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Elam was an ancient civilization centered in the far west and southwest of modern-day Iran, stretching from the lowlands of what is now Khuzestan (Luristan o Bakhtiari Lurs) and Ilam Province as well as a small part of southern Iraq. The modern name Elam is a transcription from Biblical Hebrew, corresponding to the Sumerian elam(a), the Akkadian elamtu, and the Elamite haltamti. Elamite states were among the leading political forces of the Ancient Near East. In classical literature, Elam was more often referred to as Susiana a name derived from its capital, Susa. However, Susiana is not synonymous with Elam and, in its early history, was a distinctly separate cultural and political entity.
Situated just to the east of Mesopotamia, Elam was part of the early urbanization during the Chalcolithic period (Copper Age). The emergence of written records from around 3000 BC also parallels Mesopotamian history, where slightly earlier records have been found. In the Old Elamite period (Middle Bronze Age), Elam consisted of kingdoms on the Iranian plateau, centered in Anshan, and from the mid-2nd millennium BC, it was centered in Susa in the Khuzestan lowlands. Its culture played a crucial role in the short lived Gutian Empire of the 22nd century BC, and from the 6th century BC, during the Persian Achaemenid dynasty that succeeded Elam, when the Elamite language remained among those in official use. Elamite is generally accepted to be a language isolate.
The Elamites called their country Haltamti, Sumerian ELAM, Akkadian Elamû, female Elamītu "resident of Susiana, Elamite". Additionally, it is known as Elam in the Hebrew Bible, where they are called the offspring of Elam, eldest son of Shem (see Elam in the Bible; Genesis 10:22, Ezra 4:9).
The high country of Elam was increasingly identified by its low-lying later capital, Susa. Geographers after Ptolemy called it Susiana. The Elamite civilization was primarily centered in the province of what is modern-day Khuzestān and Ilam in prehistoric times. The modern provincial name Khuzestān is derived from the Persian name for Susa: Old Persian Hūjiya "Elam" (Old Persian: 𐎢𐎺𐎩), in Middle Persian Huź "Susiana", which gave modern Persian Xuz, compounded with -stån "place" (cf. Sistan "Saka-land").
Knowledge of Elamite history remains largely fragmentary, reconstruction being based on mainly Mesopotamian (Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian) sources. The history of Elam is conventionally divided into three periods, spanning more than two millennia. The period before the first Elamite period is known as the proto-Elamite period:
Proto-Elamite civilization grew up east of the Tigris and Euphrates alluvial plains; it was a combination of the lowlands and the immediate highland areas to the north and east. At least three proto-Elamite states merged to form Elam: Anshan (modern ) ( Khuzestan ) Province], Awan (modern ) ( Luristan o Bakhtiari Lurs) and Shimashki (modern Kerman). References to Awan are generally older than those to Anshan, and some scholars suggest that both states encompassed the same territory, in different eras. (see Hanson, Encyclopædia Iranica). To this core Shushiana (modern ) ( Khuzestan ) was periodically annexed and broken off. In addition, some Proto-Elamite sites are found well outside this area, spread out on the Iranian plateau; such as Warakshe, Sialk (now a suburb of the modern city of Kashan) and Jiroft  in Kerman Province. The state of Elam was formed from these lesser states as a response to invasion from Sumer during the Old Elamite period. Elamite strength was based on an ability to hold these various areas together under a coordinated government that permitted the maximum interchange of the natural resources unique to each region. Traditionally, this was done through a federated governmental structure.
The Proto-Elamite city of Susa was founded around 4000 BC in the watershed of the river Karun. It is considered to be the site of Proto-Elamite cultural formation. During its early history, it fluctuated between submission to Mesopotamian and Elamite power. The earliest levels (22–17 in the excavations conducted by Le Brun, 1978) exhibit pottery that has no equivalent in Mesopotamia, but for the succeeding period, the excavated material allows identification with the culture of Sumer of the Uruk period. Proto-Elamite influence from the Mesopotamia in Susa becomes visible from about 3200 BC, and texts in the still undeciphered Proto-Elamite writing system continue to be present until about 2700 BC. The Proto-Elamite period ends with the establishment of the Awan dynasty. The earliest known historical figure connected with Elam is the king Enmebaragesi of Kish (c. 2650 BC?), who subdued it, according to the Sumerian king list. Elamite history can only be traced from records dating to beginning of the Akkadian Empire in around 2300 BC onwards.
