top of page

Persian Relics - Louvre Museum

Updated: Apr 20, 2022

Many Persian relics are kept in museums across the world. Most of these were looted from Iran due to the negligence of past rulers.

The Louvre in Paris is one of the most famous museums of the world housing Persian artifacts. These artifacts attract many visitors every year.

The Louvre museum is Iran's second embassy in Paris, said its curator Henri Loyrette. Few French people travel to Iran; however they have been able to view Iran's cultural heritage via exhibitions and displays of ancient Persian artworks which have been regularly set up in the Louvre museum, Loyrette said.

Some of the Persian artifacts now in Louvre are outlined below:

1. Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylon The Code of Hammurabi is the emblem of the Mesopotamian civilization. This high basalt stele erected by the king of Babylon in 18th century BC is a work of art, history and literature, and the most complete legal compendium of antiquity, dating back to earlier than the biblical laws.

Carried there by a prince from the neighboring country of Elam in Iran in 12th century BC, the monument was exhibited on the Susa acropolis among other prestigious Mesopotamian masterpieces, reported.

This basalt stele was erected by King Hammurabi of Babylon (1792–1750 BC) probably at Sippar, city of the sun god Shamash, god of justice.

Other monuments of this type belonging to a similar tradition were placed in the towns of his kingdom. Two Sumerian legal documents drawn up by Ur-Namma, king of Ur (c. 2100 BC) and Lipit-Ishtar of Isin (c.1930 BC), precede the Code of Hammurabi.

The Hammurabi Code--the most important legal compendium of the ancient Near East--found its sources in these essays. The text, which occupies most of the stele, constitutes the raison d’être of the monument. The principal scene depicted shows the king receiving his investiture from Shamash.

Remarkable for its legal content, this work is also an exceptional source of information about the society, religion, economy and history of this period.

Content of the Code The text is written in cuneiform script and Akkadian language. It is divided into three parts:- A historical prologue relating the investiture of King Hammurabi in his role as “protector of the weak and oppressed”, and the formation of his empire and achievements; - A lyrical epilogue summing up his legal work and preparing its perpetuation in the future; - These two literary passages frame a text describing almost 300 laws and legal decisions governing daily life in the kingdom of Babylon.

The legal part of the text uses everyday language and is here simplified, for the king wanted it to be understood by all. However, the legal decisions are all constructed in the same manner: a phrase sets out a problem of law or social order; it is followed by a response in the future tense, in the form of the sanction for the guilty party or the settlement of a situation: “Should an individual do such and such a thing, such and such a thing will happen to him or her.”

Grouped together in chapters, the issues addressed cover criminal and civil laws. The principal subjects are family law, slavery and professional, commercial, agricultural and administrative law.

Economic measures set prices and salaries. The longest chapter concerns the family, which formed the basis of Babylonian society. It deals with engagement, marriage and divorce, children, adoption and inheritance, and the duties of children’s nurses. Every aspect of each case is addressed, enabling the greatest number of observations to be made.

The Code of Hammurabi is valuable first and foremost as a model, being a treatise on the exercise of judiciary power in the context of Mesopotamian science, in which the particular never governs the general.

The stele of the Babylonian king Hammurabi constitutes a summary of one of the most prestigious reigns of ancient Mesopotamia.

2. Kudurru of King Melishipak II Kudurrus (small steles recording royal gifts of land) first appeared during the Babylonian Kassite Dynasty. This example records a gift of land made by King Melishipak to his son Marduk-Apal-Iddina.

Such gifts were placed under the protection of the great deities of the Babylonian pantheon. Their emblems were carved on the kudurru to protect it from desecration.

After the fall of the first Babylonian Dynasty, following the golden age of Hammurabi’s reign, the kingdom gradually recovered under the foreign Kassite Dynasty.

The Kassites rapidly adopted the Babylonian language, customs and traditions. They introduced the use of small stone steles known as kudurrus, a tradition maintained by later dynasties until the 7th century BC.

Kudurrus were stone steles that were sculpted and carved with inscriptions recording gifts of land made by Babylonian rulers to members of their family or to high-ranking civil or religious dignitaries.

On this example, the text, which covers one whole side of the stone, records a major gift of land from the Kassite king, Melishipak, to his son, Marduk-Apal-Iddina, the future “shepherd of his country”. The ownership of the land came with a number of franchises.

Kudurrus were probably placed in temples, where they would be visible to both worshippers and gods. Three such kudurrus have been found during archeological excavations of temples. This particular kudurru, however, was found along with several others in the Iranian city of Susa, where it was taken several decades after the end of Melishipak’s reign by the Elamite King Shutruk-Nahhunte, whose victorious campaign in Babylonia led to the fall of the Kassite Dynasty.

