Elam and Mesopotamia

The development of the human organization can be traced through Iranian and Mesopotamian archaeology, starting with the society of Paleolithic hunters in the caves of Kurdistan and the Caspian Coast. Society progressed “here in the nursery of modern man” to gathering and Neolithic agriculture, within a radius of few miles at most from the Belt and Hutu caves. With the introduction of irrigation, most probably in the highlands of Kurdistan, the social system changed from loose tribal family groups to complex city societies with forceful leadership.

The cooperation within large societies created wealth, fostered knowledge, and highly complex religious practices and fathered accounting and writing.

The Iranian Plateau straddles the crossroads of our world, providing a continuously snow-free route between Europe, the Mediterranean and Egypt, India and lands East. The summer road over the Iranian plateau leads to Transoxiana and beyond to China. The winter road crosses South Iran to the Indus. The states along this route profited from the trade, often becoming dependent on it, and their isolation was reduced.

The history of the entire area is one of constant conflict for supremacy. The control of the water upstream is vital for irrigation. The control of the city downstream important for trade. Looting increased wealth, the enslaving of citizens of neighboring cities, a workforce. As access to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean became easier, the profits were increased. A pattern of construction, destruction, and reformation of empires followed.

At the same time, there was everlasting danger from the nomadic Semitic tribes of the Arabian Desert and, Inter, from the people pushing towards Mesopotamia from Central Asia through the mountains of Iran. Whenever there was any weakness in the defense of the Mesopotamian cities and states, nomads took over. Whenever a new wave of immigration the pressure on Mesopotamia was increased. The conquerors created new dynasties, but in so doing accepted the luxuries of city life, bowing to the immutable necessities of settled agricultural society and irrigation farming and were assimilated.

The geography of the area along the lower reaches of Tigris and Euphrates seems to have differed greatly from today (although some geologists dispute this). The Mesopotamian Euphrates and Tigris and the Iranian Karoon and Karkheh each entered separately into the Persian Gulf, the first two close to the city of Ur below modern Baghdad, and the Iranian pair further down the coast. The swamps reached further upstream than today and separated Sumer from Elam. The silting process, especially from the swift-flowing Karoon draining from the Zagros Mountains, continued over the centuries – as it still continues – turning shallow gulf water into marshes and marshlands into terra firma until today’s situation arose.

Animal husbandry started in the Iranian highlands with the domestication of the sheep and moved down onto the great alluvial pastures as the herds multiplied. Primitive agriculture began in the lush Caspian belt, irrigation developed from damming in the pleasant highland vales fed by easily controlled mountain streams, and as the population increased and engineering technology improved, moved down to the great rivers.

The Sumerians migrated to the region of Ur most likely from the east, from the drying-up highlands of Iran, or possibly from the Indus Valley, to establish the first large city civilization. The origin of the Elamites of Southwest Iran is completely unclear. The Sumerian language is not related to any language spoken today. Elamite probably also bears no relation to living languages, but not enough of it is known to be certain.

The cultural development of Sumer and Elam ran parallel. A script was in use in Elam (Kerman) simultaneous to the first pictorial writing in Ur (3000 B.C.). Temple structures in both areas had the same ziggurat form, the man-made mountain reminiscent of their highland origins. Many cultic and religious habits were the same throughout Mesopotamia; the snake cult of Elam however was distinct and foreign.


Susa(Shoosh), capital of Elam, Khuzistan


Elam controlled the plain between the Zagros Mountains and the swamps of the two rivers as well as the entire Iranian Plateau to the great salt desert. This gave the Elamites great advantages, as suppliers of gold, timber, stone, and other basic raw materials, which had to be imported by the civilizations in the alluvial plain. At times, when the lowlands of Elam were overrun by invaders from Mesopotamia, indigenous Elamite dynasties recovered the loss after weathering the storm by withdrawing to the mountains. While dynasties and population groups in Mesopotamia changed drastically, Elam retained continuity.

Metallurgy and the introduction of the chariot introduced revolutionary changes. Dependence on horses and metals from the mountains of Iran and Eastern Anatolia grew, and control of the source was vital. Larger armies could be formed and greater distances covered. The spoils accrued by a successful war became ever more luring.

