Elamite Empire: Art & Culture

Instructor: Joshua Sipper

Dr. Sipper holds a PhD in Education, a Master's of Education, and a Bachelor's in English. Most of his experience is in adult and post secondary education.

The ancient civilization of Elam, located in modern day Iran, was known for its sophisticated artwork as well as the establishment of a culture whose influence would continue throughout millennia and the major empires of Babylon and Medo Persia.

Elam and the Elamites

The Elamite culture began in modern day Iran sometime around 2700 BC and continued through 640 BC and included several dynastic lines. There's no certainty about where the Elamites originated, but there are clues from other sources including the Judeo-Christian Bible which places the Elamites as a Semitic culture that sprung from a descendant of Shem (one of Noah's 3 sons) named Elam. The Elamites were mentioned in the Bible in Ezra and Acts and the Kingdom of Elam is mentioned in Genesis, Nehemiah, Ezra, Jeremiah, Daniel, and I Chronicles. Regardless of the provenance of the Elamites, they occupied a long period of history in the Middle East and especially Persia. During this period, the Elamites maintained power through a strict system of accession and inheritance which allowed power to stay focussed within the Elamite mainstream culture.

The Elamite Empire covered a large swath of modern day Iran along the Persian Gulf.
Elamite Kingdom

Elamite Culture

Elamite Culture was arranged as many cultures are; around trade and resources. It was a patriarchal (led by men) society, reflecting the vast majority of surrounding civilizations. The area of Iran occupied for millennia by the Elamite Empire was a known trade hot spot. Located along the Persian Gulf with access to major shipping routes across land and sea, Elam was a mainstay in getting numerous resources wherever they needed to go throughout the Middle East and Asia. As a result, the people of Elam benefited from the riches, artwork, and resources of many different cultures and places. Therefore, the Elamite culture was one of great cosmopolitan wealth.


The location of Elam was also very rich agriculturally. This not only provided adequate nutrition and security to the Elamites, but a steady source of good for packaging and selling to other nations and people who traveled through and traded with the Elamites. The people of Elam also has a distinct language which modern translators have found difficult to translate. However, the culture itself seemed to follow similar patterns of other local Middle Eastern cultures. Marriages were generally polygamous with the practice of levirate marriage (the practice of a brother marrying his deceased brother's widow) at the forefront as a means by which to keep wealth centered within the family or tribe. Death also was culturally similar to other peoples as the dead were entombed, sometimes with representative statues that depicted the deceased person sleeping.


Religion was a central part of Elamite society as well. Each leader would usually integrate his preferred go or goddess within his reign. For instance, King Kutik Inshushinak made a huge temple and dedicated it to his god Inshushinak. These types of name similarities and building projects served a couple of purposes; first, it connected religion to the throne so that religion was under government sponsorship, and second, by establishing a temple for sacrifices, gathering, and festivals, the king could gain wealth and tribute from his people while providing them a peaceful and necessary spiritual outlet.

A cuneiform stone chronicling the tales of the god Inshushinak.

Elamite Artistry

As in any culture, art is at the center of Elam's significance and meaning. One of the most striking and consequently earliest symbols of art in Elamite history, was probably the destruction and deportation of the people of Ur. When the great city fell, not only did the Elamites deport the last king, they also took the statue of the goddess of the people of Ur (Ningal) with them. This served not only as a symbol of complete destruction and desertion by their own goddess, but the usurping of the very core of the religious structure of Ur.

The first image is the cuneiform for Nin which meant Lady and the second is for Gal which meant goddess. Together they represent Ningal, goddess of the people of Ur.

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