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Encyclopedia Judaica (2007)

ELAM (Hebrew עילם or ‘eylam; Elamite halhatamti; Akkadian Elamtu), region on the edge of the southwestern part of the Iranian plateau, modern Khuzistan, including the river valley around Susa and the highlands beyond. In Elamite Elam may mean “the lord-country” but in Mesopotamian languages it was understood as “The Heights”. The word Elam probably derives from the Elamite, relying on a popular etymology in Akkadian relating it to elű or “high”. In classical sources it is referred to as Susiana from Susa (Hebrew שׁוּׁשָן or Shūshan), the capital of Elam.

History: Elam was closely connected with Mesopotamia, serving as a source of its raw materials -- wood -- stone and metals and as the route for precious metals and stones like lapis lazuli, the blue stone prized by the Mesopotamians, which were brought from as far away as Afghanistan. The Elamites also raided the valleys of the Diyala and the Tigris and according to the Sumerian King List, the Awan dynasty, the most ancient royal dynasty in Elam, ruled Sumer for a time. There is a poorly understood treaty between the Akkadian ruler Naram-Sin and an Elamite ruler from around 2200 B.C.E. In the 21st century B.C.E. the kings of the third dynasty of Ur in Mesopotamia annexed Elam and Susa became a seat of Sumerian governors.

At the beginning of the 19th century B.C.E. an independent Elamite royal dynasty reigned in Anshan in the uplands and Susa on the plain. Elam exerted a widespread influence and trading expeditions carried raw materials from Elam as far as Hazor in Canaan. In the middle of the 18th century B.C.E. Elam was consolidated under the rule of Kutir-Nahhunte I, whose reign coincided with the later years of Hammurapi of Babylon and with the reign of Hammurapi’s son, Samsu-iluna. From about this time on and throughout the whole period, Babylonian influence is evidenced by the use of Akkadian as the written language of economic and cultural life.

During this period three rulers held power in Elam at one and the same time: the highest ruler, called in Sumerian the “Grand Regent” (Sumerian sukkal-mah) and two others who were his sons, one ruling the highlands and the other the Susiana plain. The manner in which authority was divided among the three is not clear. But the rulers of Elam were members of one family and succession to the throne was matrilineal. The old idea that one of the rulers was a nephew should be discarded. One of the son’s mothers was the regent’s sister, indicating a way of keeping power within the family that to moderns looks incestuous but must not have been seen as incestuous to Elamites.

Almost nothing is known about the history of Elam during the 17th-15th centuries B.C.E. but it appears to have suffered greatly from the migrations of the peoples who descended upon the Babylonian plain from the Zagros mountains. Elam rose to prominence again at the beginning of the 13th century B.C.E. The most famous king of that period was Untash-napirisha who reigned during the first half of the 13th century and built his capital, Dur-Untash, the modern Choga Zanbil (“Basket Hill”), 25 miles (40 km) southeast of Susa. Here was found the best preserved ziggurat, or temple tower, in all of the ancient Near East, still 82 feet (25 metres) tall. The Elamite language and pantheon became more popular around Susa in the period. Untash-Napirisha honored both the lowland god Inshushinak and the highland god Napirisha in his temple complex.

The consolidation and rise of Elam in the 12th century B.C.E. coincided with the decline of Babylon during the rule of the last kings of the Kassite dynasty. The Elamites made several raids into Babylonia, plundered Sippar and its temples, and brought as booty to Susa royal monuments including the stele of the Code of Hammurapi now in the Louvre Museum. In 1159 B.C.E. the Elamites seized the city of Babylon itself and captured the statue of Marduk, its god, and snuffed out the long-lived Kassite dynasty. Elam’s military ascendancy ended however with the renewal of Babylonian power during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar I (1125–1104 B.C.E.) who defeated the Elamites, captured Susa, and brought the statue of Marduk back to Babylon.

