Susa (or Shush) is a city in Khuzestan province, 100 km. away from Ahvaz, the provincial capital.
Susa is an ancient city in the lower Zagros Mountains about 250 km east of the Tigris, between the Karkheh and Dez Rivers. One of the most important cities of the Ancient Near East, Susa served as the capital of Elam and the Achaemenid Empire and remained a strategic centre during the Parthian and Sasanian periods.
There are three archaeological mounds in Susa, covering an area of around one square kilometre.
In Elamite, the name of the city was written variously Ŝuŝan, Ŝuŝun, etc. The origin of the word Susa is from the local city deity Inshushinak.
Susa was one of the most important cities of the Ancient Near East. In historic literature, Susa appears in the very earliest Sumerian records: for example, it is described as one of the places obedient to Inanna, the patron deity of Uruk, in Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta.
Susa is also mentioned in the Ketuvim of the Hebrew Bible by the name Shushan, mainly in the Book of Esther, but also once each in the Books of Nehemiah and Daniel. According to these texts, Nehemiah also lived in Susa during the Babylonian captivity of the 6th century BCE (Daniel mentions it in a prophetic vision), while Esther became queen there, married to King Ahasuerus, and saved the Jews from genocide. A tomb presumed to be that of Daniel is located in the area, known as Shush-Daniel. However, a large portion of the current structure is actually a much later construction dated to the late nineteenth century, ca. 1871.
Susa is further mentioned in the Book of Jubilees (8:21 & 9:2) as one of the places within the inheritance of Shem and his eldest son Elam; and in 8:1, “Susan” is also named as the son (or daughter, in some translations) of Elam.
In urban history, Susa is one of the oldest-known settlements of the region. Based on C14 dating, the foundation of a settlement there occurred as early as 4395 BCE (a calibrated radio-carbon date). At this stage, it was already very large for the time, about 15 hectares.
The founding of Susa corresponded with the abandonment of nearby villages. Potts suggests that the settlement may have been founded to try to reestablish the previously destroyed settlement at Chogha Mish. Previously, Chogha Mish was also a very large settlement, and it featured a similar massive platform that was later built at Susa.
Another important settlement in the area is Chogha Bonut, which was discovered in 1976.
Shortly after Susa was first settled over 6000 years ago, its inhabitants erected a monumental platform that rose over the flat surrounding landscape. The exceptional nature of the site is still recognizable today in the artistry of the ceramic vessels that were placed as offerings in a thousand or more graves near the base of the temple platform.
Susa’s earliest settlement is known as the Susa I period (c. 4200–3900 BCE). Two settlements named by archaeologists the Acropolis (7 ha) and the Apadana (6.3 ha), would later merge to form Susa proper (18 ha). The Apadana was enclosed by 6 metre thick walls of rammed earth (this particular place is named Apadana because it also contains a late Achaemenid structure of this type).
Nearly two thousand pots of Susa I style were recovered from the cemetery, most of them now in the Louvre. The vessels found are eloquent testimony to the artistic and technical achievements of their makers, and they hold clues about the organization of the society that commissioned them. Painted ceramic vessels from Susa in the earliest first style are a late, regional version of the Mesopotamian Ubaid ceramic tradition that spread across the Near East during the fifth millennium BC. Susa I style was very much a product of the past and of influences from contemporary ceramic industries in the mountains of western Iran. Copper metallurgy is also attested during this period, which was contemporary with metalwork at some highland Iranian sites such as Tepe Sialk in Kashan.
Susa came within the Uruk cultural sphere during the Uruk period. An imitation of the entire state apparatus of Uruk, proto-writing, cylinder seals with Sumerian motifs, and monumental architecture is found at Susa. According to some scholars, Susa may have been a colony of Uruk. This era is known as Susa II (3800-3100 BCE).
Susa III (3100–2700 BCE) is also known as the ‘Proto-Elamite’ period. At this time, Banesh period pottery is predominant. This is also when the Proto-Elamite tablets first appear in the record. Subsequently, Susa became the centre of Elam civilization.
