History of Susa

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The Role of Susa in History
 

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the oldest cities in Mesopotamia, Susa was an ancient city of the Elamite, Persian and Parthian empires, located about 150 miles east of the current path of the Tigris River. Excavations have established that people were living at the acropolis in 5000 BCE and have shown the existence of urban structures about 4000 BCE, and it is reasonable that the town, situated on a strip of land between the rivers Karkheh (Choaspes) and Dez (Eulaeus), was already the political center of Elam in the fourth millennium.

A second part of the city is now called the royal hill. From written sources it is known that must have been ziggurat somewhere on that location. A third part is the artisan's quarter, which was to the east. The ruins of a donjon on a steep hilltop in the southeast date back to the earliest period.

Susa was initially the capital of the Elamite Empire (2700 BCE to 539 BCE). Ashurbanipal, the last great king of the Assyrians, conquered the city and the Elamites in 646 BCE.

A tablet was unearthed in 1854 by Henry Austin Layard in Nineveh, revealing that Ashurbanipal portrayed himself as an "avenger", seeking retribution for the humiliations the Elamites had inflicted on others:

Susa, the great holy city, abode of their Gods, seat of their mysteries, I conquered. I entered its palaces, I opened their treasuries where silver and gold, goods and wealth were amassed...I destroyed the ziggurat of Susa. I smashed its shining copper horns. I reduced the temples of Elam to naught; their gods and goddesses I scattered to the winds. The tombs of their ancient and recent kings I devastated, I exposed to the sun, and I carried away their bones toward the land of Ashur. I devastated the provinces of Elam and on their lands I sowed salt.

The city was rebuilt by the Persian king Darius the Great (522-486). The Apadana palace was clearly his favorite residence, as the historian Herodotus did not know of another capital. The son of Cyrus the Great, Cambyses II, formally moved the capital from from Pasargadae to Susa, making the city the center of the greatest empire of the time.

Alexander conquered the city of Susa in 331 BCE, but his conquest did not outlast his death. During his occupation of the city, however, it was the scene of a mass marriage ceremony described by the Greek historian Arrian of Nicomedia during which many Macedonian officers were forced to marry Persian women.

Susa became one of the two capitals of the Parthian Empire (the other being Ctesiphon). Despite a brief period of Seleucid rule, Susa remained an important city first to the Parthians and later to the second Persian Empire under the Sassanid dynasty, particularly since the other capital was often a target of foreign invaders; Ctesiphon was sacked by Roman armies five different times between 116 and 297 CE. Susa was only captured once, by the Roman Emperor Trajan in 116 BCE, and the Romans were shortly forced to withdraw due to revolts.

Susa was devastated during the Islamic conquest of Persia in 638 CE, but the city survived until the Turkic Mongols destroyed the city in 1218 CE, after which it was gradually abandoned.

The scene of the Biblical book of Esther is laid in Susa, where king Ahasverus (Xerxes) resides. Archaeologists have been able to identify several ruins with buildings mentioned by the author of Esther although the plot of the story is known to be fictional. The city is also the reputed location of the tomb of the Prophet Daniel.

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