TEHRAN, Iran — In Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province, history becomes a warm breeze over hills that hold thousands of years of human stories. Home to some of the country’s oldest heritage sites, the province is also a host to decaying structures, organizational looting and systematic neglect. To see this in vivid color, drive 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of the provincial capital Ahvaz to Susa — a city that for millennia played a significant role in the story of human civilization. But as civilizations rise and fall, there is as much to note in their descent as in their pinnacle.
Eight years of war have completely disheveled Susa’s aura. Previous residents have fled, migrants and war refugees from all over Khuzestan have settled in their place, and the city carries a daze that the scorn of its custodians only exasperates. One wonders if this really is the place written about in Sumerian records of southern Mesopotamia, the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Esther, and the city that was to play a prominent role in both the Elamite and proto-Elamite civilizations.
Roman Ghirshman, a Russian-French archaeologist, was the main specialist on the site between 1951 and 1962. He wrote, “The second millennium found a new national dynasty in Elam, whose kings styled themselves ‘divine messenger, father and king [of Anzan and Susa].' The goddess Shala and her consort Inshushinak were frequently invoked.” Popular legend has it that the site was discovered when the British were surveying the area for oil.
Susa was declared a world heritage site only earlier this year, but little has been done here to honor the status. Year after year, the complex is seeing the consequences of rain, wind and disdain. There is more. Susa was also a significant city after the Achaemenid period (founded in 550 B.C.). Iran’s most noted ancient palace is the one at Persepolis in Fars province, but less is known of Iran’s other hypostyle hall, Apadana, built in Susa by Achaemenid King Darius. Today, almost nothing of Apadana remains but broken rocks and capitals or bases of pillars thrown at random corners. Around this area, anyone can become a looter. Take a shovel and start digging, and you will eventually come across shattered pottery, “some which is thousands of years old,” remarked an official from the Susa Museum to Al-Monitor. “But we have no way of keeping people from taking what they dig,” he added. Some hills are marked with ribbon, indicating future excavations that never arrived, only helping those looking for bounty.
A city with history is a city with many layers. Also in Susa, within what is the current day city, is the tomb of the biblical prophet Daniel. There are numerous sites of burial claimed for him, but Susa is the most widely accepted and first mentioned in texts from the 12th century. The dome over his grave is built in an arching style — a conical structure with step-like etchings — and the burial chamber itself was in the basement, right above a flowing river. Elders still living in Khuzestan remember making their way down and listening to the sound of water by the tomb. None of that remains today. The deep basement has been filled, and the area around the tomb has been razed to make way for new construction. This is a recurring story across Iran: Only last year, a host of historic homes from the Zand period in Khuzestan were destroyed to construct a new addition to a mosque. When there is too much history, it seems, there is also indifference to it.
In "Walpole’s Memoirs of the East” (1800), William Ouseley describes the tomb of Daniel as “a most beautiful spot, washed by a clear running stream and shaded by planes and other trees of ample foliage.” Climate change and human activity have left none of those words relevant today.
Jane Dieulafoy, French archaeologist and excavator who toured Khuzestan in the late 1800s with her husband, Marcel, sent back artifacts she found at Susa, many of which are at the Louvre today. She described Apadana in detail and added, “According to my husband, the exterior facade of the palace was not facing north toward the Bakhtiari mountains; the view of the mountains was reserved for the King.” The Dieulafoys were to travel to Susa again with a 31,000-franc grant “for the acquisition of works of art destined for national museums.” Though invoking a woman looking down at her subjects, Jane’s chronicles of their journey is one of the only documents that describes a world untouched by European modernity, at its end.
While geography has not changed, the world has changed. Chogha Zanbil is another reminder of the past grandeur, and fall, of Khuzestan. It is a massive structure reminiscent of a step pyramid, called a “ziggurat,” and was built around 1300 B.C. to honor the god Inshushinak, where the name Susa (Shush) originates. The main complex is five stories tall and reaches as high as 52 meters (171 feet). There are temples for gods here, but a small town also surrounds the area. “This is their kitchen; this is a living space,” an archaeologist once working on the site told our group as we toured the grounds many years ago.
Khuzestan is the very epitome of how man and nature together can work to outdo even the grandest of civilizations. Man and nature are together a creature that builds, but will also demolish. The drying up of water resources, increasing temperatures, the scars of a long war and the callousness of custodians have turned vibrant civilization into barren lands. Assyrian King Ashurbanipal wrote in 647 B.C., after the conquest of Susa, “I destroyed the ziggurat of Susa. I smashed its shining copper horns.” But it is not only war, but also time, that is the greatest destroyer.
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