Ambiguous reference to Elam appear also in this period in Sumerian records. Susa enters history during the Early Dynastic period of Sumer. A battle between Kish and Susa is recorded in 2700 BCE, when En-me-barage-si is said to have “made the land of Elam submit”.
In the Sumerian period, Susa was the capital of a state called Susiana (Šušan), which occupied approximately the same territory of modern Khūzestān Province centred on the Karun River. Control of Susiana shifted between Elam, Sumer, and Akkad. Susiana is sometimes mistaken as synonymous with Elam but, according to F. Vallat, it was a distinct cultural and political entity.
During the Elamite monarchy, many riches and materials were brought to Susa from the plundering of other cities. This was mainly due to the fact of Susa’s location in Iran’s South Western region, closer to the city of Babylon and cities in Mesopotamia.
The use of the Elamite language as an administrative language was first attested in texts of ancient Ansan, Tall-e Mal-yan, dated 1000 BCE. Previous to the era of Elamites, the Akkadian language was responsible for most or all of the text used in ancient documents. Susiana was incorporated by Sargon the Great into his Akkadian Empire in approximately 2330 BCE.
The main goddess of the city as Nanaya, who had a significant temple in Susa.
The Old Elamite period began around 2700 BCE. Historical records mention the conquest of Elam by Enmebaragesi, the Sumerian king of Kish in Mesopotamia. Three dynasties ruled during this period. Twelve kings of each of the first two dynasties, those of Awan (or Avan; c. 2400–2100 BCE) and Simashki (c. 2100–1970 BC), are known from a list from Susa dating to the Old Babylonian period. Two Elamite dynasties said to have exercised brief control over parts of Sumer in very early times include Awan and Hamazi; and likewise, several of the stronger Sumerian rulers, such as Eannatum of Lagash and Lugal-anne-mundu of Adab, are recorded as temporarily dominating Elam.
Susa was the capital of an Akkadian province until ca. 2100 BCE, when its governor, Kutik-Inshushinak, rebelled and made it an independent state and a literary centre. Also, he was the last from the Awan dynasty according to the Susa kinglist. He unified the neighbouring territories and became the king of Elam. He encouraged the use of the Linear Elamite script, which remains undeciphered.
The city was subsequently conquered by the neo-Sumerian Third Dynasty of Ur and held until Ur finally collapsed at the hands of the Elamites under Kindattu in ca. 2004 BCE. At this time, Susa became an Elamite capital under the Epartid dynasty.
Numerous artefacts of Indus Valley Civilization origin have been found in Susa from this period, especially seals and etched carnelian beads, pointing to Indus-Mesopotamia relations during this period.
Around 1500 BCE, the Middle Elamite period began with the rise of the Anshanite dynasties. Their rule was characterized by an “Elamisation” of Susa, and the kings took the title “king of Anshan and Susa”. While, previously, the Akkadian language was frequently used in inscriptions, the succeeding kings, such as the Igihalkid dynasty of c. 1400 BCE, tried to use Elamite. Thus, the Elamite language and culture grew in importance in Susiana.
This was also the period when the Elamite pantheon was being imposed in Susiana. This policy reached its height with the construction of the political and religious complex at Chogha Zanbil, 30 km. south-east of Susa.
In ca. 1175 BCE, the Elamites under Shutruk-Nahhunte plundered the original stele bearing the Code of Hammurabi and took it to Susa. Archaeologists found it in 1901. Nebuchadnezzar I of the Babylonian empire plundered Susa around fifty years later.
In 647 BCE, Neo-Assyrian king Ashurbanipal levelled the city during a war in which the people of Susa participated on the other side. A tablet unearthed in 1854 by Austen Henry Layard in Nineveh reveals Ashurbanipal as an “avenger”, seeking retribution for the humiliations that the Elamites had inflicted on the Mesopotamians over the centuries.
Assyrian rule of Susa began in 647 BCE and lasted till the Median capture of Susa in 617 BCE.