The basic policy however remained the same and the cruelty displayed in the magnificent relieves of Khorsabad and Nineveh bears mute witness: heaps of bodies floating downriver, burning cities, enslaved populations, beasts loaded with loot underscore the terror. The king is glorified for his prowess with the chariot and his skill in killing lions.

Two important changes occurred after 1000 B.C. The rivers pushed the land further out into the Persian Gulf and fused to form the Arvand Rood. The swamps receded downriver. This changed and weakened the strategic position of Elam.

By 850 additional small tribal groups of Aryan stock, including Persians and Medes, infiltrated the mountains of Kurdistan and Fars, ringing Elam. The pattern of their nomadic life centered around herding of animals from the warm winter pastures on the fringes of the plain to the rich green meadows of the mountains in summer, thus avoiding the parched land and heat of the lowlands of Mesopotamia and Elam in summer.

Internecine strife between small tribal bands over migration routes, water holes, and better pastures prevented any large-scale concerted action. However, groups banded together to raid the trade caravans bringing goods to the plains. Occasionally small settlements were robbed. The association with established cultures of Urartu, Elam, Babylonia, and Assyria affected tribal life but little. Tribal manpower however was used as levies in the armies and the naturally truculent tribesmen learned the finer arts of warfare.

Chogha Zanbil

The supply of horses and metals from the mountains was so crucial that the superpower of the day (800-600 B.C.), Assyria, was forced to take steps to protect its trade routes. Attempts were made to control the entire axis of the Mediterranean harbors and the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Great successes were achieved by Assyria under great leadership. It is known from the clay-tablet records, with details often filled in by archaeological excavations, that the Babylonians and Elamites formed a defensive union and a prolonged war started. Assyria, after successfully attacking Egypt, launched a large-scale amphibian invasion with a substantial fleet through the headwaters of the Persian Gulf on the shores of Elam. This invasion was repelled (698), but a new attack was mounted two generations later when there was serious internal strife and conflict over the royal succession in Elam. The Elamites army with its Persian tribal levies was decisively defeated in the battle of the Ulai River (652). Shortly thereafter Babylon was invested, Elam completely destroyed (639) and the Chaldeans of Ur were pushed into the swamps.

This did not overcome Assyria’s problem with the Iranian mountain tribes, the roving Sumerians and Scythes and Medes, nor with the urbanized Urartians. The trade routes through Asia Minor remained insecure. Assyrian armies assaulted the mountains, roaming far and wide, through Kurdistan, Armenia, to Mount Ararat. They destroyed the cities of the established highland civilizations, weakening especially Urartu.

The tribes eluded them completely, fading into the mountains on the news of the arrival of any large army. Tribal life however was markedly changed. A tribal leader was elected, the migration routes controlled, internecine strife quelled. The destruction of the controlling forces of urban-agricultural Urartu and Elam liberated the tribal Persians and the Medes from many restrictions and the nomadic population and power grew by leaps and bounds. Great areas, which were until that time under intense cultivation, are still today nomadic grazing grounds, and the political problem created by the decline of Elamites’ power is still being felt. The tribal leaders now accepted the title of Kings. (It is important to note that the king always had to be of the royal family. The fate of the tribe, however, is so important that it cannot be handed to just any member of the family. The best possible man is selected by consensus from several royal candidates. This explains the rather startling shifts in the family relationship amongst the early Achaemenian kings).

Achaemenes had become king of the Persians just prior to the showdown between the Assyrians and Elamites (700). The Assyrian commander who destroyed Elam (639) met with Cyrus I in the area of today’s city of Behbahan and accepted his son as hostage. The Persians were biding their time. Their enlarged kingdom was temporarily divided between two grandsons of Achaemenes – Cyrus I and Ariaramnes – as kings, respectively, of Parsumash and Parsa.

Assyria had extended its power to the limits. The Chaldean kings of Sumer revitalized Babylon. A Babylonian and Medic coalition attacked Nineveh and Khorsabad and destroyed the royal Assyrian cities and Assyrian power (612). Neobabylonia expanded, opened the sea route through the Mediterranean, fruitlessly attacked Egypt but did not attempt to force the mountains were Cambyses, son of Cyrus I, had inherited the crowns of Parsumash and Parsa and reigned as King of Anzan (600-559).