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Susa


The sacrifice of a goat. Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Marco Prins.
Sacrifice of a goat (Louvre)
Susa (Elamitic, Babylonian: Šušim; Greek τὰ Σοῦσα): capital of Elam, favorite residence of the Persian king Darius I the Great.

History Photos

Early Susa

Susa is one of the oldest cities in the world. Excavations have established that people were living at the acropolis in 5000 BCE and have shown the existence of urban structures about 4000, and we can be certain that the town, situated on a strip of land between the rivers Shaour (a tributary of the Karkheh) and Dez, was already a political center of some importance.

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In this early age, the potters of Susa produced ceramics of an unsurpassed quality, which they decorated with birds, mountain goats, and other animals designs. In the fourth millennium (the "Uruk Period"), the city became the capital of Elam and was able, at times, to challenge the Sumerian and Akkadian towns in southern Iraq. The city itself expanded to the east, to that part of the city that is now called the royal city. From written sources, we know that there must have been ziggurat. A third part is the artisan's quarter, which was even further to the east.

Treaty between Naram-Sin of Akkad and Khita (?), king of Awan. Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Marco Prins.
Treaty between Naram-Sin of Akkad and Khita (?), king of Awan (Louvre)

The kings of the Awan dynasty are known to have been the rulers of Elam in the last third of the third millennium; they were contemporaries of the dynasty of Sargon of Akkad, who was temporarily able to incorporate Susa into his empire. However, the Awan kings managed to regain their independence and a treaty between Sargon's grandson Naram-Sin and his colleague in the east proves that in the end, mutual respect reigned.

The kings of Awan even conquered the kingdom of Anšan, east of the Zagros. This was just the first of several unifications of these two kingdoms; although there were periods in which they were separated, the title "king of Susa and Anšan" was to become common.

The Awan King List. Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Marco Prins.
The Awan King List (Louvre)

The Awan dynasty collapsed when the Gutians descended from the mountains and created havoc on the alluvial plains of Elam and Mesopotamia. Susa was controled by king Šulgi of Ur and later by other Mesopotamian rulers, and still under attack from the Gutians. Still, the city, although claimed by the kings of Larsa, was independent under an Elamite dynasty. However, this was not to last forever: king Hammurabi of Babylon (1792-1750) annexed Elam.

The Middle Elamite Period

After the desintegration of the Old Babylonian Empire, Elam was independent again, and a new dynasty, probably from Anšan, seized power in Elam. These Kidinuids were later replaced by the Igehalkids and the Šutrukids. Under these dynasties, Susa saw its greatest flourishing. The city of Anšan was destroyed and its kingdom was integrated into the Elamite state; although it would regain its independence, the city was never rebuilt.


Map of Susa. Design Jona Lendering.
Susa

Many buildings were erected in Susa, like the Dynastic Temple of the Šutrukids, and many objects found in Susa confirm what is known from written sources: that the Elamites were able to capture Babylon, sacked it, and took away everything they could use or found interesting, like the Codex of Hammurabi. However, the Babylonians reorganized themselves, and were able to loot Susa.

Neo-Elamite Susa

During the eleventh, tenth, and ninth centuries, which are Dark Ages in most of the ancient world, Elam is almost absent from our sources. Assyrian sources mention that Elamites and Babylonians unitedly opposed the expansion of Assyria, and that may well be true, as we can see the same coalition in the next centuries. This alliance was to become Susa's misfortune: when the Babylonians had been defeated by the Assyrian king Sennacherib (705-681), the next target of Assyrian aggression was Elam. In the end, it was king Aššurbanipal who destroyed the Elamite capital between 645-640 BCE.


Part of the decoration of a Neo-Elamite temple in the Royal City. Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Marco Prins.
Part of the decoration of a Neo-Elamite temple in the Royal City (Louvre)

However, Assyria was doomed; its capital Nineveh was sacked in 612, and the Babylonians started to rule the Near East. Elam appears to have been divided into several princedoms, the rulers of which all called themselves "king of Susa and Anšan".

Achaemenid Capital

At some stage, they were integrated into the empire of Cyrus the Great (559-330), the founder of the Achaemenid empire. One of his successors, king Darius the Great (522-486), built one of his residences in Susa. An inscription in the palace, known as DSf, describes how Darius built it. Susa was clearly his favorite palace. The Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who wrote a lot about the Achaemenid empire, did not know of another capital.

Map of the Achaemenid palace at Susa. Design Jona Lendering.
Achaemenid palace

We can catch a glimpse of the beauty of the city in some of the scenes of the Biblical book of Esther, the story of which is situated in Susa, at the court of king Ahasverus (Xerxes). Unfortunately, a big fire during the reign of king Artaxerxes I Makrocheir (465-424) destroyed much of the buildings from this age. An inscription, D2Sa, records reconstruction works from the age of this king and his son and successor Darius II Nothus. King Artaxerxes II Mnemon (404-358) built a second audience hall on the opposite bank of the river.

Persian palace guard, found at Susa. Now in the Louvre, Paris.
Persian soldier, from Susa (Louvre)

Seleucid, Parthian, Sasanian Age

After the fall of the Achaemenid empire and the reign of Alexander the Great, who married in Susa (text), the city became part of the Seleucid empire. It was now called Seleucia on the Eulaeus. A palace in Greek style was erected, next to Darius' palace. The administrative center, however, was in the southern part of the city, where nearly all Greek and Parthian inscriptions were discovered. In the Parthian age, the city minted coins.

During the Sasanian age, the city had a large Christian community. It was sacked by the Sasanian king Shapur II, who transferred the population to Iwan-e Karkheh, but Susa was sufficiently recovered in the early seventh century to fight against the Arabs, who nevertheless captured the city. They discovered a mummy which was buried with a seal of a man standing between two lions; although Caliph Umar ordered its destruction, people were soon convinced that this body belonged to the prophet Daniel, who has ever since been worshipped in Susa (more...).


The archaeologists' castle in Susa. Photo Jona Lendering.
The archaeologists' castle

The city remained important until the thirteenth century CE. After some first soundings in 1854, systematic excavation started in 1884. In order to protect themselves, the French archaeologists, led by Jacques de Morgan, built a castle in Crusader style. Research has continues into the twentieth century. Unfortunately, even the ruins were not left alone: they were partly destroyed during the First Gulf War.

Small Parthian bust. Museum of Susa. Photo Jona Lendering.
Small Parthian bust (Museum of Susa)

A satellite photo can be found here.

Literature

  • R. Boucharlat, "Suse à l' époque sassanide", in: Mesopotamia 22 (1987) 316-322
  • R. Boucharlat, "Suse et la Susiane à l' époque achémenide. Données archéologiques", in: Achaemenid History 4 (1990) 149-175
  • R. Boucharlat, "Susa under Achaemenid Rule" in: John Curtis (ed.) Mesopotamia and Iran in the Persian Period: Conquest and Imperialism 559-331 BC (1997 London) 54-67
  • J. de Morgan e.a., Fouilles à Suse en 1897-1898 et 1898-1899  (= Mémoires I), 1900
  • J. de Morgan e.a., Fouilles à Suse en 1899-1902  (= Mémoires VII), 1905
  • Edm. Pottier e.a. Céramique peinte de Suse (= Mémoires XIII), 1912
History Photos
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 1998
Revision: 24 July 2009
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