Susa underwent a major political and ethnocultural transition when it became part of the Persian Achaemenid empire between 540 and 539 BCE when it was captured by Cyrus the Great during his conquest of Elam (Susiana), of which Susa was the capital.
It is probable that Cyrus negotiated with the Babylonian generals to obtain a compromise on their part and therefore avoid an armed confrontation. Nabonidus was staying in the city at the time and soon fled to the capital, Babylon, which he had not visited in years. Cyrus’ conquest of Susa and the rest of Babylonia commenced a fundamental shift, bringing Susa under Persian control for the first time.
Under Cyrus’ son Cambyses II, Susa became a centre of political power as one of four capitals of the Achaemenid Persian empire, while reducing the significance of Pasargadae as the capital of Persis. Following Cambyses’ brief rule, Darius the Great began a major building program in Susa and Persepolis, which included building a large palace.
Events mentioned in the Old Testament book of Esther are said to have occurred in Susa during the Achaemenid period.
Susa lost much of its importance after the invasion of Alexander the Great of Macedon in 331 BCE. In 324 BCE he met Nearchus here, who explored the Persian Gulf as he returned from the Indus River by sea. In that same year, Alexander celebrated in Susa with a mass wedding between the Persians and Macedonians.
The city retained its importance under the Seleucids for approximately one century after Alexander, however, Susa lost its position of the imperial capital to Seleucia to become the regional capital of the satrapy of Susiana. Nevertheless, Susa retained its economic importance to the empire with its vast assortment of merchants conducting trade in Susa, using Charax Spasinou as its port.
Susa was a frequent place of refuge for Parthian and later, the Persian Sassanid kings, as the Romans sacked Ctesiphon five different times between 116 and 297 CE. Susa was briefly captured in 116 CE by the Roman emperor Trajan during the course of his Parthian campaign. Never again would the Roman Empire advance so far to the east.
Suzan was conquered and destroyed in 224 CE by the Sassanid Ardashir I, but rebuilt immediately thereafter, and perhaps even temporarily a royal residence. According to a later tradition, Shapur I is said to have spent his twilight years in the city, although this tradition is uncertain and perhaps refers more to Shapur II.
Under the Sassanids, following the founding of Gundeshapur Susa slowly lost its importance. Archaeologically, the Sassanid city is less dense compared to the Parthian period, but there were still significant buildings, with the settlement extending over 400 hectares. Susa was also still very significant economically and a trading centre, especially in gold trading. Coins also continued to be minted in the city. The city had a Christian community in a separate district with a Nestorian bishop, whose last representative is attested to in 1265. Archaeologically a stucco panel with the image of a Christian saint has been found.
During the Muslim conquest of Persia, an Arab army invaded Khuzistan under the command of Abu Musa al-Ash’ari. After taking most of the smaller fortified towns the army captured Tustar in 642 before proceeding to besiege Susa. A place of military importance, it also held the tomb of the Jewish prophet Daniel.
Once the city was taken, as Daniel was not mentioned in the Qur’an, nor is he regarded as a prophet in Judaism, the initial reaction of the Muslim was to destroy the cult by confiscating the treasure that had stored at the tomb since the time of the Achaemenids. They then broke open the silver coffin and carried off the mummified corpse, removing from the corpse a signet ring, which carried an image of a man between two lions. However, upon hearing what had happened, the caliph Umar ordered the ring to be returned and the body reburied under the riverbed. In time, Daniel became a Muslim cult figure and they as well as Christians began making pilgrimages to the site, despite several other places claiming to be the site of Daniel’s grave.
Following the capture of Susa, the Muslims moved on to besiege Gundeshapur.
In 1218, the city was razed by invading Mongols and was never able to regain its previous importance. The city further degraded in the 15th century when the majority of its population moved to Dezful.
Today the ancient centre of Susa is unoccupied, with the population living in the adjacent modern Iranian town of Shush to the west and north of the historic ruins.