Ancient City of Susa, A City as Old as Iranian History

The ancient city of Susa
General View of The Ancient City of Susa

Shush or the ancient city of Susa is considered one of the oldest world human settlements with a history of more than 6000 years registered in UNESCO’s list. According to the documents and evidences of the antiquity, Susa has been one of the main Iranian cities known for its magnificence. Even older than this city, in the vicinity of this settlement center, there have been unearthed the remnants of a village dating back to 7000 years ago.

The first rediscovery of this city was carried out by a Jewish rabbi called Benjamin bin Jinnah in early 12th century. Later, William Kennett Loftus from the UK initiated the first excavation in this region in 1850. More than other archaeologists, the French Professor, Roman Girshman, explored this site and divided Shush into 15 ancient layers.

Probably, Shahr-e Sukhte is the only ancient city of Iran that is comparable to the ancient city of Susa from historical point of view. It is a 6000-year-old city and the concentration of Zurvanism belief. In Bronze Age, there has been trade exchange between the ancient city of Jiroft and Shahr-e Sukhte. Some sources believe that Jiroft civilization (then known as Aratta) was the origin of Elamites’ migration to Susa.

The Earliest Human Concentrations in Ancient Susa Region

Ancient Susa Ruins
Remnants of Ancient Susa

During mid-fifth millennium B.C, there were more than 100 villages in Khuzestan plain, South West of Iran today. One of the outstanding examples of these villages is Tchogha Mish in the middle of this plain. The formation of these villages started with nomads settled in one place and the beginning of farming and pottery making. Although it was at the margin of this plain, it soon turned into a ritual center in the region.

The ancient city of Susa started with a village in an area of approximately 10 hectares near Shavor. It had a population of more than 2000 people first. Its architecture was different from Sumerians’. In fact, it had Elamites’ architectural features.

The early inhabitants set up a large platform in the middle of the village. There is a cemetery with approximately 2000 graves near this platform. In each coffin of this cemetery, there are patterned vessels made of clay or others made of natural pitch, few axes and a copper-made mirror.

Susa, the City of the Elamites

The ancient city of Susa, can be attributed to the Elamites more than any other eras. The word Ilam in the Mesopotamian language means the mountain people. It is speculated that its inhabitants lived up in the mountains before migrating to this region. They used this city for almost 2000 years as their capital city.

From 3500 to 2500 years B.C, the influence of Sumerians’ culture is noticeable through wheel-made potteries and architectural changes at the ancient city of Susa. During this period, the population had grown and trade exchanges had thrived. It subsequently led to the beginning of accounting and writing. Another feature of this period is the use of flat and cylindrical seals to indicate the identity of their owners.

During the middle of the third millennium B.C, the Mesopotamian culture had overcome the Elamite culture and Shush turned into a Sumerian city. Consequently, Anshan princes and other nobles united as a new dynasty.

The Art & Architecture in the 2nd Half of the 2nd Millennium

Arts flourished a lot during this period. The skills of the metal workers resulted in creating fabulous gold and silver figurines. Embellishments on the molded bricks of this era presents a particular aspect of the middle Elamite art inspired by the Babylonia. The graves of this era were built with curved ceilings.

 

Tchogha Zanbil Temple
General view of Tchogha Zanbil Temple

Tchogha Zanbil Ziggurat temple is an outstanding example of the culmination of Elamites’ art and architecture during this era. Untash Napirisha, the Elamite king, built this temple during the 13th century B.C for worshiping their gods. This five-story ziggurat temple mainly belonged to two Elamite gods: “Inshushinak” and “Napirisha”. They believed the guarding god of their capital ascends to heaven from that point.

This structure was in fact the center of a city that was referred to as “Untash Napirisha” after its builder, the late king. One of the wonders of this architectural masterpiece is the water transferring and refining systems. Water was brought from Karkheh River, 45 km away from the temple’s location.

The Decline of the Ancient City of Susa

The mid-Elamite kingdom, the third period, is undoubtedly the most splendid era of the ancient Susa. Shoturk Nahunteh (the first king) expanded the kingdom’s border to a large extent. He constructed several monuments and buildings. During this period, old traditions were revived and warmly welcomed by people. Five kings continued this trend for 70 years.

Along with the diminishing power of Shotruky dynasty, peace ceased to exist and people had to go back to migratory lifestyle. Therefore, the history of Shush is somewhat unclear until the 8th century BC. During this period, the Medes rose to power in the Iranian plateau and helped the revival of Iranian culture and mingled it with the culture of Elamites’ and other previously existing local communities.

