Susa

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.

Coordinates: 32° 11′ 26″ N, 48° 15′ 28″ E

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.

Susa in the 5th millennium BC.
Susa in the 5th millennium BC.

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.

Painted pottery beakers from Susa I period, 4300-4000 BC, from the acropolis mound.
National Museum of Iran, Tehran.

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.

Proto-Elamite kneeling bull holding a spouted vessel,ca. 3100–2900 BC.
Public Domain – The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

Statue of the goddess Narundi with Elamite and Akkadian inscriptions. Dedicated by Puzur-Inshushinak in a temple on the Acropolis of Susa, ca. 2100 BC. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

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.

Fragments of decoration from the Temple of Inshushinak depicting a bull-man and palm tree, from Susa, around 1150 BC. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

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.

Ashurbanipal’s campaign against Susa is triumphantly recorded in this relief showing the sack of Susa. Here, flames rise from the city as Assyrian soldiers topple it with pickaxes and crowbars and carry off the spoils. British Museum.

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”.

Headless inscribed Egyptian statue of Darius I, discovered in 1972 in Susa, ca. 522-486 BC. Originally made to be set up in Egypt, it was found on the west side of the Gate of Darius. National Museum of Iran, Tehran.

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).

The weddings at Susa, Alexander to Stateira and Hephaistion to Drypetis (late 19th century engraving).

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.

The mound of Susa during excavation. Jules-Georges Bondoux (1866-1919), Les fouilles de Suse, 1905. Oil on canvas. Paris, Musee du Loure.

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 18856, 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.

PORTFOLIO

The foundations of the Palace of Darius the Great. It was built on a 12-hectare artificial platform founded on the older remains of part of the Elamite city.
The residential palace occupied 3.8 hectares across a vast esplanade. It was organised around three courtyards and surrounding rooms and was modelled after earlier Assyrian and Babylonian palaces. The eastern courtyard carried on its northern face a lion frieze in enameled brick (now in the Louvre).
The Frieze of Lions, a decorative glazed-brick frieze from the first court of Darius I’s palace. It is one of the rare decorative features of Darius’s palace to have been found more or less in its original place, at the foot of the north wall of the East Court. Musée du Louvre.
The Frieze of Archers, a decorative glazed-brick frieze from the Darius I’s palace. The frieze was probably inspired by the brick friezes of Babylon, although the technique is different. Its exact original location is unknown. Musée du Louvre.
The East Court was the biggest courtyard in Darius’ Palace. It measured 64.50 by 56 m and gave onto long rooms on all four sides. Along the wall to the north, a row of eight stone foundations with a circular cavity have been interpreted as holes for shafts or pylons.
The northern part of the King’s Apartment.
The entire Palace seen from an artist’s perspective
Archives de la Maison Archéologie & Ethnologie, René-Ginouvès, JP_V03_37
© Mission de Suse. Délégation archéologique française en Iran / Daniel Ladiray.
The West Court lying in front of the King’s Apartment, on the south side.
Frieze of Griffins from the west courtyard of the palace. The griffin has a lion’s head, the ears of a bull, a roaring mouth and two curved goat horns, one pointing forward and the other backward. It has the body of a bull, the forelegs of a lion and hindlegs like the legs of an eagle. Musée du Louvre.
The Apadana was also the work of Darius but was rebuilt by Artaxerxes II. It was a large hypostyle room of 36 columns. It is very similar to that of Persepolis in plan and dimensions.

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

The apadana was the square building measuring 109 m on each side, the central room was 58 m per side and the porticoes were 20 m deep. The columns (72 in total) stood on square bases in the central hall and on round bases in the porticoes and stood 21 metres in height.
Reconstruction drawing of the Apadana of Susa.
Image from page 327 of “History of Egypt, Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia and Assyria” (1903)
Bell-shaped column base from the north portico of the apadana. The base with the large torus is carved from a single block. The first drum of the shaft is fixed onto the base and the listel is joined with the shaft.
Fragment of a capital with a pair of bull protomes on which a ceiling beam rested.
Detail of the neck on a protome of a bull, a register of rosettes surmounts the curly locks.
This colossal capital from one of the thirty-six monumental columns which supported the roof of the apadana was reconstructed from fragments of several columns. Musée du Louvre.
This colossal capital in the Susa Archaeological Museum is one of the 36 monumental columns which supported the roof of the Apadana. It is typical of Achaemenid art in combining elements taken from different civilizations.
The possible location of an Achaemenid throne in the apadana. Such stone platforms is seen in reliefs of Persepolis where the royal throne is located on.
The Archaeological Castle of Susa. It was constructed by French archaeologist Jacques de Morgan in the late 1890s, as a secure base for archaeological exploration and excavation. The structure was built by local craftsmen using bricks taken from the Achaemenian ruins and the Elamite Chogha Zanbil ziggurat. It is now used as a museum.
Mud-brick inscription of the Elamite period applied on the facade of the castle.
The castle exhibits material used by the French archaeologists.
The Archaeological Museum of Susa.
The Achaemenid room of the Archaeological Museum of Susa.
The Parthian room of the Archaeological Museum of Susa.
The Tomb of Daniel in Susa, the traditional burial place of the biblical prophet Daniel.

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