Kudurru inscriptions are usually in two parts. The first describes the nature of the gift and the clauses attached to it. This is followed by an imprecation calling down a divine curse on anyone who opposed the gift. The gift was thus not only recorded and displayed for all to see, but also placed under divine protection. The emblem of each god invoked is represented on the stele.

Divine Order of the World This kudurru is remarkable in that in recording the royal gift, it represents the entire pantheon of gods who preserve the order of the world. The artist has used a formula that was later to be developed on other kudurrus, representing the symbols associated with each deity in hierarchical rows.

At the top of the stele are the astral deities, as if in the vault of the heavens. The crescent of Sin, the moon god, and the star set with the rays of Shamash, the sun god, flank the goddess Ishtar, represented by the planet Venus. They are accompanied by the sovereign gods who preserve the equilibrium of the world. The crowns with six rows of horns placed on the altars are the emblems of Anu, the sky god, and Enlil, the air god. They are followed by the ram’s head and the goatfish representing Ea, the god of fresh water, and the symbol of Ninhursag, the earth goddess.

On the row immediately underneath are the warrior gods, whose victories in battle protect the order of the world. Nergal, represented by a weapon mounted on a dragon’s back; Zababa, shown by a weapon with the head of a bird of prey; and Ninurta, depicted by a weapon with the head of a lion.

Just beneath them is the figure of Marduk, the demiurge and protector of Babylonia, represented by a pointed spade and a horned dragon. He is accompanied by Nabu, the god of scribes, represented by a tablet and calamus, and Gula, goddess of medicine, astride her dog.

The gods of earthly fertility are shown on the lowest level--the bolt of lightning and the bull of Adad, the god of storms; the lamp of Nushku, god of fire; the plow of Ningirsu, originally the god of farming; and the birds of Shuqamuna and Shumalia, the divine couple of the Kassite pantheon.

On the ground, ready to strike, are the snake and the scorpion, representing the Chtonian deities of the underworld.

The spatial ordering in rows represents the hierarchy of the deities and presents the Babylonian pantheon as a symbolic microcosm. The layout reflects both the divine ordering of the cosmos and the hierarchy of the pantheon.

3. Capital of Column From Palace of Darius I This colossal capital from one of the 36 monumental columns that supported the roof of the Apadana at Susa is evidence of an architectural tradition that is purely Iranian. It is typical of Achaemenid art in combining elements taken from different civilizations to form a coherent stylistic ensemble.

When Darius the Great succeeded Cyrus, he chose the city of Susa as the administrative capital of his unified empire. He undertook the construction of a palace complex on three natural terraces overlooking the city from the north.

There he built a royal palace in the Mesopotamian tradition, onto which opened a vast audience hall, in Persian called an Apadana. This was a hypostyle (columned) hall, 109 meters square.

The 36 columns of the hall stood 21 meters in height. Each consists of a square base inscribed with the name of the king, and a fluted shaft recalling the Ionian style, surmounted by three successive elements: a basket-like ensemble of palm-fronds borrowed from Egypt, an arrangement of double volutes with rosettes taken from the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, and above this the foreparts of two kneeling bulls, back to back.

The beam rested in the gap between the necks of the animals. This pair of bull protomes reproduces an old Mesopotamian motif symbolizing the cosmic equilibrium.

The capital in the Louvre was reconstructed from fragments of several columns, discovered by Marcel Dieulafoy during his excavations of 1884-86. It is this that explains the variations in the color of the stone. This is a veined gray limestone brought to the plain of Susa from the Zagros Mountains, rather than the traditional unbaked brick.

A Purely Iranian Style The Darius’s foundation charter for the city tells us that it was Greek and Lydian stonemasons who carved the Susa columns. The model they worked from was created by Persian architects, who deliberately--and most probably by royal command--combined several styles to demonstrate the unification of the different parts of the empire.

This capital is typical of Achaemenid art in combining elements taken from different civilizations to form, nonetheless, a coherent stylistic ensemble. Furthermore, the use of columns, although rare, was not unknown in the Iranian world: it can be seen in the buildings of Hassanlou in 9th century BC, and in Lorestan in the 8th.

It was collaboration with Greek architects that allowed this column-based architecture to reach such a point of development and make possible the construction of buildings on a hitherto unexampled scale.

