Susa: the Eternal City of the East
by
H. G. Spearing

This article provides information about the city of Susa, which was one of the capitals of the Persian Empire. At this time, all illustrations have been removed due to space issues. Page markers have been added to the text at the start of each page, and indexed with HTML anchors to allow students to reference the text, and to assist in text searches. Gaps in page numbers is due to some pages which are entirely pictures.

Spearing, H. G. "Susa: the Eternal City of the East". Wonders of the Past. Edited by Sir J. A. Hammerton. Vol. II. New York: Wise and Co., 1937. (p. 697-704)
The author also wrote "The Childhood of Art".


Text of the article

(Page 697) Some six or seven thousand years ago a tribe, whose name is still unknown, speaking a language of which we have no definite record, and coming from a region which has not yet been identified, wandered through the mountains with women and children until they came to an extensive plain not far from the head of the Persian Gulf. There they found numerous hillocks rising a few feet above the general level, thus affording good positions of defence against other tribes or wild animals from the surrounding gloomy forests. On some of these hillocks they fixed their homes, and on one especially well-situated mound they built a town and surrounded it with a substantial wall of unbaked bricks. From these humble beginnings arose the city of Susa - the Shushan of the Bible - a city which has a place among the very oldest in the world, for it flourished, with many strange vicissitudes, from about 4000 B.C. until about A.D. 650.

Far older than Rome, already hoary-headed when Babylon was still quite young, contemporary with Egyptian cities that disappeared before the time of Christ, it might well have claimed the title of "Eternal" if some fanatical followers of Mahomet had not illustrated the Christian saying: "Here we have no abiding city," by suddenly putting an end to its existence.

It may seem strange that one can write with confidence about a city which has been dead for nearly thirteen hundred years, but this confidence is due to the results of the modern methods of research which have been applied with such success to the huge mound that grew up on that lowly hillock until it towered some 80 or 90 feet above the plain and formed a fitting site for the fortresses of Cyrus and the Palace of Ahasuerus.

The older methods of research, even in the nineteenth century, were based chiefly on the desire to obtain interesting specimens for collectors of "curios"; sometimes even the keepers of museums, who ought to have known better, would encourage the spoliation of historical sites by ignorant fossickers, paying high prices for untabulated relics which were as useless for throwing light on the past history of those sites as isolated words, torn out of an ancient book, would be for throwing light on the literary achievements of its period.

But now it is generally recognized that the position and surrounding objects of any valuable specimens are just as important as the relics themselves, therefore detailed plans and records are kept and the deposits carefully sifted so that every scrap of evidence may be preserved; for the trained archeologist, like the detective of the novelist, will find important clues in apparently trivial objects. Among those trivial objects the highest place is now generally given to broken bits of pottery - they need not necessarily be broken, but an unbroken vase is rare, and however valuable it might be as a museum specimen, one vase might be like the proverbial swallow.

It is chiefly by the many thousand broken pieces of pottery found in the lowest deposits of the Susa mound that the story has been built up, bit by bit, of these unknown immigrants from an unknown land; something like the reconstruction of the unseen, lame, half-blind camel in "The Arabian Nights." This pottery is wonderfully hard and thin, not much thicker than a couple of postcards, and it rings like porcelain, though it is not so transparent. The forms are simple and graceful; they were produced on a rudimentary potter's wheel, used with a skill that was probably due to the inherited experience of many generations of craftsmen. Nearly all the bowls and vases were elaborately decorated either inside or outside with strange designs, most of which have no similarity with any designs found in other parts of the world, so that we have no due to the country where these potters learned their art, though we can be fairly sure that they brought it from some centre of civilization where it had been undergoing a long period of development. For it is now admitted that ornamental designs in all countries and in all ages are not the chance product of the craftsman's brain-they have a regular evolution from the simple to the complex, most of the simple designs being evidently based on natural forms of men or animals.

