Welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.
It’s impossible to tell the story of ancient Iraq without also touching on the history of their neighbours, including the people of ancient Iran. So today we talk about the Elamites. In particular, we focus on the kingdom of Elam in the first half of the first millennium BC—in shorthand “the Neo-Elamites”.
Much of what we know about the Neo-Elamite kingdom comes from external sources. For example, we learn about them from the annals of the Assyrian kings, narrating repeated military campaigns against them. But inevitably, that gives us only a partial impression of them.
Elamite studies is a small corner of an already small field. Today we talk to one of the few people in the world who is an expert in the Elamites. We look at what we do and don’t know, why that is, and what the prospects are for future studies.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge.
Hello, thank you for inviting me on this podcast.
Can you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Elynn Gorris, and I’m a scholar at the Oriental Institute of UC Louvain. As a specialist in Elamite Studies, I focus on the history of the Neo-Elamite kingdom, which is the last independent era of Elam, dating to the early to mid-first millennium BC. I think you can describe Elamite studies as a field of research balancing between assyriology and Iranian Studies.
Let’s start with the basics: who were the Elamites?
The Elamites are a people that lived between the fifth and the first millennium BC in the southwest of present day Iran. The ancient kingdom of Elam is thus the eastern neighbour of Mesopotamia. Its territory included the provinces of Khuzestan, Luristan, and Fars, which were all located in antiquity along the Persian Gulf coast. Geographically, Elam is divided into the lowlands and the highlands. The Susiana lowlands with the capital Susa is part of the Mesopotamian alluvial plain. From there, the Elamites intensified their contacts with the Mesopotamian culture from the third millennium BC onwards. The Sumerians who lived in southern Mesopotamia referred to Elam with the cuneiform signs NIM or NIM.KI, meaning literally “highlands”. So the Elamite highland culture was centred around the city Anshan in the Zagros mountains. And this region is better known in history as the area where the Persians settled in the mid-first millennium BC. So if you have Susa and Anshan, and the valleys in between are considered to be the Elamites heartland.
If we talk about the Elamites … if we have to give them a place in history … then the major cities Susa and Anshan, our archaeological evidence shows permanent settlement since the late fifth millennium BC. The first historical reference to the kingdom of Elam appears in an archaic Uruk text from around 3000 BC. During the second millennium BC, several powerful dynasties succeeded each other until the Shutrukid dynasty collapsed around 1100 BC. As for the Neo-Elamite kingdom, which is often called the darkest chapter of Elamite history, it is a period of about approximately 500 years, in which very limited indigenous source material appears. After the sack of Susa by the Assyrian ling Ashurbanipal, the political history of the late Neo-Elamite kingdom is hardly known. Most probably the Neo-Elamite kingdom was incorporated into the rising Achaemenid Empire under Darius the Great. The famous Bisitun inscription, for instance, provides an account on the final Elamite efforts in maintaining their independence.
You mentioned that we don’t have many Elamite texts. Can you explain about the Elamite language, the type of writing they use, what kinds of texts we do have?
Well, in the fourth millennium BC, the first indigenous script was created, which is not yet fully deciphered–the proto-Elamite writing system. At this point in research, we are still uncertain whether the proto-Elamite language is related to the Elamite language. The earliest Elamite texts date to the time of Naram-Sin, which is the 23rd century BC. The Elamite language continues to exist as an administrative and royal language under the Achaemenid rulers, after which it disappears from the written records. The Elamites spoke an isolated language, which means that the language cannot be related to any language we currently know. This isolated status in combination with the limited corpus of Elamite texts leaves us with many gaps in our knowledge, which makes the translations of Elamite texts often quite challenging.
As for the different genres of texts in Elamite, we have a wide variety of genres, such as administrative, economic, and religious texts, but also royal inscriptions on bricks and stelas, monumental rock inscriptions, letters, and omens. The Elamite language was written in cuneiform script, which was in the early texts similar to the Sumero-Akkadian script. But gradually, the script evolved independently from its Mesopotamian neighbour. And by the early first millennium BC, the majority of cuneiform signs look differently from their Akkadian cuneiform script.
What does the Elamite kingdom like at this time?
So our knowledge of the first millennium BC Elam, and especially our image of the Elamite domestic policy is primarily based on Assyrian sources. The problem with this information is that the Assyrians had plenty of contact with the Susiana lowlands, but not with the highlands. Consequently, there are many misconceptions on the Elamite government structure in the Assyrian sources. Unlike the Neo-Assyrian empire, the Neo-Elamite government system had a decentralised structure with a king as head of state. Why? Because the landscape and the people have forced the Elamite state to do so.
The ruler of Elam called himself King of Anshan and Susa, a title that actually betrays the dual identity of the kingdom. Anshan referred to the highlands of Fars, while Susa to the lowlands of Khuzestan, which were the core areas of the kingdom. The heavy snow on the Zagros mountain passes during the winter months, prevented the Elamite government to establish permanent communication between its two core regions. And therefore, the Elamite kingdom had this decentralised state structure in which local rulers and regional courts had a considerable amount of political, economic, and military power, in order to provide in specific needs of their own region.