Louvre Museum: Iranian Antiquities in the Collections

In 1793, when the Louvre Museum (Musée du Louvre) was created under the name of Central Museum of Arts (Musée Centrale des Arts), antiquities were exclusively represented by Greek and Roman sculptures. The items of Sassanid gold and silverware (which were not recognized as such) from the royal abbey of Saint Denis had been placed in the Medal Room of the National Library. That was where, among other things, the famous cup of Khosrow II was preserved. This cup had been traditionally attributed to Solomon and was said to have been sent to Charlemagne or to Charles the Bald.

The true nature of ancient Persian civilization was to be revealed in the 19th century thanks to archaeological explorations in which the Louvre Museum participated. The Department of Oriental Antiquities was created in 1881 as a separate section from the “Antiques” because of the discovery of Sumerian art at Tello. In the following year, the engineer Marcel Dieulafoy, (q.v.) was sent on a mission to Persia subsidized by the Administration of French Museums, which gave him the opportunity to explore the site of Susa. Two campaigns of excavation, in 1885 and 1886, led to locating the palace that the inscriptions in Old Persian referred to as the Apadāna (q.v.), built by Darius the Great or Darius I (q.v.) and restored by Artaxerxes II (q.v.) in the fourth century B.C.E. The work could not be carried on beyond a wall adorned with an enameled frieze representing lions, which had fallen on the ground of the adjoining courtyard. The other elements of the polychrome decor had been dismembered in antiquity and were discovered lying in a heap. After being sent to France, the bricks had disintegrated and had to be consolidated at great cost before the friezes could be assembled. These immediately became famous due to their featuring certain colors that had been lost elsewhere. They were exhibited on the first floor of the gallery south of the Colonnade built during the reign of Louis XIV. Displayed within this framework was the only capital which could be repaired, with its double protome of a bull above the voluted element, as at Persepolis. The two halves of the frieze of lions facing one another preceded it. The black and white archers have been identified as the Immortals mentioned by Herodotus. Above these friezes were merlon against a white background, “showing that this was an open-air decoration.” Dieulafoy also mentions that apart from an Elamite stela dating from the twelfth century B. C., there was a statue from the Parthian period that may be attributed to the art of the Elymaïde (Ir. Ant. XXXVI; 2001; p. 252, ill. 24).

What was known at the time was only the Iran of the Medes and the Persians, although the Assyrian texts had revealed the importance of the old kingdom of Elam that had preceded them. Iranian antiquities usually reached Europe by way of the Ottoman Empire and, as a result, the merchants assumed that they were of Armenian or Anatolian origin. The first of the bronzes of Luristan (q.v.) which arrived at the Louvre in 1893 after having been acquired in Tehran, is a curious “standard” consisting of a round of figures within a ring (AO 2397). Upon analyzing it, Léon Alexandre (1831-1922) and Heuzey, a great Hellenist, thought that “the movement is such as Greek art has given to the Gorgons” and, as a result, he recognized it as a work of the Parthian period. Shortly afterward, the first Luristan “idols” (AO 3075; 3086; 4720; 6267) were acquired and were considered to be “sceptre heads of a Cappadocian style,” although it was cautiously noted: “period and style to be clarified.” This took another thirty years.

Remarkable objects, which remained incomparable among the Louvre collections, were acquired during the late nineteenth century and, oddly enough, did not appear to have awakened any particular enthusiasm. This was because the prejudice regarding the pre-eminence of Greek art was strong and that scholars knew hardly anything about the Achaemenid art of jewelry. An expert on ancient art objects, Gaston Migeon, was unaware of the “Oxus Treasure,” which had been acquired by the British Museum shortly before this. He merely wrote a brief article in 1902 in the Revue des Arts, where he published the famous vase handle in gilt silver representing a winged ibex. This object belonged to the Tyszkiewicz Collection and was said to be of Armenian origin (AO 2748). Its base in the shape of a Silenus mask showed the influence of Greek art that had been well assimilated by the Iranian craftsman. In addition, a large rhyton in ribbed silver with a deer’s head, and a deep silver cup were acquired, apparently from a tomb in Erzerum. Their attribution (AO 3095 and 3094) to Persian art was confirmed by the similarity of the decor of the cup to that of the base of the Susa column found by Dieulafoy shortly before: the reference to field archaeology thus proved to be decisive.