There are other indications that the earliest colonists of Susa were well civilized before they left that unknown parent country, for in their (Page 699) burial ground outside the city walls are found the bronze hatchets of the men, and the mirrors, the needles, and ointment vases of the women; there are also relics of delicate fabrics finely woven on a loom. The human remains in the graves have unfortunately been so crushed by the immense weight of the overlying deposits that have accumulated above them for forty centuries that it is impossible for ethnologists to decide whether they were members of the white, the black, or the yellow races. People became very interested over the finding of Tutankhamen's tomb, although its contents added relatively little to our knowledge of the origins or the development of civilization; how much more interesting would be the finding of the unknown home country of the colonists of Susa, the earliest artistic potters that have as yet given us an insight into the origins of their craft. There are no traces of inscriptions on any of their relics, so we cannot even guess what language they may have spoken. The community vanished as mysteriously as it arrived; a thick layer of charcoal and ashes being the only evidence of the catastrophe that overwhelmed them.

But the site continued to be occupied either by the survivors or by their supplanters, for fresh layers of unburnt bricks appear above the devastated town, and pottery of a coarser but somewhat similar type is found among these layers. Again and again at various levels are found other layers of charcoal and ashes testifying to the successive calamities that overtook the city, and a striking evidence of the energy of the mixed race that so continually rebuilt it. The long duration of the city may be due to the constant accession of fresh blood it received from surrounding nations, themselves not artistically deficient.

This energy made them very formidable to their neighbours, especially to those in the prosperous new cities that were growing up in the fertile plains of Chaldea. Eannatum, who ruled in the city of Lagash about five thousand years ago, and set up a monument recording his punitive raid on Susa, describes it as "the mountain that strikes terror." This is the first written mention we have of that already ancient city, but an earlier tradition about it has reached us through that wonderful "Epic of Gilgames" (Gilgamesh) the national hero of Chaldea. He is said to have attacked and slain Khumbaba, the King of Susa, shortly after the deluge! But here we enter the land of myth.

Many hundred years after Eannatum's time "Ur of the Chaldees" having acquired considerable power, annexed Susa, together with the surrounding country, called Elam, but in the course of another hundred years, Susa had regained its independence and conquered both Chaldea and Babylon. Art and literature do not seem to have flourished in this "terror-striking mountain." Its inhabitants were too much occupied in that constant vendetta of raids and retaliations that still exhaust the energies of the human race. Their raids extended to an almost incredible distance, even as far as Palestine, for in Genesis xiv., Chedorlaomer, king of Elam, is mentioned as having subdued Sodom and Gomorrah and kept Lot a prisoner until he was rescued by Abraham.

They seem, however, to have had a more peaceful time for a few centuries after their expulsion from Babylonia (about four thousand years ago) by the great Hammurabi, who thus restrained them from further "glorious adventures" into the west. They probably benefited also by the irruption of an upland peasant race, the Cassites, who apparently introduced the use of horses, for then for the first time we find the horse mentioned in history. By degrees the Cassites assumed the leading role in Elam, and also dominated Babylon. Under their rule the city of Susa must have become extraordinarily rich, for bronze casting flourished exceedingly. One of their kings, Ountash Gal, who reigned a couple of centuries before the Jewish exodus from Egypt, caused a life-sized statue of his queen to be cast by the "cire perdue" process - i.e., modelled on a coating of wax afterwards melted out. As a work of art it is quite good, and as a piece of workmanship it presents the problem: how could they have poured into that six-foot mould the many hundredweight of bronze required to fill it? The love of gold seems also to have entered their hearts, for a letter on a clay tablet has been found in Egypt begging the "heretic king," Akhnaton, to send more of that incorruptible but still corrupting metal.

The power of the Cassites would seem to have gradually dwindled until in 1185 B.C. an Elamite king put an end to their rule in Babylon and carried off to Susa that precious monument, the Stele of Hammurabi, inscribed with the code of laws compiled by him, an invaluable document for historians and Bible students. It is now in the Louvre, but a good facsimile of it is to be seen in the British Museum.

