The Ziggurat at Choga Zanbil
Let me tell you about a prehistoric site, a ziggurat called Choga Zanbil, for when I saw it, I was bowled over. I didn’t quite know what a ziggurat was – they are tall mounds with a temple on top — the origin of the ‘Tower of Babel’. But here was a splendid ziggurat, perfectly preserved, and laid out for inspection. It must be a restoration, I thought. It’s very cleverly done, but surely a bit over the top. How did they really know what it really looked like? But I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Choga Zanbil is genuine. The reason for its splendid state of preservation is that site was originally ‘destroyed’ in 646 BC by our old friend Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria, and as so often, destruction means preservation and realistic. Thanks Ashurbanipal for preserving this site so splendidly for us!
My second big mistake was that I promptly assumed that it must be a multiperiod site, built up as a tell over a long period and then clothed in mud brick to make it into a proper ziggurat. But, wrong again. It was all built by one person, the Elamite king Untash Napirisha. We know it was him because he left behind tile stamps and pottery plaques, glazed blue and green, over 6000 of them, with his name on them. I have been reading up on the Elamites: the Elamites were a powerful kingdom of the late Bronze Age, the second half of the second millennium BC — Middle Elam is 1500 to 1100 BC. They contemporaries of the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians and the Kassites, who were always warring with one another, but they were in the southern part of Mesopotamia, most in Iran, on the eastern side of the Tigris, and stretching up into the Iranian highlands.
But in the middle of the Middle Elamite period, around the 13th century BC, the King of Elam, Untash Napirisha, decided to build a new ritual centre, 20 miles south east of Susa. He was perhaps rather like Akhenaten in Egypt, who decided to move out of Thebes and build a new capital at Amarna, but whereas Akhenaten decided to worship just one god, Untash went to the other extreme, and became an enthusiastic god collector: he collected all the gods he could find, Elamite, Mesopotamian, local gods from Susa and built a temple to all of them; 52 shrines have so far been located, dedicated to 18 different deities. However when he died, Choga Zanbil was given up – there are few inscriptions from his successors, but it still remained a monument important enough to be destroyed by Ashurbanipal in 646 BC.
The ziggurat was built in five steps with a grand entrance to one side. The bottom two steps are well preserved with gateways, galleries and staircases, but it appears that at the top there were two small shrines. The site was built of mud bricks, held together by layers of mud mortar, with tree trunks used as dowels in places. It was faced with bricks in a blue and green glaze in the best Persian style, and in its heyday it must be even more magnificent than it is today.
But it was not just a temple. It was surrounded by a wide area bounded by a wall, which Ghirshman called the temenos, which contained a number of shrines where the major rituals took place. But I didn’t realise that outside there are two further huge enclosures. Indeed, the outermost perimeter wall is 4 km long and encloses 100 hectares: in it was a royal enclosure in which no less than five palaces have been detected. It was quite a substantial boom town, known as Dur Untash.
Between 1951 and 1961 it was excavated by Roman Ghirshman, a Russian-born archaeologist who became a Frenchman and spent his career excavating in Iran: he wrote the classic Penguin book on Iran, which I purchased soon after it was published in 1954, and I still have my yellowing copy. It was written before he had begun work on Choga Zanbil, but if you want to know what the Tower of Babel really looked like, come to Choga Zanbil.
Following our visit we had a most memorable lunch,
Return to the introduction to the history of Iran
or on to the Achaemenid (Iron Age) site of Ecbatana.