The Proto-Elamite states in Jiroft and Zabol (not universally accepted), present a special case because of their great antiquity. Archaeologists have suggested that a close relationship between the Jiroft civilisation and the Elamite civilisation is evidenced by striking similarities in art and culture, as well as by Elamite language writings found in Jiroft—possibly extending the Elamite presence to as early as 7000 BC.
The Old Elamite period began around 2700 BC. Historical records mention the conquest of Elam by Enmebaragesi the Sumerian king of Kish in Mesopotamia. Three dynasties ruled during this period. We know of twelve kings of each of the first two dynasties, those of Awan (or Avan; c. 2400–2100 BC) and Simash (c. 2100–1970 BC), 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.
The Avan dynasty was partly contemporary with that of the Mesopotamian emperor Sargon of Akkad, who not only defeated the Awan king Luhi-ishan and subjected Susa, but attempted to make Akkadian the official language there. From this time, Mesopotamian sources concerning Elam become more frequent, since the Mesopotamians had developed an interest in resources (such as wood, stone, and metal) from the Iranian plateau, and military expeditions to the area became more common. With the collapse of Akkad under Sargon's great great-grandson, Shar-kali-sharri, Elam declared independence under the last Avan king, Kutik-Inshushinak (c. 2240–2220 BC), and threw off the Akkadian language, promoting in its place the brief Linear Elamite script. Kutik-Inshushinnak conquered Susa and Anshan, and seems to have achieved some sort of political unity. Following his reign, the Awan dynasty collapsed as Elam was temporarily overrun by the Guti, a people speaking a Language Isolate, from what is now north west Iran.
About a century later, the Sumerian king, Shulgi of Ur retook the city of Susa and the surrounding region. During the first part of the rule of the Simashki dynasty, Elam was under intermittent attack from Mesopotamians and Gutians, alternating with periods of peace and diplomatic approaches. Shu-Sin of Ur, for example, gave one of his daughters in marriage to a prince of Anshan. But the power of the Sumerians was waning; Ibbi-Sin in the 21st century did not manage to penetrate far into Elam, and in 2004 BC, the Elamites, allied with the people of Susa and led by king Kindattu, the sixth king of Simashk, managed to sack Ur and lead Ibbi-Sin into captivity—thus ending the third dynasty of Ur. The Akkadian kings of Isin, successor state to Ur, did manage to drive the Elamites out of Ur, rebuild the city, and to return the statue of Nanna that the Elamites had plundered. The succeeding dynasty, the Eparti (c. 1970–1770 BC), also called "of the sukkalmahs" because of the title borne by its members, was contemporary with the Old Babylonian period in Mesopotamia. This period is confusing and difficult to reconstruct. It was apparently founded by Eparti I. During this time, Susa was under Elamite control, but Mesopotamian states such as Larsa continually tried to retake the city. Around 1850 BC Kudur-mabug, apparently king of another Akkadian state to the north of Larsa, managed to install his son, Warad-Sin, on the throne of Larsa, and Warad-Sin's brother, Rim-Sin, succeeded him and conquered much of southern Mesopotamia for Larsa.
Notable Eparti dynasty rulers in Elam during this time include Sirukdukh (c. 1850 BC), who entered various military coalitions to contain the power of the Mesopotamian states; Siwe-Palar-Khuppak, who for some time was the most powerful person in the area, respectfully addressed as "Father" by Mesopotamian kings such as Zimrilim of Mari, and even Hammurabi of Babylon, and Kudur-Nahhunte, who plundered the temples of Akkad. But Elamite influence in Mesopotamia did not last. Around 1760 BC, Hammurabi drove out the Elamites, overthrew Rim-Sin of Larsa, and established Babylonian dominance in Mesopotamia. Little is known about the latter part of this dynasty, since sources again become sparse with the Kassite rule of Babylon (from c. 1595 BC).
The Middle Elamite period began with the rise of the Anshanite dynasties around 1500 BC. Their rule was characterized by an "Elamisation" of Susa, and the kings took the title "king of Anshan and Susa". While the first of these dynasties, the Kidinuids continued to use the Akkadian language frequently in their inscriptions, the succeeding Igihalkids and Shutrukids used Elamite with increasing regularity. Likewise, Elamite language and culture grew in importance in Susiana. The Kidinuids (c. 1500–1400) are a group of five rulers of uncertain affiliation. They are identified by their use of the older title, "king of Susa and of Anshan", and by calling themselves "servant of Kirwashir", an Elamite deity, thereby introducing the pantheon of the highlands to Susiana.
