Introducing Chogha Zanbil

Chogha Zanbil

The geographical coordinate for the site of Tchogha Zanbil is 3544110m N, 39 S 265895m E, and it is located in the Khuzestan Plain, 30 km southeast of Susa. The name “Tchogha Zanbil,” meaning basket mound, had been adopted because the highest and the most prominent remnant of the site, i.e. the ziggurat, used to be in the form of a large mound like a reversed basket on the ground before excavations. As a matter of fact, the site of Tchogha Zanbil is an Elamite city with 100 hectares of area.

Figure 1: Aerial photo of Dūr Untaš, by Mehrdad Misahgian

Elam is the name of an ancient civilization covering an area of the west, southwest and south of Iran in about 2900 to 646 B.C.E. This civilization consisted of minor kingdoms in two completely different natural settings—highlands and lowlands of the Zagros Ranges. In each period of time, one of these kingdoms (or local rulers) came to power. The Elamite kings mostly adopted the title “king of Anshan and Susa.” The two cities were important Elamite centers, one (Anshan) in the highlands and the other (Susa) in the lowlands. Archaeologists divide the Elamite civilization era into three periods: the Old Elamite period, the Middle Elamite period, and the Neo-Elamite period. Tchogha Zanbil was founded in the Middle Elamite period.  

Figure 2: The realm of Elamite culture (image from Wikipedia)

When in existence, the city was known as “Āl Untaš dNapiriša” in Elamite and “Dūr Untaš” in Akkadian. This city was founded by the order of Untaš dNapiriša, a mighty Elamite ruler; hence, it was called Āl Untaš or Untaš palace. The city reached a boom in constructions over the twenty years of Untaš dNapiriša’s reign from 1320 to 1300 B.C.E. Although the city slowed down in burgeoning after Untaš dNapiriša’s death, it still remained a place of building non-royal constructions and religious pilgrimage.  

Figure 3: A view of religious parts of Dūr Untaš, by Mehrdad Misaghian

Āl Untaš is both a royal and a religious city; the royalty is implied by palace remains belonging to the Elamite notables, and the religiousness is shown through various temples built for different Elamite gods. Untaš dNapiriša had ordered to build temples for gods of both highland and lowland residents. That said, the main temple of the city, which is the very ziggurat, was appropriated for worshipping Inšušinak (the major god for the people of Khuzestan Plain) and Napiriša (the major god for people of the highlands). Therefore, many archaeologists believe that Untaš dNapiriša intended to provide alliance between the people of the highlands and those of the lowlands. 

Figure 4: A piece of an inscribed brick from Dūr Untaš

The city has three concentric walls and between each two walls are specialized spaces as well as particular constructions. According to the results of the archaeological excavations so far, there is a royal quarter with palaces, a magnificent gate, and a temple in a part of the space between the outer and the middle walls. Within the middle and the inner wall is the temenos or the sacred quarter in which temples were built for different gods. Inside the inner wall is the ziggurat, the highest and the most distinct building in the city. There are elaborate architectural elements such as podia, vaults, brick paving, and other temples in the ziggurat’s courtyard. Moreover, water disposal system in both the building and the entire city displays architectural ingenuity and urban design in Tchogha Zanbil.   

Figure 5: Sunset at Tchogha Zanbil, by Mehrdad Misaghian