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Susa, the eternal city of the East

By H. G. Spearing

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 defense 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.

The ancient Elamite copmlex of Choga-Zanbil in the Khuzestan Province is among a few extant ziggurats outside of Mesopotamia

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." 

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 the Great 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. 

Susa Woman Spinning Yarn, One of the oldest Susa artifact carvings

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 archaeologist, 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 center 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. 

Winged sphinx from the palace of Darius the Great at Susa.

There are other indications that the earliest colonists of Susa were well civilized before they left that unknown parent country, for in their 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. 


The artistic tribe that founded Susa had probably 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. 

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 colored glazing are still visible on the blocks of which they are composed. The art of making enameled 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. 

Ashurbanipal's brutal campaign against Susa in 647 BCE is recorded in this relief. Flames rise from the city as Assyrian soldiers topple it with pickaxes and crowbars and carry off the spoils.

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. 

It is not quite clear why Cyrus the Great 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. 

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

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."

The book Wonders of the Past authored by J.A Hammerton, Vol. II (p. 697-704))


... Payvand News - 01/27/12 ... --

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