Of the Igehalkids (c. 1400–1210), ten rulers are known, and there were possibly more. Some of them married Kassite princesses. The Kassite king of Babylon Kurigalzu II temporarily occupied Elam c. 1320 BC, and later (c. 1230) another Kassite king, Kashtiliash IV, fought Elam unsuccessfully. Kassite power waned, as they became dominated by the northern Mesopotamian Middle Assyrian Empire. Kiddin-Khutran of Elam repulsed the Kassites by defeating Enlil-nadin-shumi in 1224BC and Adad-shuma-iddina around 1222BC–1217BC. Under the Igehalkids, Akkadian inscriptions were rare, and Elamite highland gods became firmly established in Susa.
Under the Shutrukids (c. 1210–1100), the Elamite empire reached the height of its power. Shutruk-Nakhkhunte and his three sons, Kutir-Nakhkhunte II, Shilhak-In-Shushinak, and Khutelutush-In-Shushinak were capable of frequent military campaigns into Kassite Babylonia (which was also being ravaged by Assyria during this period), and at the same time were exhibiting vigorous construction activity—building and restoring luxurious temples in Susa and across their Empire. Shutruk-Nakhkhunte raided Babylonia, carrying home to Susa trophies like the statues of Marduk and Manishtushu, the Manishtushu Obelisk, the Stele of Hammurabi and the stele of Naram-Sin. In 1158 BC, Shutruk-Nakhkhunte defeated the Kassites permanently, killing the Kassite king of Babylon, Zababa-shuma-iddin, and replacing him with his eldest son, Kutir-Nakhkhunte, who held it no more than three years before being ejected by the native Akkadian speaking Babylonians.
Kutir-Nakhkhunte's son Khutelutush-In-Shushinak was probably of an incestuous relation of Kutir-Nakhkhunte's with his own daughter, Nakhkhunte-utu. He was defeated by Nebuchadnezzar I of Babylon, who sacked Susa and returned the statue of Marduk. He fled to Anshan, but later returned to Susa, and his brother Shilhana-Hamru-Lagamar may have succeeded him as last king of the Shutrukid dynasty. Following Khutelutush-In-Shushinak, the power of the Elamite empire began to wane seriously, for with this ruler, Elam disappears into obscurity for more than three centuries.
Very little is known of this period. Anshan was still at least partially Elamite. There appear to have been alliances of Elam and Babylonia against the powerful Assyrians; the Babylonian king Mar-biti-apla-ushur (984–979) was of Elamite origin, and Elamites are recorded to have fought unsuccessfully with the Babylonian king Marduk-balassu-iqbi against the Assyrian forces under Shamshi-Adad V (823–811).
The later Neo-Elamite period is characterized by a significant migration of Indo-European speaking Iranians to the Iranian plateau. Assyrian sources beginning around 800 BC distinguish the "powerful Medes", i.e. the actual Medes,(Parthians, Sagartians, Margians, Bactrians, Sogdians etc.). Among these pressuring tribes were the Parsu, first recorded in 844 BC as living on the southeastern shore of Lake Urmiah, but who by the end of this period would cause the Elamites' original home, the Iranian Plateau, to be renamed Persia proper. These newly arrived Iranian peoples were largely regarded as vassals of the Neo-Assyrian Empire until the late 7th Century BC.
More details are known from the late 8th century BC, when the Elamites were allied with the Chaldean chieftain Merodach-baladan to defend the cause of Babylonian independence from Assyria. Khumbanigash (743–717) supported Merodach-baladan against Sargon II, apparently without success; while his successor, Shutruk-Nakhkhunte II (716–699), was routed by Sargon's troops during an expedition in 710, and another Elamite defeat by Sargon's troops is recorded for 708. The Assyrian dominion over Babylon was underlined by Sargon's son Sennacherib, who defeated the Elamites and Babylonians and dethroned Merodach-baladan for a second time, installing his own son Ashur-nadin-shumi on the Babylonian throne in 700.
Shutruk-Nakhkhunte II, the last Elamite to claim the old title "king of Anshan and Susa", was murdered by his brother Khallushu, who managed to capture the Assyrian governor of Babylonia Ashur-nadin-shumi and the city Babylon in 694. Sennacherib avenged this by invading and ravaging Elam in 694 BC. Khallushu was in turn assassinated by Kutir-Nakhkhunte, who succeeded him, but soon abdicated in favor of Khumma-Menanu III (692–689). Khumma-Menanu recruited a new army to help the Babylonians against the Assyrians at the battle of Halule in 691 BC. Both sides claimed the victory in their annals, but Babylon was destroyed by Sennacherib only two years later, and their Elamite allies defeated in the process.