At the time, the Susa excavations were greatly stimulated by the initiative of Jacques de Morgan (q.v. De Morgan, Jacques) who managed, through French diplomatic means, to obtain a monopoly for France with regard to “scientific” research throughout the Persian Empire territory. Morgan’s aim was twofold: first, to reveal the evidences of Elamite civilization, the importance of which was indirectly known by allusions from the Assyrians who destroyed Susa in 648 B.C.E. Second, to discover the very “origins” of eastern civilization, which Morgan assumed to have stemmed from Susiana. Consequently, Darius’s palace was considered as “low period” and the work was centered on the thirty-eight-meter-high Acropolis. To start with, however, there was the surprise discovery of a series of impressive examples of Babylonian civilization brought as war booty in the twelfth century B. C. by an Elamite conqueror. No immediate decision was taken about these findings but in 1900, Moẓaffar al-Din Shah signed a special treaty granting to France (q.v. see Délégations Archéologiques) all the antiquities that had been, or would be, discovered in Susiana. Thus, the Louvre was to function as the depository of a complete set of archaeological material, which was unprecedented among archaeological expeditions. The initial shipment in 1901 was of unique importance, containing the Code of Hammurabi, the victory stele of Naram-Sin and Elamite antiquities such as a large bronze table displaying the unique skill of the Elamite metalworkers of the time. These great monuments were appropriately displayed with those of Mesopotamia in an Assyrian room. A number of them also belonged to Elamite history, according to an inscription added by the conqueror who had brought them to Susa. New space had to be found at the Trémouille Pavillon, west of the Louvre counters display cases. Finally, contrary to the habits of those days, they had to refrain from exhibiting all of their finds. The Galérie de Delphes, under the seventeenth-century Colonnade, was devoted to archaeological material and reserved exclusively for archaeologists. This became or proved more indispensable, as more and more discoveries were made in the course of the following years. The originality of Elamite art was thus confirmed, with the enormous bronze statue of Queen Napir-Asu, the fragments of the stele of her royal spouse (later repaired), and the astonishing ex voto called sîtshamshi, which, oddly enough, suggests a Canaanite “high place.”

Above the level of these objects, one of the rare testimonies to the Achaemenid occupation of the Acropolis was discovered: the tomb of a prince, dating from the mid-fourth century on the evidence of Phoenician coins. It contained the only complete and truly remarkable treasure of jewelry that has so far come down to us. The large coil and the golden bracelets with colored inlays, the silver cup and the multiple necklaces in gold, carnelian and agate are masterpieces, though, for some odd reason, despised by J. de Morgan. According to the latter, “Achaemenid art, if this incoherent amalgam, which was favored at the court of Cyrus’s successors can by any means be qualified as art, was nothing but a mixture of Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek, Lycian, Cappadocian and Phrygian... These diverse elements were often associated with the worst taste.” (Mémoires de la Délégation en Perse, VIII; 1905, p. 46). Although the judgment may be wrong, the analysis was quite right.

Anxious to discover the origins of Susa, Morgan reached virgin soil in 1906 and thus discovered the pre-historic necropolis. This created a sensation with its elaborately decorated painted vases, the study of which was entrusted to the great specialist of Greek ceramics, E. Pottier (Mémoires ... XIII; 1912). J. de Morgan handed over the project to his disciple R. de Mecquenem, who continued exploring and expanding the excavation of Darius’s palace, of which Dieulafoy had merely recognized the columned hall called the Apādana, which resembled the one at Persepolis. Thus, the levels of the mud-brick dwellings were explored, revealing further elements of the decor in enameled brick. This called for a reconstruction of the displays installed at the Louvre. At the same time, just after World War I, the works were extended to the other tells of the vast Susan agglomerations termed “Royal City” and “Artisan’s City.” Thus, examples from all the periods of Elamite history were gradually sent to the Louvre and, beginning in 1928, divided with the Tehran Museum according to the new law concerning antiquities that had been promulgated in Iran under the Pahlavi dynasty.

From then on, the extension of archaeological research to the Iranian plateau, combined with the acquisition of scattered antiquities, made it necessary to re-organize the entire presentation of the collections. On the one hand, the opening of Iran to modernity inevitably led to the disaster of illicit excavations, which were almost unknown before then. On the other hand, this led to the appearance of the “Luristan bronzes,” which could hardly be ignored. The Louvre acquired a modest series of them that were representative in principle but still difficult to classify. In order to attempt a more precise approach towards understanding the archaeological history of the plateau, a mission from the Louvre museum, led by Georges Contenau and Roman Ghirshman (q.v.), set out in 1931-32 to explore Tepe Giyan, which had already been greatly disturbed by clandestine searchers. An institutional authority connected with archaeological research was, in this case, greatly acclaimed. This excavation was difficult, but it led to establishing provisionally “the succession of the ceramics (major witnesses of civilizations), of which similar ones were known at Susa, ... and at Sumer.” (M. Rutten, Guide des Antiquités Orientales, 1934, p. 83).

