History Of A Nation: Elam (Part 1: Old Elamite Period)

c. 2700 BC – c. 1600 BC

It’s been a bit of a stop-whistle tour around the world, but we’re now back to the Middle East where this all began, and where we’ll probably stay for most of the next glut of posts, as civilisations that followed the Sumerian lead began to start to form their own systems of government and writing and take a leap forward into what could be considered a civilisation. And, a lot of the nations I’ve been covering recently have been very archaeological based with little to say about them aside from the standard ‘they made pottery that we’ve found and we know they existed’. I’m pleased we don’t have to do that with Elam, as while it was a bit of a sidelined state in the grand scheme of things in the Middle East at this time, it was still very relevant to the area throughout its history. But, in my desire to get more and more posts out of this, to go into even more detail, I am splitting Elam into Old, Middle and New like I have with Egypt. I could get away with doing millennia in Greece, because very little happens until the Mycaeneans start kicking around and even then the islands get off pretty free. Same in Vietnam as it’s even more isolated. But to do all of Elam in one, even if it is a relatively minor nation compared to the Akkadians and the Assyrians, would jump ahead in the history of the Middle East a bit too much for me. Also, my maps… I wouldn’t know what to put on them. So we’re going for the Old Elamites. Who would have called themselves the Haltamti, we call them Elam because we have more records from neighbouring Sumer and that’s how it is with historical records, we copy what we see more. The Elamite language is also supposed to be completely isolated so we have limited translation abilities with it. But documents from Old Elam are rather scarce so there won’t be much on them here. More on that in Middle Elam. Anyway….

Location and Structure

Elam was the first nation that came under a coherent government in the area of modern Iran, located on the Persian shores of the Persian Gulf, in modern day Khuzestan, the province in southwestern Iran. Less rivers than Sumer to take advantage of but they still have the river Karun, and it’s a good starting position for a civilisation nevertheless.

The nation is often held to have been based around the city of Susa, on the Western part of the territory. Sometimes it’s referred to not as Elam, but Susiana, indicating that Susa was rather synonymous with the Elamite nation. Which leads us to my next point, the other important city in Elam, at least the most important other city, Anshan, seen on the map there. Even from the beginning of Elam, texts we have found indicate that Anshan had quite a lot of autonomy as a city and wasn’t considered among the key territories under control of the Elamite king in Susa, perhaps even considered as being a separate kingdom from Elam. Allied to Elam, but potentially independent in its own right. That’s not a confirmed political situation but even with just the Old Elam period, that’s 900 years where a ruler of Anshan could consider themselves distinct a city from Elam. So it probably happened at one point or another.

Another explanation for that could be that Anshan was one of the Proto-Elamite states, along with Awan and Shimashki. These could form the basis for Elam being a collection of city-states, if you remember Sumer had Ur, Uruk and friends, this would be similar to that. Anshan then could have joined up with Elam in a union at a later date or remained more separate from the core Elam cities nearer to Susa throughout its history. Another strong possibility is that Awan had dominance over Elam in an early dynastic rule and control at one point or another passed to Anshan. There is a lot of potential for dynastic wrangling and the uncertainty of what happened is intriguing. To be. Stay awake guys.


We do have a king list for an ‘Awan dynasty’ for Old Elam found at Susa, but it’s not backed up by anything and the names are very uncertain. It was followed by a Shimashki dynasty where apparently the names are extant but with less certainty than Awan and I haven’t found any of them.

The earliest mention we have in the historical record for Elam as a state is when a king of Kish, one of the cities of neighbouring Sumer, Enmebaragesi (I consider myself to be a good speller but I hope I don’t have to say Enmebaragesi too many times) subdued them in a war just before the Gilgamesh epic. But then the king list also says he reigned 900 years, doing a Genesis 5 again, so depends on how much you want to trust that source saying one city conquered a large nearby group of peoples. We only get slightly more accurate Elamite history after the Akkadian empire starts in the 23rd century BC and Gilgamesh’s immortal Nephilim relatives are in the past.

There were three dynasties of Elam during the Old Period, the aforementioned Awan and Shimashki dynasties, and then an Eparti dynasty where the history becomes more scarce, even moreso than before. The Awan dynasty has many kings of little note, with names like Peli, Tata, Hita and Kikku-Siwe-Temti, and then the king Kutik-Inshushinak, who liberated Elam from the control of the Akkadian empire, who I still haven’t got to yet and really want to get to as soon as possible. Even with just doing Old Elam, we’re racing ahead in time. Anyway, Kutik, who was a successful conqueror and conquestor, perhaps the first of those we’ve really covered in my history series, waging war against the Akkads and managing to unite Elam into one kingdom. We have a lot of inscriptions from his reign so it’s fair to say we consider him the most important Old Elamite ruler. After his reign Elam goes through a period of turmoil as invading Guti nomads mess up the more civilized realms for a bit, not the last time this story would happen in history. The power of the Sumerians and the Akkadians was falling and newer powers would take their place but Elam kept chugging along as a more stable realm on the sidelines as the next couple of dynasties took their place.

The Eparti dynasty was around at the same time as the Old Assyrian Empire, where we know very little about what was going on in Elam, we have Mesopotamian peoples, whoever they were in the turmoil that was going on, being a thorn in the side of Susa, various military coalitions from the Elamites against the Sumerians, leading to quite a bit of power in that area from them, but eventually, in around 1760 BC, Hammurabi of Babylon drives out the Elamites and we go into a period where we hear nothing from this corner of Iran for a hundred or so years. And it is there that the timeline breaks, and we’ll pick this back up when we do Middle Elam.

Culture, Relations and Military

I will save most of culture for later Elamite posts as we know so little and most of it is more relevant to later Elamite periods. And military and technologically… obviously Old Elam were a nation with a keen interest in fighting, with neighbours with a keen interest in fighting over their portion of the hotly contested Mesopotamian valley, but I can only assume that most of it was fought with slings, spears, bows, and that they used pottery. At a GUESS. Again, more of it will come up with later periods.

They obviously had a close and volatile relationship with the Sumerian cities but it’s probable that there was large amounts of trade going on there too. Egypt and the Indus were further away but if those powers were trading with Sumer then they probably saw trade coming to Elam too, that would be a reasonable assumption, with little more interest from them than that. The other nations, Babylon, Assyria, Akkadia, that would begin their rise during the period of Old Elam seem to have regarded the Elamites as outsiders that generally are those to come into conflict with. Like with Sumer, there was probable trade but this is the first indication I’ve gotten of real inter-state rivalry and kings ousting other kings from important cities, I’m playing this up as much as I can.

Elam was a nation off to the side of the sphere of the Fertile Crescent, you can imagine them as a bit player in major politics of the region, but they had a distinctive culture and this would be only the beginning of their two-thousand year long civilisation.

Supporting Bibliography:

Alvarez-Mon, Javier, Garrison, Mark B, Elam And Persia (Eisenbrauns, 2011)


2 thoughts on “History Of A Nation: Elam (Part 1: Old Elamite Period)

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