One example is the Izeh plain, on the site of Kul-e Farah in the Izeh plain, we can actually admire a large rock inscription of a local ruler, Hanni, who commemorated his victory over several mountain people, for his overlord, the Elamite king, Shutruk-Nahhunte. Then you have the outskirts of the Elamite kingdom on the other hand, which were inhabited by tribal configurations such as the people of Zari, Zamin, Harran, and Samati. And due to their migratory way of life, these groups lived a relatively autonomous existence along the state borders of the Elamite kingdom. Individual feudal bonds between the numerous sheikhs and Elamite king outlined their commitments to the Elamite state.
What about their relationship with their neighbours?
During the Neo-Elamite period, Elamites generally operated together with their Neo-Babylonian allies in the shadows of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, with whom they were in the state of war during most parts of the early to mid-first millennium BC. The King of Anshan and Susa was always responsible for the foreign policy of the Elamite kingdom. He was the one that concluded bilateral agreements, treaties with neighbouring states, and decided to engage in military campaigns. And especially the Elamite-Mesopotamian borderlands, which is the area between the Tigris and the Zagros foothills, from there in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south. And these borderlands were an object of political aspirations for both Elam and Assyria, because the territorial supremacy over southern Mesopotamia and the Zagros foothills ultimately led to the control over the trade routes across the Persian Gulf and to Central Asia. For instance, the annals of Neo-Assyrian kings, the Assyrian palace reliefs, and archaeological surveys provide us with elaborate reports on the Assyrian military operations in this region.
Can you tell us more about these borderlands and the role they play in Elamite-Assyrian relations?
So during the first millennium BC, the border between Mesopotamia and Elam served as a buffer zone, drawing a line between the people of a mainly Semitic origin, and those with an Elamite and Indo-Iranian background. The people living in these borderlands during the first millennium BC, were actually a melting pot of Chaldean, Aramean, and Indo-Iranian tribes, who had an intense contact with Babylonian, Assyrian and Elamite inhabitants in this region. The interaction of the Near Eastern states–so Babylonia, Assyria, and Elam–with these tribal configurations and ethnic groups is perceived profoundly different on the two sides of the border.
The Assyrians controlled their nomadic and semi-sedentary population with repressive power. They tried to force them into their provincial system. While the Elamites on the other hand maintained vivid commercial tribute relations with mountain and the marshland dwellers based on a system which I would call sheep for grain. So it were the tribes that had actually most of the husbandry activities … conducted most of those husbandry activities, while the sedentary population in the Susiana valley was doing agricultural activities. So the exchange between their goods actually benefited both partners. So Elam really benefited from the relationship with these tribal and ethnic groups. In times of political tension between the Elamite kingdom and the Neo-Assyrian empire, the strategic position and the military capacity of these tribal configurations and ethnic groups in the borderlands was often crucial for the survival of the Elamite state. Since the Elamite king was largely depending on the loyalty of these ethnic rulers and tribal leaders to protect their territorial boundaries.
The foremost role of these sheikhs became guardians of the Elamite kingdom, and in this role their influence in the regional politics grew in time. For instance, when the Assyrian king Sennacherib launched a military campaign in these borderlands, the Elamite King would call upon a coalition of the willing. And under his leadership, the Elamite king formed a confederate army with tribal contingents that agreed to engage in battle. And depending on what the sheikhs were promised by either the Neo-Assyrian empire or by the Elamite king, they switched sides. So for that reason, we can call actually the Elamite king and his diplomatic staff, a master of tribal cherrypicking when it came to military strategy. And in return for these military services, sheikhs mastered the art of negotiating their own political and economic agenda, such as their tribute relations and economic advantages.
So Elam is a decentralised kingdom made up of highland and lowland regions with sheikhs holding local power. And in the borderlands, you have mixed populations passing back and forth between the control of different major powers. So what would be the basis of an “Elamite” identity?
Well, I think the main identity would be the language. Because these groups at the border spoke different languages. You can put it really roughly, you had the Aramean groups, you had the Chaldean groups, you had the Indo-Iranian groups. And still a contrast with really the Elamite group. I think identification in early to mid-first millennium Elam is based mostly on language.
How well do we understand where the places mentioned in the texts actually are and why is that important?
First of all, there are in the Akkadian as well as in the Elamite textual sources, there are hundreds of toponyms, especially along the Elamite-Mesopotamian border. But the location of the majority of these cities or towns are still contested or entirely unknown. Even the location of Madaktu and Idalu, the two most important political cities of the Elamites in the early to mid-first millennium BC, remains debated. The problem with not being able to identify these numerous borderland cities has actually an enormous impact on our historical knowledge. Since these borderlands were subject to territorial expansion for Elam, Assyria, and Babylonia, this region was reshaped into a battlefield from the eighth century BC onwards. And as a consequence of these many military campaigns between Assyria and the allied forces of Elam and Babylonia, the territorial boundaries shifted nearly after each confrontation. As well as the cities and people that lived in that region.