Clandestine excavators, still tolerated, discovered Tepe Sialk, near Kashan, much further to the east. Roman Ghirshman explored this new site in 1933, 1934 and 1938. The two cemeteries near the large prehistoric tell testified to the immigration of Iranians from the end of the second millennium. Very beautiful painted vases or gray lusterware of this period, which were already scattered among collections, thus found their relative place within history. The display at the Louvre of so many acquisitions called for a radical reorganization. This began in the thirties but was interrupted by World War II. Following the war, André Parrot took over from G. Contenau as Head Curator, while the latter remained honorary director of the Susa excavations, which were entrusted to R. Girshman. The work proceeded according to a better method until 1967, with the aim of establishing the precise stratigraphy of the periods called “late,” and finally Elamite, as immediately recognized by R. de Mecquenem. At the same time, the royal city founded by Untash Napirisha, i. e. Choḡa Zanbil, with its famous ziggurat, was being explored. As in previous years, half of the objects discovered, with the exception of unique pieces that remained in Iran, were sent to the Louvre annually. This, for the most part, consisted of material tending to illustrate the archaeological environment of the antiquities previously collected by early excavators. All of this material had to be distributed within the rooms preceding the ones where the vast enameled décor of Darius’s palace had been permanently reinstalled around the great capital, which had also been taken out of the old rooms on the first floor of the Colonnade.

Meanwhile a diplomat, J. Coiffard, had bought a considerable number of Luristan antiques that the Louvre was able to acquire from him in 1958. In this way, it became possible to illustrate the great periods of the civilization of nomadic metalworkers. These were, to begin with, Sumerians and early Babylonians, and from the end of the second millennium, contemporaries of the Iranians, who presumably had settled on the stratified sites of Tepe Giyan and Tepe Sialk. This was shown with reference to the Belgian excavations led by Louis Vanden Berghe. The “orphan antiquities” scattered around illicitly thus recovered their identity.

In the course of the thirty-odd years preceding the Islamic Revolution the foreign missions were exceptionally active, expanding their plundering of Luristan to the north-eastern provinces, especially Gilān, which was rich in easily found graveyards. From about 1955, the furnishings of these tombs revealed new aspects of an art that provided fresh questions by their novelty and needed a good scholar to sort them out. Edith Porada provided an example of a serious classification .In 1956, the Louvre acquired a large goblet in electrum (AO 20281), the décor of which showed similarities with those of Kassite Babylonia and the Mitannian. The village of Amlash temporarily lent its name to other examples from the same civilization. The great collector Mohsen Foroughi (q.v.) donated the characteristic bull-shaped vases, concerning which the Iranian archaeologist E. Negahban was soon to prove that Marlik was their site of archaeological reference.

At the same time, research was continued further east, towards the region bordering on Gorgān. That is how Jean Deshayes was able to send a fine series of gray luster-ceramic vases to the Louvre. These might appear as ancestors of the Marlik vase, which was more recent by several centuries after their demise at the end of the great period that may be called that of “Inter-Iranian exchanges.”

The extension of the area of research in central Iran, in Kermān and Sistān, was to reach modern borders in Afghanistan where the Soviets explored the urbanized sites of the Bronze Age, and in ancient Bactria. Immediately, clandestine thieves, who were completely tolerated, began to plunder the tombs of the nearby cemeteries and to offer the contents in the Kabul bazaar. V. Sarianidi was shrewd enough to take an interest in them, in order to complete the information he had gathered from his own excavations. Similarly, the Louvre did so to acquire a modest series to serve as reference before the material was all dispersed by the international antiquities trade. This highly varied material: “bronzes” (in fact arsenized copper), alabaster vases, etc., was found by the Iranian archaeologist ʿAli Ḥākemi to have affinities with Elamite civilization and similarities to what was then discovered at Šāhdād on the edge of the Lut desert. What could be acquired from the Louvre could lead to restoring the exchange network at the time when the law about dividing the antiquities discovered by the archaeological missions in Iran had been suspended.

As a result, the series of archaeological materials discovered at Susa by J. Perrot’s mission remained in place after Ghirshman’s departure. Those that had been previously sent to the Louvre have become the object of special interest, owing to the vicinity of complementary institutions: libraries, laboratories, etc. The prestigious antiquities and the materials for study were collected in 1993 in new areas of the “Grand Louvre,” i.e., in the northern wing of the “old Louvre,” thanks to the donors (R. and B. Sackler).

