Susa is a very old city, ancient city.
It will be important in the Persian period. It will be important after that period.
For a very long time, a people called the Elamites¹, resided in Susa, and it was in the strata—where the Elamites were—that these archaeologists began to uncover some of the greatest treasures and antiquities in Near Eastern history, and they didn’t belong there.
They found, for example, the famous Stele of Hammurabi²—pronounced steel or steelie, take your pick.
Something that is huge. I mean it’s a giant 2-metres tall or something, heavy, big thing, and they find it there.
What is it doing there? That should be in Babylon.
Now, if you think this stele of Hammurabi is old, circa 1700s BCE or something like that, archaeologists then find something that’s a good deal older than that. It’s called the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin³. He was an Akkadian king from the 2200s BCE.
In other words, by the time they were making the Stele of Hammurabi, the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin was half-a-millennium old.
There were other antiquities that they found too, all of them from elsewhere. They were the spoils, the loot, the stuff that the Elamites took back with them when they sacked Babylon.
And in fact, you could tell, because somehow all of this stuff were on display, and below the original inscriptions in the original language explaining what this was, was an Elamite inscription explaining when it was taken from the Babylonians as loot and spoils, as a piece of memorabilia, commemorating a great victory.
I keep imagining a bunch of trophies in like your college, university or school trophy case, commemorating the victories over the eras over your school rivals.
“The Oaken Bucket,
The Apple Cup,
The Stele of Hammurabi.”
You know, that kind of thing…
By the way, it wasn’t just cultural artifacts that were taken. In the famous Elamite invasion that happened in the 1100s BCE, they took the god of Babylon with them. They took Marduk with them, the statue that represented the god.
This is one of my favourite things about ancient histories; this idea, sometimes, that these statues that represented the gods were somehow connected to the god him(-) or herself, and sometimes were.
I mean, there were some beliefs that they were the gods, so you’ll see, for example, the Assyrians, in a lot of their stone reliefs—when they are showing the conquest of some civilization or city—they’ve got the god that their soldiers are carrying away along with all of the loot.
It’s kind of symbolic when you think about it. It’s a sign: “Our god is stronger than your god. After all, we’ve got your god!”
In a lot of these Near Eastern civilizations, the historians wrote that you can’t re-establish some of these cities, until the god is returned.
In other words, when Babylon gets sacked and their god is taken away, they can’t do a big rebuilding thing until their god is brought back.
“We’ve got your god!”
I mean, talk about rubbing your nose in a defeat there.
I was trying to think about what the equivalent would be in the modern world. Certainly if somebody took over the United States—if the Elamites had done it—they would have The Statue of Liberty in their little museum there, with a little notation underneath:
“Taken from New York City after we crushed the Americans.”
I love the Elamites and would love to know more about them. They are one of those peoples that just not a lot is known about them, but what you can say for sure is that they were the great long-standing urban power in what is now modern-day Iran for thousands of years; the big contemporaries and the big power from that region that rivalled the Babylonians, Assyrians, and the Egyptians.
Nonetheless, you have a relatively stable geopolitical balance going on for a long time, even through the ups and downs, and then that world begins to be consciously destroyed, and that opens up the door to an instability where, you know, anything can happen, and shocking things did.
It starts with the absolute skyrocketing—by historical standards—of the military dominance of the Assyrians.
Now, you may be thinking we were just talking about the Medes a minute ago, and now we’ve shifted over to the Assyrians, and what does one have to do with the other? It’s their paths crossing that, sort of, set up the stage for the next period in Western Asian history.
The Medes will turn up to be one of a couple of Davids in this story who will take down Goliath.
In order to understand what a big deal that is, you need to understand, how big of a deal Goliath was.
In this story, the Assyrians are Goliath, and they were transformed in the 700s BCE from one of the great powers—sometimes the greatest of the great powers, sometimes not—into the regional superpower, and as far as these people were concerned, their region was the entire world.
This quick growth of an absolutely devastating new empire—in terms of its military abilities—would have made them the ones fighting the Greeks and the Spartans at Thermopylae had the Medes and their allies not been able to take down this Goliath.
I don’t think the Neo-Assyrian armies at their height would have beaten Alexander the Great and his Macedonians. I’m not sure, but I don’t think they would have. However, I think they would have crushed the Ancient Greeks of Athens and Sparta.