Aramean and Chaldean cities were often renamed after an Assyrian conquest. For instance, Dur-Abi-Hara was named Dur-Nabu or Samuna was renamed into Enlil-iqisha. So when the Babylonians regained control, the city was referred to by its original name again. And for some cities, we are aware of such a name change, but numerous other cases have probably escaped our attention. So therefore, it is highly possible that a toponym mentioned in a Babylonian text is referring to the same location as a different toponym in an Assyrian text. And to make the situation even more complicated, the Elamites had their own name-giving system for border region cities with a mixed Aramean-Babylonian-Elamite population. For instance, of the more than 100 Elamite toponyms mentioned in the Susa Acropole texts, most of which are located in the Susiana region and the border zone, only a few toponyms can be identified with the Akkadian variants. We have for instance, Samuna with Zamin, Dur-Abi-Hara with Hara, and Din-sharri with Dun-sunki. However, not being able to pinpoint the cities, even approximately, on a map prevents us to have an accurate knowledge on the Assyrian military campaigns against Elam. But also limits our knowledge on Elam’s administrative system and commercial ventures.
Another poorly investigated aspect of Elam’s historical geography is the location of the ancient coastline of the upper Gulf region. It’s a research topic that we share it with people focusing on southern Mesopotamia. So in antiquity, the Persian Gulf stretched far more inland as today. And as a result of this, the northern lagoon at the head of the Persian Gulf extended the Elamite coastline inland until the south of present day Luristan province. The coastline at the head of the Persian Gulf was constantly modified by geomorphological processes throughout centuries. And these geological changes impacted both the position of the river outlets, such as the Karun and the Tigris and Euphrates into the Persian Gulf, as well as the geographical position of the harbours. From the third millennium BC onwards, the harbours of southern Mesopotamia and the Susiana region were often subject to relocation and consequently, the names of these harbour towns also changed over time.
What we know about these harbours?
Ever since the Old Elamite period, a large number of textual records indicate that the Elamites were active in the Persian Gulf, and were actually part of an extensive commercial network, including the overseas trade with Mesopotamia and the Arabian peninsula, from the Elamite littoral to principle maritime routes in the Persian Gulf commercial network or the Liyan-Dilmun route and the Susiana-Sealand route. Although Elam has approximately a 200 kilometers long coastline, very little is known about the Elamite harbours.
Currently, the only excavated Elamite port is Liyan near the present day Bushire. From this port, Elamites conducted trade with Dilmun, Magan, and probably Mesopotamia. Based on our current information, we can hypothesize that this Elamite second millennium international port Liyan was still active in the early first millennium BC. And this southern Elamite harbour was probably a trans-shipment port for goods such as cotton coming from eastern Arabia. In the first millennium BC, there seems to be like a shift from the Liyan harbour in the south to the more northern Elamite harbours which were connecting the Elamite lowlands with the broader Persian Gulf network. The numerous attestations of southern Mesopotamian and Elamite moring places in the description of naval campaigns in the Neo-Assyrian annals provides sufficient evidence for the hypothesis that ships had navigated maritime routes between the Sealand in southern Mesopotamia and the Elamite Susiana region during the early to mid-first millennium BC.
However, we’re back to the same problem. Identifying these precise locations of the place names that we have within the historical landscape of the Elamite- Mesopotamian border regions remains quite challenging. We know that due to the difficulties seafaring ships encountered in docking at the Susiana littoral, these northern harbours must have been located inland at the mouth of the Karun river, providing ships with access to the waterways of the Elamite hinterlands. In this way harbours such as Nagitu and Mahmiti can consider to be like Elamite harbour towns on the Elamite coastline providing this access to the Elamite-Sealand maritime route. Remarkably, all these northern Elamite Gulf ports were located in Chaldean and Aramean territories. So in the Nagitu region, a group of Chaldean refugees from the Bit Yakin tribe had settled with the approval of the Elamite king. Nagitu raqqi was probably a sabkha in front of the Elamite coast, while Nagitu-di’bina was a fortified Aramean settlement under Neo-Elamite governance with harbour facilities. Which actually highlights again the role of the tribal and ethnic groups in the commercial and political history of Elam and the region.
Do you think we’ll eventually be able to match up the names with sites on the ground?
I’d like to believe that we can improve our understanding of the historical geography of Elam in time, with two strategies. Firstly, by intensifying the number of archaeological excavations in Luristan, Khuzestan, and Fars. And secondly, by improving collaborations between the academic disciplines conducting research in the region. Such as a joint research group of archaeologists, historians, linguists, geologists, and geographers, who are able to puzzle the historical pieces of information together. I think this is the only way to achieve this broader historical geography knowledge. And I think with the necessary financial input and political willingness, I am quite optimistic that in the next 20 years, the historical map of Elam will become more accurate, and our insights on Elamite geography will enhance considerably.
How can we follow your work?
For a general update on the history of the Neo-Elamite kingdom, you can always consult my recent book that is published in the Acta Iranica series of Peeters publishers. Further, you can follow my work from my publications that I regularly post on Academia. Outreach activities for a larger public are generally posted on the website of the Institute for Studies of Civilizations, Arts and, Letters at the Catholic University of Louvain.
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