Although Susa, its vast plain extending eastward towards Mesopotamia, may appear marginal within the whole of the Iranian highlands, its rank as the capital of ancient Elam, the only historical entity before the Persian period, stands out as a major reference to illustrate Iranian history. That is why the relics from its founding period, or Susa I, at the end of the fifth millennium, are exhibited near the most ancient mountainous sites. The earliest Susans were their close relatives, as testified by the strictly stylized art of the potters, featuring the ibex with its immense horns, as well as other animals, such as the panther.

However, in the mid-4th millennium, Susa joined the antithetical world of the proto-Sumerians of Uruk, the creators of writing and of an expressive art of an entirely new form of humanism, breaking with those stylizations that were current in prehistoric societies. This is expressed by a small, very delicate and indeed humorous statuary, contrasting with the elaborate repertoire of cylindrical seals affixed to bookkeeping documents. One of these seals bears the effigy of the potentate who might be defined as the “King-priest,” well known at Uruk and revealing the advent of an archaic but incontestable form of a potentially historical state. This second period of the history of Susa ended when the mountain dwellers, who came down from present-day Fars, seized power and created, in a preliminary way, the specific civilization that we call Proto-Elamite or “Susa III.” This civilization, with its script and a highly original art almost exclusively depicting animals, had two major centers: Susa on the plain, and Anshan, today’s Tal-e Maliān, in the highlands where it was difficult to lead an urban life. Hence, there was a return to nomadism, which defies archaeological investigation. At the same time, a network of inter-Iranian exchanges was already being formed. Susa, in the middle of the third millennium, was a small city of a Sumerian type with temples on its acropolis. Here the inhabitants perpetuated their presence as worshippers by statues exactly resembling those on exhibit in the Louvre’s Mesopotamian rooms but in an awkward, stylized form often suggesting “cubism.” The religious appurtenances were often made of artificially hardened resin. They consisted mainly of supports for offerings, which displayed their rough Elamite origins. This specifically Susan art may have been inspired by that of the carvers working in the soft green or black stone called chlorite, which was also used outside of Elam, in present-day Kerman. At the same time, the people of the Luristan Mountains created a rich metallurgy of early bronze, decorating their ceremonial weapons with figures in high relief. An example is a small war chariot placed on a mass of tubular arms, belonging to the David-Weill collection. Their painted vases resemble those of the Susans. This “second style,” as defined by the first excavators of Susa, was quite different from that of the period when the city was founded, although it was related to the most authentic mountain tradition. One such vase served as a small treasury or “hiding-place” containing bronze utensils and dishes, alabaster vases imported from eastern Iran, and Mesopotamian cylinder seals and tokens, testifying to the survival of the most archaic accounting system. Susa thus appears as well situated at the crossing place of roads linking the highlands with the lowlands.

After 2300 B. C., the Semitic emperors of Agade annexed Susiana, the administrative practices of which were adopted by the vassal princes. One of them paid homage to his suzerain by presenting to him a statue with his name inscribed on it. Finally, the prince of Susa, Puzur-Inshushinak, recovered his independence. He patronized an official art, while adopting a linear script adapted to his Elamite language, along with the cuneiform script recording that of his Semitic Akkadian subjects. Thus, the ethnic duality was clearly expressed, explaining Susiana’s alternate integration within the two antithetic and complementary worlds of Mesopotamia and the “Iranian” highlands. The statue of the great goddess enthroned on lions, (Sb 54) having thus been inscribed in both languages, still reflects a dependence on the characteristic art of the so-called Sumerian renaissance, at this period contemporary with the great Gudea of Lagash. Puzur-Inshushinak’s ambition was premature, for soon afterwards the kings of Ur, who built the temples of the Poliad couple, Inshushinak “Lord of Susa” and Ninhursag called “Susienne,” reconquered Susa. The builder, Shulgi, dedicated among other things a hammer decorated with birds’ heads similar to the ceremonial axes discovered as far away as Bactria. In the hinterland, the Elamite princes lived as seminomads. Combining their dynamism with the literary culture of the Susans, they initiated the royal Elamite tradition by assuming the title of “King of Anšān and Susa,” and later the imperial title of Sukkalmah. Their seals represented the god-patron of Elam enthroned on a coiled serpent and the queen dressed in a “crinoline.” In the early second millennium, bronzes must have been dedicated to the temples and later collected in funerary deposits. In these varying figures, Sumerian humanism alternated with Elamite austerity as shown in the effigy of the god seated in his chariot with a serpent decorating his tiara. The luxury dishes in bitumen mastic featured highly stylized animals in low and high relief.