Hence, maybe if the pass of Thermopylae in the Greco-Persian Wars really was a war for “western civilization” as many in the west believe, these individuals should be thankful that there were people like the Medes to take down the people who I think would have been the-odds-on-favoured in any Vegas betting pool, to beat the Ancient Greeks in 480 BCE.
They weren’t around in 480 BCE, and part because of these people, the Medes, who in the 700s, when the story really heats up and gets strange, were a people on the periphery of the known universe—at the time.
To the Assyrians, the Medes are sort of the eastern edge of the known galaxy, and beyond those Median tribes, with all their petty little kinglets, are groups of half-human, half-monsters called the Umman Manda in Assyrian annals.
The Umman Manda, by the way, an Old Akkadian term that means the ‘horde from who knows where’.
It is believed that this refers to the nomadic peoples of the Steppe, the cultural forebears of the Huns⁷ and the Turks and the Mongols and all those peoples.
In fact, the Medes and the Persians, were supposedly have been able to speak to the Umman Manda without the use of translators.
How do you like to be related enough to a people known as the ‘horde from who knows where’, to be able to understand their language without anybody helping?
To be continued in the next episode.
¹ Elam was an ancient Pre-Iranian civilization centered in the far west and southwest of what is now modern-day Iran, stretching from the lowlands of what is now Khuzestan and Ilam Province as well as a small part of southern Iraq. Elamite states were among the leading political forces of the Ancient Near East. In classical literature, Elam was also known as Susiana, which is a name derived from its capital, Susa.
² The Code of Hammurabi is a well-preserved Babylonian code of law of ancient Mesopotamia, dated back to about 1754 BCE. It is one of the oldest deciphered writings of significant length in the world. The sixth Babylonian king, Hammurabi, enacted the code. A partial copy exists on a 2.25 metre (7.5 ft) stone stele. The code is inscribed in the Akkadian language, using cuneiform script carved into the stele.
³ The Victory Stele of Naram-Sin is a stele that dates to approximately 2254-2218 BCE, in the time of the Akkadian Empire. The relief measures six feet in height and was carved in pink limestone. It depicts the King Naram-Sin of Akkad leading the Akkadian army to victory over the mountain people, the Lullubi. The stele is unique in two regards. Most conquest depictions are shown horizontally, with the King being at the top-center. This stele depicts the victory in a diagonal fashion with the King still being at the top-center but where everyone else can look up to him. The second unique aspect of the piece is that Naram-Sin is shown wearing a bull-horned helmet or shown as the face of lion. Helmets of this type at the time when this stele was commissioned were only worn by the Gods. This stele is in essence telling the viewer that Naram-Sin is a victorious conqueror as a result of his divine status. But it also shows Naram-Sin gazing up toward two stars. Showing that although Naram-Sin is a god, a feat that was up to this point only achieved by deceased kings, he is still not the most powerful of gods.
⁴ Mitanni also called Hanigalbat in Assyrian or Naharin in Egyptian texts, was a Hurrian-speaking state in northern Syria and southeast Anatolia from c. 1500 to 1300 BCE. Mitanni came to be a regional power after the Hittite destruction of Amorite Babylon and a series of ineffectual Assyrian kings created a power vacuum in Mesopotamia. Mitanni succumbed to Hittite and later Assyrian attacks and was reduced to the status of a province of the Middle Assyrian Empire.
⁵ The Hittites were an Anatolian people who played an important role in establishing an empire centered on Hattusa in north-central Anatolia around 1600 BCE. This empire reached its height during the mid-14th century BCE under Suppiluliuma I, when it encompassed an area that included most of Anatolia as well as parts of the northern Levant and Upper Mesopotamia.
⁶ Urartu, centered around Lake Van in the Armenian Highlands. The kingdom rose to power in the mid-9th century BCE, but went into gradual decline and was eventually conquered by the Iranian Medes in the early 6th century BCE. The geopolitical region would re-emerge as Armenia shortly after. Being heirs to the Urartian realm, the earliest identifiable ancestors of the Armenians are the peoples of Urartu.
⁷ The Huns were a nomadic people who lived in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe, between the 4th and 6th century CE. According to European tradition, they were first reported living east of the Volga River, in an area that was part of Scythia at the time; the Huns’ arrival is associated with the migration westward of a Scythian people, the Alans. By 370 CE, the Huns had arrived on the Volga, and by 430 the Huns had established a vast, if short-lived, dominion in Europe.