Chogha Zanbil: an Unfinished Elamite Site with a Unique Ziggurat
The ziggurat is arguably the most distinct architectural feature of the Mesopotamian civilization. Nevertheless, some of these structures have been found to exist outside the area once occupied by this ancient civilization. One of these ziggurats is located in Chogha Zanbil (meaning ‘basket mound’), near Susa in the Khuzestan province of modern day Iran.
Chogha Zanbil - A Sacred City for the Elamites
During ancient times, Chogha Zanbil was known as Dur Untaš, and may have been a sacred city of the Elamite Kingdom. It has been shown that the city was founded sometime around 1250 BC by the Elamite king, Untash-Napirisha to perhaps function as a religious capital. The main god honored at Chogha Zanbil was Inshushinak, one of the major deities of the Elamite pantheon. This is evidenced in the temple located in the centre of the enclosure that was dedicated to him. This temple, which was originally a square building, was later converted into a ziggurat. The temple remained as the first storey of this new structure. It is based on the presence of this ziggurat that Chogha Zanbil is speculated to have had some religious importance in the Elamite Kingdom.
God with golden hand, possibly Inshushinak, copper and gold, Susa, Iran (Wikimedia Commons)
The Unique Construction of the Chogha Zanbil Ziggurat
Unlike the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, the monument in Chogha Zanbil was not constructed by placing one storey on top of another. Rather, all five storeys of the Chogha Zanbil ziggurat rose from the ground. According to the archaeologists working at the site, the original temple dedicated to Inshushinak surrounded a square open courtyard. It was this open courtyard within the temple that made it possible for the ziggurat to be constructed in its unique manner. The archaeologists (led by Roman Ghirshman between 1951 and 1961) also reported that (when they measured it in the 1950s), the remains of the ziggurat measured around 25 meters (82 feet) in height. It was also speculated that the original ziggurat would have reached a height of almost 53 meters (174 feet). In addition, the archaeologists also measured the square base of the structure, which was 105 meters (344 feet) in length. Incidentally, the ancient site was discovered accidentally in 1935, 16 years before Ghirshman’s first season at the site, during an oil searching project by British Petroleum.
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It was also discovered that the ziggurat could be accessed via a flight of vaulted stairs which were invisible from the outside. Mesopotamian ziggurats, on the other hand, were equipped with three external staircases. Therefore, the flight of vaulted stairs was another feature that set the Chogha Zanbil apart from its Mesopotamian counterparts. In the 1950s, the flight of stairs led the archaeologists all the way up to the third storey of the structure, which was preserved in part. The last two storeys were already destroyed.
Staircase inside the Chogha Zanbil ziggurat (Wikimedia Commons)
The Unfinished City of Chogha Zanbil
While Inshushinak was the main god honored at Chogha Zanbil, other deities were worshipped there as well. For instance, there was a group of temples located on the north-western side of the ziggurat that was dedicated to minor deities. Other structures at the site included an oval wall that surrounded the ziggurat, and two more enclosures. The second enclosure surrounded a vast, almost empty zone, and the outermost enclosure was meant to protect the city from invaders. Three palaces and a temple were discovered in the area between the second and third enclosures. Interestingly, it seems that houses were never built in the city.
This may be attributed to the possibility that the ancient city was never quite finished, as Untash-Napirisha did not live long enough to see his work completed. The thousands of unused bricks left at the site may be taken as evidence that construction ceased following the king’s death. Nevertheless, the city remained as a pilgrimage site and a burial ground. The Assyrians recorded that their king, Ashurbanipal, destroyed the city in 646 BC. After the abandonment of the city, sands carried by flood waters covered the site.
In 1979, Chogha Zanbil became the one of the first Iranian sites to be listed as a World Heritage Site. One of the benefits of this delegation is funding received from the Japanese government for a two-phased conservation project of the site, which was completed in 2006.
Featured image: The Ziggurat at Chogha Zanbil (Wikimedia Commons)
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Available at: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/coga-zanbil
Ghirshman, R., 1955. The Ziggurat of Choga-Zanbil. Archaeology, 8(4), pp. 260-263.
Lendering, J., 2009. Dur Untaš (Choga Zanbil). [Online]
Available at: http://www.livius.org/cg-cm/choga_zanbil/choga_zanbil1.html
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Available at: http://www.unesco.emb-japan.go.jp/htm/chogazambil.htm
UNESCO, 2015. Tchogha Zanbil. [Online]
Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/113
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Available at: http://www.innovateus.net/innopedia/what-history-chogha-zanbil