Exchanges with far-away countries brought to Susa Egyptian and Levantine objects on the one hand, and objects from India and Oman on the other. At the same time, Elamite culture shone forth from Šāhdād, in central Iran, as far as Bactriana and Margiana. This is illustrated by composite statues of ladies dressed in the Elamite fashion, highly elaborate ceremonial axes, gold and silver dinner service, and metal seals. However, these civilizations beyond the twin kingdom of Elam disappeared in the seventeenth century, at the same time as did that of India. Yet, Susa continued to be a great city that even grew, and in the vaulted family tombs of the mid-second millennium, Mecquenem and Ghirshman found portraits of the dead in painted earth, of a sober realism, side by side with much furniture.

In the fourteenth century, a new dynasty under King Untash Napirisha sponsored an official art in the new city with its ziggurat at the top, decorated with enameled tiles. Steles and statues were later sent to Susa: the statue of Queen Napir-Asu and the table for offerings, masterpieces in bronze, as well as the high stele on which the king was shown at the top, facing his god, while the base was protected by entities composed of genies with fishes on the one hand and men with mouflons on the other.

In the 12th century, the Elamite conquerors brought to Susa the masterpieces of Babylonian sculpture, the effigy of the king of Elam being replaced by that of a vanquished Kassite on a stele (Sb 9). Royal effigies in enameled green and yellow brick decorated a temple, while ancient and contemporary mementoes, such as gold and silver statuettes, were collected in tombs that were probably royal.

At the same period, the gold and silver dishes from Marlik that are on view at the Louvre, together with vases in animal shape, showed the creativity of the Iron Age immigrants (without iron!), who lent their name to Iran. Some time later, the majority of the Luristan mountaineers returned to nomadism and resumed the tradition of decorated “bronzes,” which had ceased in the 17th century, having reached their peak between the 12th and 7th centuries. The Louvre collection provides a good idea of their art, which expresses a culture inherited from prehistoric times with the theme of “the master of animals,” while at the same time preparing for the advent of Mazdean ideology, as witnessed by the votive pins. In addition, at the same time, the old kingdom of Elam blossomed forth once more, even after the destruction of Susa by Assurbanipal in 648. The enameled dishes and the polychrome decoration of a temple revealing great technical mastery, testify to this fact. It was Darius I (522-486) who again made Susa a capital, a kind of twin city of Persepolis, replacing the deserted Anšān. The syncretism he sponsored in the architectural conception as well as in the decoration of his palace is illustrated at the Louvre by the friezes featuring symbolic archers of the Persian people and king upholding the nations of the empire, also shown in detail in the décor at Persepolis. The animals borrowed from the Assyro-Babylonian repertory were from then on devoid of mythological symbolism, but the lions with human heads connected with the winged disk may have had an astrological meaning. The Founding Charter of the palace, inscribed on a clay tablet and stone slabs, explains the imperial ideology of this décor by presenting the Persian Empire as a haven of universal peace.

Susa continued to be a great city after Alexander’s conquest, but it lost its rank as a capital. Its Hellenized population attracted excellent artists, as witnessed by the fragments of fine terracotta objects and sculptures. Here we notice how the rough Elymean mountain folks, who were hardly cultured, developed into superficially Hellenized Iranians. A royal bust in bronze and a ewer in gilded silver illustrate the Iranian reaction against Parthian philhellenism under the reign of the Sassanids, with its décor featuring a nude female dancer. This recalls the age-old tradition of terracotta figurines in popular art.

Brief History: Mesopotamia, Iran, and Anatolia

The Neolithic revolution began around 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Mountain tribes from the east and nomads from the Syro-Arabian desert occupied the fertile lands of Lower Mesopotamia. The earliest towns were established in the Proto-Urban period (3700-2900 BC), under local priest-kings. Writing evolved around 3300 BC, to meet the demands of an increasingly complex economy.

Settled civilizations were established on the Anatolian plateau from the 8th millennium BC. In the central region, brick houses, female idols, and other decorations at the site of Çatal Hüyük suggest a fertility cult similar to that of Hacilar, further to the west.

On the Iranian plateau, nomadic populations continued to live alongside large urban settlements. Susa, founded in 4200 BC, became a veritable political and religious metropolis. Nomadic gods (such as Napirisha and Kiririsha) were worshipped in addition to Susa's own deity, Inshushinak, the protector of crops and vegetation, and governor of the kingdom of the dead. The cultural duality of the ancient state of Elam (with two capitals and languages) was evident in its adoption of Mesopotamian writing, and its trade links throughout the plateau.