At the end of the 8th century BC, Medes supported and helped the revitalization of the realm of Anshan and Shush kingdom to come up with a new era, New Elamite. They fought against the Mesopotamian rulers several times and won the battles.

In 645 BC, dissatisfied with the result of the former battles, Ashur Banipal sought an excuse by demanding Elamites the statue of their god Nanay. As Elamite king of the time knew this would be the end of his life to answer him positively, he decided to resist against his request. Then, Assyrians attacked Susa and hugely devastated teh ancient city of Susa.

The 2nd Capital City of the Achaemenians

As Achaemenian kings came from Anshan, they were in good relationship with Elamites. So, they helped the reconstruction of the ancient city of Susa. Under Darius the great, due to its mild climate in winter and closeness to the Mesopotamia, Shush was declared the winter capital and the center of administration and trade. Some of the monuments remained from this period are Apadana Palace, Acropolis and the royal city.

  • The Influence of Hellenistic Culture

Under Seleucids and Parthians, The ancient city of Susa lost its importance, but continued its independent life as a trade center. Toward the end of the 4th century BC, Shush became a totally Greek city with a different name. During this period, part of the Achaemenian city was reconstructed and part of the Achaemenian palaces were inhabited again.

Hellenistic art has left huge inspiration during this period. Some of such influence can be found at social organizations, sport centers and even worship of Greek gods in the city. Under the Parthians, local products started to be produced again and large houses took Iranian forms again. Toward the end of the Parthians, large pottery workshops were built in the city.

  • Susa as a Silk Producing City

Under Sassanian dynasty, Shapur II destroyed lots of Susa in the 4th century to suppress a revolt. Susa had lots of Christians and Christianity was considered the religion of the enemy then, Romans! Around 350, he built another city called Eyvan-e Karkheh at North West of Susa. He built several textile workshops in it to replace the rebellion city. This led to the decline of Susa. However, during 6th and 7th centuries, this city revived. As it was situated on Silk route, it was soon known as one of the main producers and exporters of silk.

  • Shush during Post-Islam Era

According to Fath-ol Fotuh and Tarikh-e Tabary history books, Arab invaders killed more than 30,000 people in the ancient city of Susa 17 years after Mohammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina. During the middle ages, the city was the capital of Khuzestan province. A fortress protected Susa against any threats from outside. It had large bazaars and a mosque with cylindrical columns.

Daniel's Tomb in Shush
Courtyard of the Daniel’s Tomb in Shush

Up until Mongols’ invasion and emergence of Ahvaz as the new capital city of Khuzestan province, the city had a large population. Susa was still well-known for its raw silk fabrics, sugar canes, pomegranates, and citrus. After this attack, due to the tomb of Daniel the prophet, the city turned into a pilgrimage city for Jews and Muslims.

Under Qajars, the first British and French archaeological expedition undertook the responsibility for the excavation of the ancient sites in search for the treasures there. Once archaeology adopted new definitions, lots of new developments occurred in the recognition of this region’s history.

French Fortress in Susa
General View of the French Fortress in Susa

The French fortress was built on Acropolis ruins from 1897 to 1912 near the tomb of Daniel. This fortress was built in the style of the middle ages to protect French archaeologists against local tribes. In the construction of this fortress, they used the bricks from Apadana Palace and Tchogha Zanbil structures.

Shush Today

Although Susa has witnessed several ups and downs in its history, the people of this area of Khuzestan province still continue their lives close to the remnants of this ancient human settlement. Today, Shush has attracted large population to itself because of railroad, Dez water dam, modern irrigation system, huge farming and industrial companies, etc. Most of the inhabitants, of course, are involved in service industry and trade.

The presence of the ancient city of Susa, Tchogha Zanbil temple, Daniel’s tomb as well as its location on the way to Ahvaz (now the capital of Khuzestan province), the new city of Susa attracts thousands of visitors from inside and outside Iran. This increasing interest has caused tourism investors to take some practical actions. Therefore, there must be some growth in appropriate accommodation facilities soon in Susa.

For more World Heritage sites, go to:

Iranian tangible cultural heritage sites in UNESCO List!

Rahman Mehraby

Rahman Mehraby is the founder and owner of Destination Iran. He plans quality tours and provides advice for tour customization. You can rely on his itineraries to get an exclusive tour to Iran.

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