Elamite Empire Rises in Near East Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The empire of Elam, with its capital city at Susa, had a culture similar to that of other ancient Near Eastern civilizations, although its language was unrelated to any other. A loose federation of states, the Elamites gained and maintained their wealth largely through trade and the development of fine arts.

Summary of Event

Elam is mentioned many times in the Bible (for example, in Acts 2:9, Genesis 14:14 and 10:22, and Daniel 8:2), but rarely in the contemporary Mesopotamian sources in Sumerian and Akkadian scripts. Original clay tablets with texts containing relevant information are scarce and not fully understood because the language, Elamite, is neither Semitic nor Indo-European, and its relation to other languages is yet to be determined. Therefore, it is common practice to link the history of Elam to the chronology of other ancient Mesopotamian cultures, primarily Sumerian and Akkadian, in the effort to establish general dates for events and stylistic developments in Elamite civilization. Peli Untashagal





There are three main periods in Elamite history: Old (c. 3000-c. 1500 b.c.e.), Middle (c. 1450-c. 1100 b.c.e.), and Late or Neo-Elamite (c.743-c. 500 b.c.e.). During the Old Elamite period, several ruling dynasties emerged: the kings of Awan (c. 2600-c. 2100 b.c.e.), the kings of Shimashki (c. 2100-c. 1900 b.c.e.), and the so-called grand regents (sukkalmah in Sumerian) who were Shimashki as well (c. 1900-c. 1500 b.c.e.). The earliest known king of the Awan Dynasty was Peli.

The Elamite Empire consisted of a loosely organized federation of states united around the powerful royal house. The Elamite system of royal inheritance was one of its chief strengths in maintaining an orderly transfer of power. The king’s second-in-command was his brother, and his son was only third in the chain of power. The kingship thus cycled through all the brothers of a generation in a form of matrilineal succession before being passed down and government was a balance of regionalism and federalism. The population was prosperous, politically adept, and militarily confident. The capital city of Susa was a famous cultural center, renowned for its wealth, which resulted from its position as a crossroad of the trade caravan routes. The rulers were considered to be protected by the gods; numerous monuments in different media depict their military victories, enhanced with complex religious and ritualistic activities, created to glorify their deeds and to please their divine protectors. Elamite religion displayed many elements in common with the established belief-systems of other ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, which were predominately focused on earthly preparation for life after death. A professionally trained class of priests and priestesses was in charge of performing ceremonies for the departed that were intended to keep the soul from eternal unrest.

In the Old Elamite period, the empire’s chief adversary was the kingdom of Ur. Indeed, King Shulgi of Ur (c. 2094-c. 2097 b.c.e.) conquered Elam for a period, until the Elamites rebelled—an event chiefly known through the laments and dirges written by the overthrown conquerors. Again Elam was conquered by the Babylonian king Hammurabi (c. 1810-c. 1750 b.c.e.), but regained its independence when Hammurabi’s empire fell apart after his death. In the Middle Elamite period, the empire faced more aggressive and skilled enemies such as the Assyrians and Persians. During this era, the old system of inheritance broke down and was increasingly replaced by straightforward primogeniture, in which the eldest son inherited the throne.

During the Neo-Elamite period, terrible destruction was inflicted by the Assyrians. King Ashurbanipal was especially cruel: His sack of Susa in 641 b.c.e., in which the usual riot of looting and building destruction was capped by sowing the land with salt to make the fields sterile, mortally wounded the empire. The final days of Elam were recorded during the reign of Darius the Great (522-486 b.c.e.), the famous Achaemenid king who, after his military victory over Elam, tried to rebuild and proclaimed the ancient capital as one of the principal royal residences of the mighty Persian empire. However, Susa never recaptured its original glory, and the city was completely destroyed by Mongol invaders in the thirteenth century c.e.

The earliest Elamite masters were known as the skilled seal-makers. Numerous cylinder seals, often made of black bitumen and faience, were incised with religious scenes of offering and worship. In addition, the artwork expresses preferences for fantastic hybrids, bizarre monsters, and a wide range of horned animals. These objects were commonly used to seal, sign, and identify important documents, storage jars, and other public and private possessions.

An excellent example of Elamite architecture is the sanctuary of Dur Untash (present-day Tchoga Zanbil), near Susa, dating from the thirteenth century b.c.e. Originally the structure had an outer wall that measured 3,937 feet (1,200 meters) by 2,625 feet (800 meters), while an inner wall enclosed the ziggurat, with courts measuring 1,313 feet (400 meters) on each side. The wall was pierced by seven gates, all leading to the central court. The large principal gate, called the Royal Gate, was decorated with glazed bricks and “nails” with pommels holding flat tiles in place. These pommels bore the name of the builder of the entire complex, King Untashagal (c. 1275-c. 1240 b.c.e.). The ziggurat reached a height of 171 feet (52 meters) and had a temple on the top dedicated to the god Inshushinak, “king of gods.” The basic structure was built of sun-dried brick with decorative details of glazed tiles and enameled bricks. The presence of nine other temples in the vicinity of this monument, all dedicated to different local gods, emphasize the complexity of the Elamite pantheon.

In addition to applied arts and architecture, Elamite masters were very skilled in metalwork. One of the most celebrated works is the bronze statue from Susa of Queen Napirasu, wife of Untashagal, created c. 1300 b.c.e. It now resides in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The figure is only 51 inches (1.3 meters) tall and weighs 376 pounds (829 kilograms). It is not known how it was made, except that the sculptor cast the statue with a solid bronze core, rather than the hollow core that was the typical technique of the time. The head is missing, but its overall sense of dignity, elegance, and grace reveals the noble character of the depicted individual. The king’s wife is presented with her hands crossed in prayer, and according to the inscription preserved on the skirt, it was intended to be a permanent votive offering in the temple, commissioned by the queen herself.


The Elamite Empire was chiefly sustained by a flexible governmental system, military prowess, and wealth from trade. Despite periodic conquest by powerful neighbors, the empire lasted for approximately twenty-five hundred years and reached high levels of artistic achievement. Although other empires and dynasties in the ancient Near East came and went, Elam maintained an extraordinary degree of cultural continuity.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bottéro, Jean, Clarisse Herrenschmidt, and Jean-Pierre Vernant. Ancestor of the West: Writing, Reasoning, and Religion in Mesopotamia, Elam, and Greece. Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. Three essays on the ancient world, two of which discuss the position of writing and religion in Elam.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carter, Elizabeth, and Matthew W. Stopler. Elam: Surveys of Political History and Archaeology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. A survey of visual monuments of Elam with numerous archaeological site maps and line drawings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edwards, I. E. S., C. J. Gadd, and N. G. L. Hammond, eds. Early History of the Middle East. Vol. 1, part 2 of The Cambridge Ancient History. 3d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1971. An authoritative history of the ancient world. This volume covers ancient Elam and its relationship with neighboring powers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ghirshman, Roman. Iran from Earliest Times to the Islamic Conquest. New York: Penguin, 1978. A comprehensive, chronological survey of Iranian history and art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Potts, D. T. The Archaeology of Elam: Formation and Transformation of an Ancient Iranian State. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. An up-to-date synthesis of archaeology and history. Includes copious illustrations, plates, and tables.

Categories: History