Elamite: Empire, Language & Warriors

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the ancient Middle Eastern empire of Elam. We discover its importance as an example of ancient cultural exchange and the impact of local politics, resources, and alliances.


Everybody has neighbors. Unlike your neighbors who might invite you over for a barbecue, in the ancient Middle East, neighboring civilizations were often invading each other for resources, while also imposing their own language and culture. It was a little different than your neighborhood block party: one, you're invited, two, you're not going to raid their pantry and try to convert them to your religion. But, the story of the rise and fall of one ancient civilization, Elam, is instructive of both the cultural exchange of the period, as well as the dynamics that drove ancient Middle East invasion and conquest.

The Elamite Kingdom, based in what is today the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan, rose to prominence around 2400 B.C. and lasted nearly two millennia before its total conquest by the Achaemenids (also known as the First Persian Empire) around 539 B.C. The Elamites possessed their own unique language, which has proved largely indecipherable for modern scholars, and therefore most of the information concerning the Elamite periods has been gathered from Mesopotamian sources (i.e., cuneiform writings and tablets). Despite the lack of information, scholars have largely broken up the Elamite empire into three periods: the Old, the Middle, and the Neo-Elamite.

Elamite Empire and environs

Old Elamite Period (circa 2400 B.C. - 1600 B.C.)

In the Old Elamite period, three different dynasties ruled over a roughly 800-year period: the Awan, the Simaski, and the Epartid. The first two dynasties were characterized by the Elamites' continuous invasions of Susa to the northwest, and attacks from the resource-hungry Mesopotamians, based in Ur, in modern-day Iraq. In 2004 B.C., the Elamites, in alliance with their rivals from Susa, conquered Ur to finally end the attacks.

Although early Awan and Simaski kings were at times successful in conquering Susa and setting up their royal household in the city, their reign over their neighbors was often short-lived. It was not until the two kingdoms' conquest of Ur was complete that Elam installed their kings in Susa.

The installation of Elamite kings in Susa (circa 1970 B.C.) and the annexation of Susa's territory has caused some confusion among scholars; some conflate the cultures and empires of Susa and Elam when they were actually very different. Susa and Elam possessed their own separate languages and theologies, and at first Elam did not impose its own culture upon the Susian people.

Middle Elamite Period (circa 1600 B.C. - 1100 B.C.)

The Middle Elamite period saw the empire at its most powerful, lording over its Susian neighbors with little possibility of Mesopotamian incursions from the west. The kings of this era adopted the title of 'King of Anshan and Susa,' which acknowledged Elam's original capital (Anshan) as more important than the capital of the former Susian kingdom, Susa. Elamite kings also began to impose Elamite customs and language upon the Susian people.

The implementation of Elamite customs is best exemplified by the creation of the Chogha Zanbil politico-religious complex. The entire complex, built in traditionally Susian territory, was dedicated to the Elamite gods and paid homage to Elamite kings of the Old Period.

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