The reigns of Khumma-Khaldash I (688–681) and Khumma-Khaldash II (680–675) saw a deterioration of Elamite-Babylonian relations, and both of them raided Sippar. At the beginning of Esarhaddon's reign in Assyria (681–669), Nabu-zer-kitti-lišir, an ethnically Elamite governor in the south of Babylonia, revolted and besieged Ur, but was routed by the Assyrians and fled to Elam where the king of Elam, fearing Assyrian repercussions, took him prisoner and put him to the sword (ABC 1 Col.3:39–42).
Urtaku (674–664) for some time wisely maintained good relations with the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (668–627), who sent wheat to Susiana during a famine. But these friendly relations were only temporary, and Urtaku was killed in battle during a failed Elamite attack on Assyria.
His successor Tempti-Khumma-In-Shushinak (664–653) attacked Assyria, but was defeated and killed by Ashurbanipal following the battle of the Ulaï in 653 BC; and Susa itself was sacked and occupied by the Assyrians. In this same year the Assyrian vassal Median state to the north fell to the Scythians under Madius, and displacing another Assyrian vassal people, the Parsu (Persians to Anshan which their king Teispes captured that same year, turning it for the first time into an Indo-Iranian kingdom under Assyrian dominance that would a century later become the nucleus of the Achaemenid dynasty. The Assyrians successfully drove the Scythians from their Iranian colonies.
During a brief respite provided by the civil war between Ashurbanipal and his own brother Shamash-shum-ukin whom their father Esarhaddon had installed as the vassal king of Babylon, the Elamites too indulged in fighting among themselves, so weakening the Elamite kingdom that in 646 BC Ashurbanipal devastated Susiana with ease, and sacked Susa. A succession of brief reigns continued in Elam from 651 to 640, each of them ended either due to usurpation, or because of capture of their king by the Assyrians. In this manner, the last Elamite king, Khumma-Khaldash III, was captured in 640 BC by Ashurbanipal, who annexed and destroyed the country.
In a tablet unearthed in 1854 by Henry Austin Layard, Ashurbanipal boasts of the destruction he had wrought:
|“||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 devastation was less complete than Ashurbanipal boasted, and a fragmented Elamite rule was resurrected soon after with Shuttir-Nakhkhunte, son of III (not to be confused with Shuttir-Nakhkhunte, son of Indada, a petty king in the first half of the 6th century). Elamite royalty in the final century preceding the Achaemenids was fragmented among different small kingdoms, the united Elamite nation having been destroyed and colonised by the Assyrians. The three kings at the close of the 7th century (Shuttir-Nakhkhunte, Khallutush-In-Shushinak and Atta-Khumma-In-Shushinak ) still called themselves "king of Anzan and of Susa" or "enlarger of the kingdom of Anzan and of Susa", at a time when the Achaemenid Persians were already ruling Anshan.
The Assyrian Empire which had been the dominant force in the Near East for much of the period from the 14th Century BC began to unravel after the death of Ashurbanipal in 627 BC, descending into a series of bitter internal civil wars. The Iranian Medes and Persians who had been largely subject to Assyria since their arrival in the region circa 1000 BC, took full advantage of the anarchy in Assyria, and in 616 BC freed themselves from Assyrian rule. The Medians took control of Elam during this period. Cyaxares the king of the Medes and Persians, entered into an alliance with Nabopolassar of Babylon and the Scythians and Cimmerians against Sin-shar-ishkun of Assyria. This alliance then attacked the weakened Assyria, and by 605 BC had conquered its vast empire. Elam, already largely destroyed and subjugated by Assyria, thus became easy prey for the Median dominated Iranian peoples, and was incorporated into the Median Empire.
The prophet Ezekiel describes the status of their power in the 12th year of the Hebrew Babylonian Captivity in 587 BC:
|“||There is Elam and all her multitude, All around her grave, All of them slain, fallen by the sword, Who have gone down uncircumcised to the lower parts of the earth, Who caused their terror in the land of the living; Now they bear their shame with those who go down to the Pit. (Ezekiel 32:24)||”|
Their successors Khumma-Menanu and Shilhak-In-Shushinak II bore the simple title "king", and the final king Tempti-Khumma-In-Shushinak boasted no title altogether. In 540 BC, Achaemenid rule begins in Susa.
The Elamites practised polytheism. Knowledge about their religion is scant, but, according to Cambridge ancient history at one point they had a pantheon headed by the goddess Kiririsha/Pinikir. Other deities included the Inshushinak and Jabru, lord of the underworld.