Comparatively few specimens of real Elamite art have been found in all those layers of sand and mud that continually raised Susa higher and higher above the buried city of the original founders. Though stone was plentiful and accessible, the inhabitants copied the building system of stoneless Babylonia. They used sun-dried bricks even for their temples, and did not ornament the walls with sculpture as the Assyrians did.

The artistic tribe that founded Susa had probably (Page 700) become submerged by a branch of that energetic and materialistic Semitic race that has at various times in the world's history poured out from Arabia like a lava flow, temporarily destroying the districts it flowed over, but ultimately often benefiting them by rendering them more fertile.

Perhaps that is the reason why the deposits of thc middle age of Susa have yielded so few treasures to the explorer's spade, and why most of those treasures are the products of foreign cities raided by the Elamites. One large sandstone monument was taken by them from some city, probably Akkad, in Chaldea. It must have been especially interesting to them because it commemorates a raid made against Susa fourteen hundred years previously by the redoubtable Semitic ruler of Akkad, Naram Sin. I fancy that a purely Semitic people would have "broken down the carved work thereof," and hewn it in pieces, but the Elamites preserved this memorial of their own defeat and kept it in such good condition that, in spite of its great age and of all its rough adventures and wanderings, it is now one of the best low-relief specimens of Babylonian art in the Louvre Museum.

Two large terra-cotta lions made about three thousand years ago to guard the entrance to a temple are a remarkable example of local art. They are much better than the larger but more stilted and conventional winged lions that pleased the Assyrians of a much later period and inspired in still later times the sculptors of Susa to carve those great mythical monsters in high relief at the entrance of the palace of their Persian rulers. Traces of finely coloured glazing are still visible on the blocks of which they are composed. The art of making enamelled tiles for architectural purposes seems to be in the blood of the Elamite population, for a specimen was found in the lowest deposits of Susa, and it is still one of the characteristic arts of Persia.

When further excavations have been made in these mounds sufficient relics may perhaps be found to fill up the great gaps in the history of Susa. It must have been a fairly flourishing city, for enormous amounts of building materials were carried up into it during those apparently uneventful centuries, so that the hills were raised to a height of 60 or 70 feet above the plain. Mention is often made in Assyrian and Babylonian records of the doings of the kings of Elam, and they seem to have been powerful enough occasionally to dominate Babylonia or to assist it in its constant struggles with Assyria. In the hope of neutralising such assistance Sennacherib constructed a fleet on the Euphrates and sent it across the head of the Persian Gulf to ravage Elam, but at the same time the Elamites raided Mesopotamia and took Sennacherib's son prisoner.

At last, in 640 B.C., Ashurbanipal, better known as Sardanapalus, who had completed the forging of the Assyrian nation into a vast military machine, decided to utilise it in suppressing Susa. His successes are recorded in the low reliefs for his palace at Nineveh and now ranged on the walls of the British Museum. The Assyrian character is well shown by those which depict him feasting with his queen in a garden where the head of the King of Elam dangles before them on one of the trees. In his inscriptions he boasts of the ruthless slaughter and devastation he wrought in Susa, but that sort of empire is not generally very durable; thirty years later Nineveh - the "nouveau riche" - was laid waste and desolate for ever, while ancient Susa after a brief interval recovered its prosperity and under the rule of Persian Cyrus attained still greater wealth and splendour than ever before.

It is not quite clear why Cyrus should have chosen Susa as a site for his fortress after it had been so cruelly devastated by the Assyians. Perhaps it was because of its position on the route from Persia to Mesopotamia and Asia Minor where he had recently obtained vast treasures by his victories over Babylon and Croesus, King of Lydia. Possibly it was also the chief depot of the north and south trade route between the Persian Gulf and the teeming regions round about the Caspian Sea. But in those days people were only dimly conscious of the power of commerce. Those who aimed at supremacy over their fellow men sought to gain it by the sword rather than by the more insidious forces of commercial intrigues and manoeuvres. The sword, however, had for many centuries become more and more dependent on gold for its motive power, and the innovation of stamping gold into small and easily recognizable pieces rendered this motive power more transferable, thus enabling ambitious men to make more extensive and permanent conquests. The gold had to be stored in safe and convenient places; it was probably this consideration that impelled Cyrus to make Susa one of the strongest and richest storehouses in the then known world.