The decline of Elam was rapid and there are no further records of its history until the eighth century B.C.E. During this, the last period of Elam’s history as an independent state, the Elamites joined forces with the Chaldean tribes in their wars against Sargon and Sennacherib, kings of Assyria, until their final defeat by Assurbanipal (669–627 B.C.E.), who devastated Elam. In a series of bloody battles (647–646 B.C.E.) the Assyrians razed most of the cities of Elam, especially Susa, deliberately desecrating its holy places and destroying the temple of Inshushinak.

There were attempts at the beginning of the Neo-Babylonian period to rebuild Elam but they were never totally successful. After the fall of the Assyrian Empire (612–610 B.C.E.) Elam was incorporated into the greater kingdom of Media; and after the defeat of Astyages, king of Media, by Cyrus, the Persian king, it became an integral part of his empire. Cyrus even called himself “King of Anshan” thus adopting the ancient title of the Elamite rulers. In the administrative division of the Persian Empire Elam became the satrapy of Uja -- Huja or Huvja (whence Huz in Middle Persian and modern Khuzistan). Susa was rebuilt with magnificent palaces and became a capital city of the Persian monarchs, second only to Persepolis. The Elamite language continued as the second language after Persian and equal with Akkadian in the royal inscriptions of the kings of Persia. The name Elam was still used in I Maccabees 6:1 (Elymais or ΕλνμαῒϚ -- attacked by Antiochus IV Epiphanes) and by Greek and Roman writers (Elamitai or Ὲλαμῖται in Acts 2:9).

Language: The Elamite language does not fall into any linguistic group known today. It can be divided into three strata: (1) Old Elamite (last quarter of the third millennium B.C.E.); (2) Middle Elamite (13th–7th century B.C.E.), the major stratum; and (3) Achaemenid Elamite (6th–4th century B.C.E.), known mainly from the bilingual and trilingual inscriptions of the Persian kings and archival texts from Persepolis.

Achaemenid Elamite was deciphered in the second half of the 19th century and since the beginning of the 20th century great progress has been made in the understanding of Middle Elamite. Nevertheless knowledge of the language remains imperfect; and particularly in the scantily documented older strata much is still obscure.

Scripts: The most ancient Elamite script is pictographic “Proto-Elamite” employed at the beginning of the third millennium B.C.E. which has not yet been deciphered. A linear script which developed from it in the second half of the third millennium B.C.E. is still being worked out. During the reign of the kings of Akkad (24th–23rd century B.C.E.) the ancient scripts of Elam were superseded by the Mesopotamian cuneiform writing, which, adapted to the needs of the Elamite language, was from then on the only one in which it was written.

In the Bible: Elam, located at the edge of the eastern border of the biblical world, is mentioned only a few times in the Bible. In the “Table of Nations” Elam is listed with the sons of Shem (Genesis 10:22) since from a geographic point of view it was apparently considered part of the Mesopotamian world. The odd narrative of Genesis 14 mentions Chedorlaomer, king of Elam -- sometimes identified with Kutir-Nahhunte (around 1750 B.C.E. or the later one around 1200) -- as head of an alliance with two other kings, those of Shinar and Goiim, meaning probably Babylonia and the Hittites.

In the “Prophecies Against the Nations” in Isaiah and Jeremiah, Elam is mentioned together with Media as one of the “Peoples of the North” who would destroy Babylon (Isaiah 21:2; Jeremiah 25:25). The only prophecy that may be related directly to a specific event in the history of Elam is Jeremiah 49:34–39, perhaps about Nebuchadnezzar’s encounter with Elam in his ninth year (596/5 B.C.E.). According to Ezra 4:9–10 Elamites were deported to Northern Israel in the aftermath of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal’s victory in the 640s and thus constituted part of the peoples Jews later regarded as Samaritan non-Jews. In Isaiah 11:11 Elam is seen as a place of exile, in Ezekiel 32:24 as a typical foreign nation and in Dan 8:2 as a site of a vision. Elam also appears as a personal name among returnees from exile but also as a clan of Benjamin in I Chronicles 8:24.

[Hayim Tadmor / Daniel C. Snell (2nd edition)]

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