Know what a ziggurat is? It’s a stepped pyramid, right? They’re found all over the world. Well, Chogha Zanbil, in Khuzestan Province of southwest Iran, is one of the original ziggurats.
Style cues from Chogha Zanbil, and the other original ziggurats of the ancient Near East are thought to have influenced the newer, more famous stepped pyramids of the world, such as those found in Egypt, Mexico, Peru, and Sudan.
The original ziggurats weren’t just stepped pyramids, they were mountain-like structures with terraced sides and an upper platform containing a shrine. Access to the upper platform was usually restricted to high-priests and other important personages.
Ziggurats (the word comes from the Akkadian ziqqurat) are thought to have developed simultaneously across Mesopotamia and the neighbouring regions from as far back as 4000 BCE. This one, Chogha Zanbil, was built by the Elamites in roughly 1250 BCE.
Who were the Elamites?
The Elamites came into being around 3000 BCE – or, quite possibly, a millennium or more before this; it’s pretty hard to put a precise date on these things – and occupied what is now Khuzestan Province in Iran, as well as part of southeast Iraq. They were neighbours to the Babylonians, the Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Assyrians, and the Medes.
Ptolemy, the Egyptian geographer, called the kingdom of the Elamites Susiana, after their capital Susa (now Shush, in Iran). The Elamites thrived for thousands of years, but came undone after their capital was crushed in 646 BCE by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. A tablet discovered in Nineveh (Iraq) tells of the Elamite’s downfall through the words of the vindictive Assyrian king.
Susa, the great holy city, abode of their Gods, seat of their mysteries, I conquered. I entered its palaces, I opened their treasuries where silver and gold, goods and wealth were amassed … I destroyed the ziggurat of Susa. I smashed its shining copper horns. I reduced the temples of Elam to naught; their gods and goddesses I scattered to the winds. The tombs of their ancient and recent kings I devastated, I exposed to the sun, and I carried away their bones toward the land of Ashur. I devastated the provinces of Elam and on their lands I sowed salt.
Chogha Zanbil, also known as the city of Untash, was built for King Untash-Napirisha, and was dedicated to Inshushinak, the god of darkness and the underworld. The foundations of eleven small temples surround the ziggurat, these dedicated to gods of lower rank. Outside the ziggurat’s walls are the remains of a royal palace and several vaults believed to be tombs.
Chogha Zanbil was abandoned following the destruction of the Elamite culture in roughly 646 BCE. During the following centuries it became overgrown by vegetation – Iran was still densely forested at the time – and over time became covered by sands as the nation succumbed to desertification. Chogha Zanbil was lost to the world for the next 2,500 years.
It lay buried and forgotten until 1935 when stumbled upon by oil prospectors.
Being entombed in sand for so long has kept Chogha Zanbil in surprisingly good shape – the bottom half at least; the top half has eroded away. Today it is the best preserved Elamite structure in the world, and the best preserved of all the original ziggurats of the ancient Near East.
Chogha Zanbil is 35 kilometres from Shush, and 30km from Shushtar. It lies between the two cities on a barren highway with no public transport options. A taxi or private transportation is the only way to reach the site.