa at this time that relations between the people of that city and these principalities, including with Iranian chieftains, were good, and that there was an active trade between them.
In the 8th and 7th centuries BCE the Elamites became involved again in Mesopotamian affairs, this time in a long-drawn out effort, in alliance with Babylon, to combat the growing power of the Assyrian empire. At times they experienced some success, and the Assyrians certainly regarded them as a dangerous enemy.  The tide was against them, however, and in 653 BCE the Assyrians attacked Elam itself. They killed its king in battle and brought an end to Elamite independence by dividing the kingdom in two and installing their own nominees as rulers. The seats of their power were neither Susa nor Anshan, but two comparatively obscure towns. Trouble must have continued, because in 646 BCE, king Ashurbanipal of Assyria mounted a huge raid, devastated the region around Susa and sacked the city itself. The Assyrian king claimed to have “sown the land with salt”, a symbol of utter destruction.

Sometime around this time an Iranian people called the Persians took over the area of Anshan, the old capital. Under their chiefs of the Achaemenid clan, they established a principality there.

The end of the kingdom

The defeat of the Elamites seems to have been less devastating than Ashurbanipal’s propaganda made it appear. A little while later Elamite kings reappear in the Babylonian records, though from the beginning of the 6th century they are simply referred to as “king”, without any geographical designation. It is clear, in fact, that the land of Elam was in effect fragmented among different small kingdoms, though still perhaps in some kind of vassal relationship with the king in Susa.

With the fall of the Assyrians, and the rise of the Chaldean king Nabopolassar to the throne in Babylon, the kings of Susa seem to have acknowledged Nabopolassar’s overlordship. Meanwhile the Achaemenid kings in Anshan became vassals of the Medes, an empire which had emerged in central Iran. The land of Elam became politically divided; it would be reunited only in the mid-6th century, when a king of Anshan, called Cyrus, had rebelled against his overlord the king of the Medes and then, after a decade conquering far and wide in western and central Asia, he had conquered Babylon (539 BCE). This event caused many other lands to come under Persian rule, including Syria, Judaea and Elam.

A magnificent city

The whole of Elam was now within the vast Achaemenid empire; it had lost its independence, never to be regained. However, it enjoyed an honored place within the empire. For Susa, indeed, it began the most prestigious period of its long history. The city became the primary seat of government, eclipsing the other capitals, Persepolis, Pasargadae and Ecbatana, both in size and importance. The presence of the imperial court there, and the Achaemenid kings’ lavish building activities, turned it into one of the most magnificent cities in the world at that time. Within the Persian empire, probably only the city of Babylon was larger.

Culturally, the Persians owed a huge debt to the Elamites. The fact that the early Achaemenid kings used Elamite as their main language of government is indicative of the administrative expertise they could draw in that city. Also, the loyalty they felt towards the Elamite culture is signified in the fact that Elamite became one of the three scripts used in official and ceremonial documents.


Further Study

Related TimeMaps articles:

Late Babylonian civilization

Ancient Mesopotamian civilization

History of Ancient Mesopotamia

Ancient Assyrian civilization

History of Ancient Assyria

History of the Babylonian Empire