His encircling wall may be traced out at a level some 70 feet higher than the encircling wall of the unknown "proto-Elamites" on the virgin hillock. His wall is substantial, but of very simple design; the scientific plan of fortification which Dieulafoy in 1890 described in his "Acropole de Suse" has not been confirmed by more thorough investigation. Explorers were then and are even now too often disposed to exaggerate the strangeness of their discoveries, just as newspaper reporters are disposed to lay unreasonable stress on the money value of objects found by these discoverers.

This castle of Susa is often mentioned in the Bible. The words actually used are "Shushan the Palace," but a note shows that it was also a castle. Cyrus must certainly have used it as a palace, but probably only in the winter when its climate is quite pleasant. In summer it is so hot that even scorpions were said to die if they attempted to cross a street during the noonday glare. Cyrus is reputed by Herodotus to have esteemed so highly the water of its river Choaspes that whenever he travelled he had cartloads of it carried in silver flagons for his use. He also took the precaution to have it boiled.

A more famous palace was the one erected by order of Darius when Susa was the centre of his vast empire stretching from the Indus to the Danube and the Nile.

It was probably in this palace that the great council was held by Xerxes to decide upon the invasion of Greece in order to crush that impudent little nation whose love of liberty was so incomprehensible to the Asiatic mind. In this palace, too, if we accept the identification of Ahasuerus as Xerxes, was laid the scene of the story of Esther. The details given there of the gorgeousness of the decorations have received indirect confirmation by the discoveries of Dieulafoy and others. The confirmation is indirect because it was found that the palace of Darius had been totally destroyed by fire. The extensive remains they succeeded in collecting were those of a palace built by Xerxes' son. The material was rich and the general impression must have been imposing, but it was a mongrel form of art -the uninspired elaboration by highly-paid craftsmen of the mean ideals of wealthy men who mistake luxury for beauty.

It foreshadows the early downfall of the once simpleminded Persian race whose chief ambition used to be to "ride well, shoot straight, and speak the truth." In less than a hundred and fifty years their empire was overthrown and a fresh adventurer, Alexander, pursuing the same ignoble ends of greed and domination, in his case tempered with a desire to extend Hellenic culture, drove their incapable emperor to exile and assassination in the remote province of Bactria.

Immense treasures were found by Alexander at Susa, if substances like gold and silver and purple dyes which minister only to luxury and ostentation can truly be called treasures. It is said that twenty thousand mules and ten thousand camels were required to transport that part of the booty which Alexander decided to take away. Yet on the break-up of his empire a few years later immense sums were still found at Susa by one numerous adventurers who scrambled for his inheritance. Thus again began the vicious circle. Jealousy and greed split up the powers that had organized and controlled so many varied and antagonistic nations. Then out of the chaos emerged a simple nomad folk, the Parthians, whose history is told elsewhere in this work, destined in the course of time to rule the western Asiatic world and to defy and defeat the fearful power of Rome. The history of Susa again becomes almost a blank, but it must have retained some of its former importance for in A.D. 1OO bronze coins were minted there and a new palace was built. Then the Roman Emperor Trajan avenged the death of Crassus and the defeat of Mark Antony by driving the Parthian king from Ctesiphon to Susa, for by this time the Parthians had become luxurious and their kings used golden thrones, tempting their enemies to overthrow them. Thus still went on the eternal see-saw of raids and retaliations. In A.D. 216 the Parthians defeated the Romans and made them pay two millions sterling.

Under the Parthian and their successors, the Sassanians, Susa seems to have lost its importance altogether, although it remained a flourishing city. It is possible further excavations may reveal the part it played in helping the Sassanians to defeat in A.D. 260 the Roman Emperor Valerian, but perhaps it had little share in these struggles. Although its own history had been a tempestuous one, it may in its old age have temporarily afforded an example for these cynics who say "happy are the people who have no history."


Copyright (c) 1996 by Bruce J. Butterfield

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