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Dur Untaš (Choga Zanbil)

Southwestern access to the ziggurat. Photo Marco Prins.
Southwestern access to the ziggurat.
Dur-Untaš: name of an Elamite town, famous for it ziggurat, modern Choga Zanbil.
City Ziggurat Court

The ziggurat of Choga Zanbil is one of the most impressive monuments of modern Khuzestan, and must have been one of the most impressive monuments of ancient Elam. Built by king Untaš-Napiriša (1275-1240) and named after him (Dur Untaš, "city of Untaš-Napiriša"), it measures 105x105 meters and was probably 52 meters high. It was to be the center of a new town, which was to become the king's residence, but was never quite finished. Still, the town survived its builder with more than two centuries, and there must have been people living in Dur Untaš well after 1000, because the Assyrian king Aššurbanipal was to claim in 646 BCE that he had destroyed the town, which suggests that there must have been something to destroy., the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Refinery. Photo Marco Prins.
Refinery: first basin.

The town measured about one square kilometer and was surrounded by a four kilometer wall. A satellite photo can be found here.

It was built on high ground, more than fifty meter above the nearby river Eulaeus (Dez), which made it difficult to bring water to the city. The solution Untaš-Napiriša found, betrays his ambitions: he ordered his people to build a canal to Susa, where fresh water was diverted from the Choaspes river (Karkheh). It passed along Haft Tepe, was diverted into nine branches, and finally reached the town.

Refinery. Photo Marco Prins.
Refinery: second basin.

Unfortunately, the water of the Karkheh is full of mud and, because it was downstream from Susa, not very healthy. So it was necessary to clean it before it could be used in Dur Untaš. Therefore, refineries were built in which the water was conducted through several basins. Even by today's standards, this is a remarkable piece of engineering. The refinery that has been excavated, is the is oldest one known monument of this type in the world.

The Outer Wall and the Eastern Gate, near the Royal Palace. Photo Marco Prins.
The Outer Wall and the Eastern Gate, near the Royal Palace

In the eastern part of the city, close to the city wall, was a palace, which seems to have consisted of three large houses, a spacious court, and a big gate. The palace was, therefore, of the normal Near Eastern type: many rooms surrounding big courts, built inside a city, against the wal. A temple, dedicated to the Babylonian god Nusku, completed this section of the city.

As was customary in the Near East, the tombs of the kings were underneath the palace. Although one skeleton was found, most people had been cremated; so far, this is the only place in Elam where the dead bodies were burnt.

Remains of the Royal Palace; the court is to the left, the ziggurat on the horizon. Photo Marco Prins.
Renains of the Royal Palace. The courtyard is to the left, the ziggurat is on the horizon.

It comes as no surprise that the palace and the tombs were of the Near Eastern type, because culturally, the ancient Elamites were very close to the Babylonians. The monument for which Choga Zanbil is famous, its temple tower (or ziggurat), is not an Iranian architectural form either: it was developed in southern Mesopotamia. The most famous ziggurat was in the city of Babylon itself, and was called Etemenanki. It was dedicated to the god Marduk and its builders, king Nabopolassar and king Nebuchadnezzar, claimed that it reached into heaven. This boast is repeated in the famous Biblical story of the "tower of Babel", which is simply the story of a ziggurat. And that is exactly what the monument in Choga Zanbil was: a stairway to heaven.

The Royal Tomb. Photo Marco Prins.
The Royal Tomb

The ziggurat was built within a sacred precinct, which was, again, surrounded by a wall ("the outer temenos wall"), almost rectangular in shape of 400 x 500 meter, its corners facing the north, east, south, and west. The eastern corner was occupied by several minor sanctuaries.

In the center of this rectangular zone was a second wall ("the inner temenos wall") of irregular shape. It was very close to the ziggurat: in the winter, the temple tower's shadow must have covered it. This court-within-a-court can also been found in other sanctuaries in the Semitic world: the most famous example is, of course, the temple in Jerusalem, which was surrounded by a Court of the Gentiles and a Court of the Women. In the northwestern part of the inner court were temples, but everything was eclipsed by the ziggurat itself.

City Ziggurat Court
Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2004
Revision: 20 July 2009
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