Chogha Zanbil is a magnificent, 3300-year-old ancient Elamite complex located 30 kilometres south-east of the ancient city of Susa in the Khuzestan province of western Iran. The principal element of this complex is an enormous brick ziggurat, a large stepped pyramidal temple dedicated to the Elamite divinity Inshushinak, the protector and patron god of Susa. The Chogha Zanbil ziggurat is considered to be the best-preserved of its kind and the ﬁnest surviving testimony to the once-great Elamite civilization. In 1979, Chogha Zanbil became the first Iranian site to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Chogha Zanbil was founded around 1250 BC by the Elamite king Untash-Napirisha as the religious centre of Elam. Its original Elamite name was Dur Untash, a combination of Elamite Dur, meaning place/resident/city, and Untash the Elamite king who built it. The majority of people who lived there were probably either priests or their servants.
The complex of Chogha Zanbil occupied a total area of 100 hectares and consisted of a large, five storeys high stepped pyramid temple, monumental palaces, temples and tombs made from thousands of mud bricks of the same dimensions. Three concentric enclosure walls protected the whole complex with an outer wall of about 4 kilometres in circumference. The inner zone was centered on the ziggurat and included a series of temples as well a large open courtyard. This central zone was enclosed by a wall that originally measured 520 metres and had six gates. The middle zone (temenos), which held eleven temples dedicated to lesser gods, was also surrounded by a wall that originally measured 1,625 metres long and 10 metres high. Four gates led from the temenos to the outer zone which had royal palaces and a funerary palace containing five subterranean royal tombs.
The imposing ziggurat originally measured 105.2 metres on each side and about 53 metres in height, over five levels, and was crowned with a temple dedicated to Inshushinak. A single stairway in the middle of each of the ziggurat’s four sides led to the top of the first story. Only priests and royalty had access to the highest level. The site also featured an offering platform where bulls and goats would have been sacrificed. The ziggurat was given a facing of baked bricks, a number of which have cuneiform characters giving the names of deities in the Elamite and Akkadian languages. Every 11th row of outer bricks was stamped with an inscription. Only the few scribes would have been able to read them.
I, Untash Napirisha, king of Anshan and Susa, constructed the holy city of Untash Napirisha in which I built a golden temple tower enclosed within an inner and outer wall. I dedicated the city to Napirisha and Inshushinak. May these gods accept this, the fruit of my labor, as an offering.
— Inscription from Chogha Zanbil
The complex was built on high ground, more than fifty metres above the nearby river Eulaeus (Dez), which made it difficult to bring water to the city. According to some scholars, Elamite architects and engineers constructed a long canal to supply the city with water. An ingenious system of reservoirs then distributed the drinking water throughout the city. To protect the ziggurat from torrential rainfalls and the inherent fragility of the bricks, the Elamite builders integrated a sophisticated drainage system in the ziggurat’s overall design.
Although construction in the city abruptly ended after Untash-Napirisha’s death, the site was not abandoned but continued to be occupied until the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal destroyed it in 640 BC.
Choga Zanbil was discovered in 1935 during an aerial photography campaign conducted by geologists searching for oil in the region. The French archaeological team working in Susa
was informed of the discovery and identiﬁed the site as the sacred city of Dur Untash described on brick inscriptions found locally. It was at this time that Dur Untash was named Chogha Zanbil, meaning “basket mound” reflecting its shape. Choga Zanbil was excavated and restored in nine seasons between 1951 and 1962 by the distinguished French archaeologist Roman Ghirshman. Subsequent conservation work carried out by Iranian teams centered on the repair of the ziggurat.
Susa was among the greatest cities of ancient Persia and its remains bear exceptional testimony to successive ancient civilisations (Elamite, Persian, Parthian and Sasanian). Located in the southwest of Iran, at the foot of the Zagros Mountains between the Karkheh and Dez Rivers, Susa was the chief city of Elam (Susiana) and one of the capitals of the Achaemenid empire. The research carried out on the site has uncovered evidence of continual habitation from the late 5th millennium BC until the 13th century AD and has yielded a wealth of archaeological and epigraphic material. Susa was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2015.
Susa began as a farming village in the Neolithic Age c. 7000 BC and developed into an urban centre as early as the late 5th millennium BC. Soon after its foundation, the inhabitants erected a monumental mud-brick platform that rose over the flat surrounding landscape. On top of this platform, a temple was erected of which only some wall fragments had survived. The temple was most likely dedicated to the god Inshushinak, the patron deity of Susa. Susa’s earliest settlement is known as Susa I period (c. 4200–3900 BC) and developed around the Acropolis.
Around 4000 BC, the monumental stepped platform was probably burned, and was then used as a cemetery. Around two thousand individuals were found in burial pits, cut into the mud brick platform. The cemetery has yielded nearly two thousand finely crafted pottery finds that were used as funerary gifts.
Susa quickly became a commercial, administrative and political hub that enjoyed different cultural influences thanks to its strategic position along ancient trade routes. It came within the Uruk cultural sphere and was integrated into the early Sumerian civilization of Mesopotamia. This period, extending from 3500 to about 3100 BC, is known as Susa II. It is marked by an accounting system that preceded the slightly later appearance of writing (proto-writing, cylinder seals).
New developments took place during the Susa III period (also known as the ‘Proto-Elamite’ period), which extended from about 3100 to 2700 BC. This period is marked by high artistic creativity and a system of true writing used to record commodity transactions (Proto-Elamite script). During this time, Susa became the capital of the region of Susiana (which occupied approximately the same territory of modern Khūzestān) and the centre of Elam civilization.