Further north, the nomads of Luristan were accomplished metalworkers who acted as intermediaries with Babylonia. In the 4th and 3rd millennia BC a trade route was established for precious stones (lapis lazuli and carnelian) from the Orient. Susa controlled their trade to Mesopotamia.

Society and the economy became increasingly organized and developed under the Early Sumerian dynasties (2900–2340 BC). Sumerian civilization began in the south of present-day Iraq, and its influence extended to the Iranian plateau and the Syrian interior.

For some three millennia Elam was the main rival to the Mesopotamian empires. Its history is marked by successive periods of subjugation and independence; it became part of the Akkad empire and, later, that of Ur (late 3rd–early 2nd millennia BC). Susa ravaged Babylonia in turn.

Large cities were established circa 3000 BC. In Byblos, the pharaohs of the early dynasties presented royal gifts to the "Lady of Byblos" in exchange for cedarwood—a tradition which persisted until the Persian empire.

During the Early Bronze Age, the territory of Anatolia was divided between small fortified principalities, rich from the trade in metals and metal ores. Towards the end of the 3rd millennium BC, central Anatolia (and in particular the site of Kultepe-Kanish in Cappodocia) enjoyed remarkable prosperity: western pottery was imported, complementing the brilliant local production.

Early in the 2nd millennium BC, Assyrian merchants established trading posts at the gates of indigenous cities such as Kanesh. These prospered for 200 years and ensured control of internal commerce and trade with Assur.

Throughout the 2nd millennium, the Egyptian pharaohs disputed over control of the Asian provinces with the Hittites, who were settled on the central Anatolian plateau. From 2500 to 2000 BC, the flourishing Greek palace civilization extended to the Levant (Crete, Cyprus, Egypt); the same period saw the development of alphabetic writing.

In the 2nd and 1st millennia BC, the Mesopotamian territories were divided into empires engaged in a constant struggle for supremacy: the Babylonians (under King Hammurabi of Babylon, in the 18th century BC), Assyria (Kings Sargon II, Sennacherib, and Assurbanipal built opulent palaces at Nimrud, Khorsabad, and Niniveh), and their powerful neighbors the Hittites and the Elamites (in the 2nd millennium), and the Medes and the Persians (in the 1st millennium). The kingdom of Susa laid waste to Babylonia in the 12th century BC. The Code of Hammurabi was among the spoils taken to Susa.

After the fall of the Hittite empire around 1200 BC the only political entities to survive until the Assyrian conquest (in the 8th century BC)  were the small Neo-Hittite kingdoms of Melidi, Karkemish, and Til Barsip, characterized by a monumental art combining Hittite traditions with Syro-Aramaic and Assyrian influences. The kingdom of Urartu was heavily influenced by its powerful Assyrian neighbor and rival until its destruction in the early 6th century BC by the Medes.

Following a political crisis around 1200 BC and the invasions of the Sea Peoples in Egypt, new kingdoms emerged in the 10th century BC: the kingdom of Israel, and the Phoenician and Aramaic kingdoms referred to in the Bible and the Assyrian Annals. The Phoenicians founded overseas colonies in Cyprus and Carthage, the cradle of the Punic civilization. The numerous northern, Indo-European-speaking tribes established throughout the territory were united during the 1st millennium BC under the domination of the Medes and, later, the Achaemenids of Persia (539–334 BC).

In 331 BC, Alexander scored his definitive triumph over the army of Darius III. Upon his death in 323 BC, the empire was divided among his generals, creating a group of stable monarchies characterized by a successful fusion of Near Eastern and Western cultures, which lasted until the advent of Islam. Territories east of the Euphrates and part of Syria were ruled by Seleucus I Nicator (321-281 BC), the founder of the Seleucid dynasty. Two powerful empires were centered on the territory of modern-day Iran: the Parthians and the Sasanians.

In the countries of the Levant, the peace that had lasted since the founding of the Persian empire and the arrival of the Greeks under Alexander and his successors, was a source of enduring prosperity. In the hinterland, extending towards Arabia, the inhabitants of the oases of Palmyra, Teima, and Yemen controlled the caravan trade between India and the Mediterranean. New ethnic, political, and religious groupings emerged, links were established between the Mediterranean and the Arabian interior, and Greco-Oriental culture was widely adopted, as witnessed by the monuments at Petra and Palmyra.

9 views0 comments
bottom of page