Elamite is traditionally thought to be a language isolate, and completely unrelated to the neighbouring Semitic, Sumerian (also an isolate), and the later Indo-European Iranian languages that came to dominate the region. It was written in a cuneiform adapted from the Semitic Akkadian script of Assyria and Babylonia, although the very earliest documents were written in the quite different "Linear Elamite" script. In 2006, two even older inscriptions in a similar script were discovered at Jiroft to the east of Elam, leading archaeologists to speculate that Linear Elamite had originally spread from further east to Susa. It seems to have developed from an even earlier writing known as "proto-Elamite", but scholars are not unanimous on whether or not this script was used to write Elamite or another language, and it has not yet been deciphered. Several stages of the language are attested; the earliest date back to the third millennium BC, the latest to the Achaemenid Empire.
The Elamite language may have survived as late as the early Islamic period. Ibn al-Nadim among other Islamic medieval historians, for instance, wrote that "The Iranian languages are Fahlavi (Pahlavi), Dari, Khuzi, Persian and Suryani (Assyrian)", and Ibn Moqaffa noted that Khuzi was the unofficial language of the royalty of Persia, "Khuz" being the corrupted name for Elam.
A minority of scholars have proposed that the Elamite language could be related to the Munda Language of India, some to Mon–Khmer of Cambodia and some to the modern Dravidian languages of India and Sri Lanka such as Tamil and Malayalam, in contrast to the majority who denote it as a language isolate. David McAlpine believes Elamite may be related to the living Dravidian languages. This hypothesis is considered under the rubric of Elamo-Dravidian languages.
The Assyrians had utterly destroyed the Elamite nation, but new polities emerged in the area after Assyrian power faded. Among the nations that benefited from the decline of the Assyrians were the Iranian tribes, whose presence around Lake Urmia to the north of Elam is attested from the 9th century BC in Assyrian texts. Some time after that region fell to Madius the Scythian (653 BC), Teispes son of Achaemenes conquered Elamite Anshan in the mid 7th century BC, forming a nucleus that would expand into the Persian Empire. They were largely regarded as vassals of the Assyrians, and the Medes, Mannaeans and Persians paid tribute to Assyria from the 10th century BC until the death of Ashurbanipal in 627 BC. After his death the Medes played a major role in the destruction of the weakened Assyrian Empire in 612 BC.
The rise of the Achaemenids in the 6th century BC brought an end to the existence of Elam as an independent political power "but not as a cultural entity" (Encyclopædia Iranica, Columbia University). Indigenous Elamite traditions, such as the use of the title "king of Anshan" by Cyrus the Great; the "Elamite robe" worn by Cambyses I of Anshan and seen on the famous winged genii at Pasargadae; some glyptic styles; the use of Elamite as the first of three official languages of the empire used in thousands of administrative texts found at Darius’ city of Persepolis; the continued worship of Elamite deities; and the persistence of Elamite religious personnel and cults supported by the crown, formed an essential part of the newly emerging Achaemenid culture in Persian Iran. The Elamites thus became the conduit by which achievements of the Mesopotamian civilizations were introduced to the tribes of the Iranian plateau.
Conversely, remnants of Elamite had "absorbed Iranian influences in both structure and vocabulary" by 500 BC, suggesting a form of cultural continuity or fusion connecting the Elamite and the Persian periods.
The name of "Elam" survived into the Hellenistic period and beyond. In its Greek form, Elymais, it emerges as designating a semi-independent state under Parthian suzerainty during the 2nd century BC to the early 3rd century AD. In Acts 2:8-9 in the New Testament, the language of the Elamitēs is one of the languages heard at the Pentecost. From 410 onwards Elam (Beth Huzaye) was the senior metropolitan province of the Church of the East, surviving into the 14th century.
At times, Elam was matriarchal society, thus women leading over men and all society. In general, women's rights in Mesopotamia were not equal to those of men . But in early periods women were free to go out to the marketplaces, buy and sell, attend to legal matters for their absent men, own their own property, borrow and lend, and engage in business for themselves. High status women, such as priestesses and members of royal families, might learn to read and write and be given considerable administrative authority. Numerous powerful goddesses were worshiped; in some city states they were the primary deities . Women's position varied between city-states and changed over time. There was an enormous gap between the rights of high and low status women (almost half the population in the late Babylonian period were slaves), and female power and freedom sharply diminished during the Assyrian era. The first evidence of laws requiring the public veiling of elite women come from this period .
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