Susa lost its independence sometime between 2400 and 2200 BC, and its control shifted between Elam, Sumer, and Akkad. It was incorporated by Sargon the Great into his Akkadian Empire in approximately 2330 BC and became the capital of an Akkadian province until ca. 2100 BC when Puzur-Inshushinak overthrew the Mesopotamians. Puzur-Inshushinak made himself king of Elam and started to build extensively on the citadel at Susa. However, his attempt at imperial expansion was short-lived for Susa was overrun by the Neo-Sumerian kings of Ur.
During the Middle Elamite Period (1500 BC), Susa prospered again and flourished not only as a capital but as a centre of commerce. A new religious complex, including a ziggurat (or stepped temple tower), was built by King Untash-Napirisha at Chogha Zanbil, 30 km south-east of Susa. Under the Shutrukid dynasty in the last centuries of the second millennium BC, the structures on the Acropolis were rebuilt, replacing mud brick with baked inscribed and glazed bricks. A high temple was dedicated to Inshushinak, the great god of the Susian Plain.
Around 1175 BC, the Elamites under Shutruk-Nahhunte invaded Mesopotamia, sacked the cities of Sippar and Babylon, and plundered the original stele bearing the Code of Hammurabi and carried it to Susa. It was found in 1901 by Egyptologist Gustave Jéquier, a member of an expedition headed by Jacques de Morgan. At the end of the 12th century BC, Susa was destroyed by Babylonian armies, and the Elamite civilisation sank into almost total obscurity, a decline that lasted until the 8th century BC (Neo-Elamite period).
In 646 BC, the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, seeking retribution against the Elamites for their support of his Babylonian enemy, launched his army against Susa and destroyed the city. This defeat marked the dissolution of the Elamite civilisation.
Susa regained prominence in 521 BC when Darius I chose Susa as one of his royal residences. He remodelled the city’s urban centre by constructing a palace complex occupying the northern mound of Susa. The palace, which consisted of the Apadana and the Residence, occupied 5 hectares on a 12-hectare artificial platform. It was accessed from a monumental gate (Gate of Darius), reminiscent of the Gate of All the Nations at Persepolis. The passage through this gate toward the palace was flanked by a statue of Darius dressed in the Persian robe but in an Egyptian posture. The folds of the dress carry an inscription (known as DSab) in the three cuneiform languages of the empire (Old Persian, Elamite and Akkadian) and in hieroglyphics: “Here is the stone statue which Darius ordered to be made in Egypt, so that he who sees it in the future will know that the Persian holds Egypt”.
The construction of the palace was carried out at the same time that Darius built Persepolis, as well as the Royal Road running from Susa to Sardis in Anatolia. Construction works at Susa continued under Darius I’s son, Xerxes. A century later, Artaxerxes II (404–358 BC) partially restored the palace which had burned under Artaxerxes I fifty years earlier.
This palace which I built at Susa, from afar its ornamentation was brought. Downward the earth was dug, until I reached rock in the earth. When the excavation had been made, then rubble was packed down, some 40 cubits in depth, another (part) 20 cubits in depth. On that rubble the palace was constructed. Darius I, DSf inscription
The palace survived the city’s fall to Alexander the Great in 331 BC, and indeed Alexander married the eldest daughter of Darius III at Susa and forced his companions to marry native women. Susa retained its importance under Alexander’ successors. The Seleucids later installed a garrison and Susa became a Greek city called Seleucia on the Eulaios. Susa lost its rank of imperial capital and later became a Parthian provincial capital (247 BC-AD 224).
Devastated by fire during battles between the last of the Sasanians, Susa next developed into a Sasanian royal residence and became a focal point for the Christian community. Susa was then sacked by the Sasanian king Shapur II (r. AD 309-379) who dispersed the population. The city revived, however, and was again prosperous when it was sacked and destroyed by the Arabs in 638 AD. The Arab forces are said to have discovered a coffin during the invasion which was believed to contain the bones of Daniel the Prophet. The tomb of Daniel can still be visited in modern-day Shush. Susa then declined, and from the beginning of the 13th century deteriorated into no more than a series of crumbling ruins.
The site now consists of three gigantic mounds, occupying an area of about one square kilometre, known as the Apadana mound, the Acropolis mound, and the Ville Royale (royal town) mound. There is also a small palace (the “Shahur palace”) outside the walls on the west near the Shahur river. Another building, the so-called Donjon, at the far southern extremity of the city, is of uncertain date. Much of what can be seen today at the site dates back to the time of Darius’ reign.
Susa was identified by British archaeologist W.K. Loftus, who opened the first trial trenches in 1854 on the Acropole, Apadana, and Ville Royale mounds. The famous French archaeologists, Marcel and Jane Dieulafoy, began systematic excavations in 1885–6, and in 1897 Jacques de Morgan headed the first of the annual winter excavations, conducted by the French Archaeological Mission. Roman Ghirshman took charge of the Mission Archéologique in 1946, after the end of the war. Together with his wife Tania Ghirshman, he continued there until 1967. During the 1970s, excavations resumed under Jean Perrot. The finds, including a complete series of glazed brick reliefs, were brought back to France and are now filling various halls in the Louvre in Paris.
The small museum set in a garden contains many objects found at Susa and elsewhere in Khuzestan.
My ancestor Darius [I the Great] made this audience hall [apadana], but during the reign of my grandfather Artaxerxes, it was burnt down; but, by the grace of Ahuramazda, Anahita, and Mithra, I reconstructed this audience hall. Artaxerxes II A²Sa