Assyrians obliterated the troublesome kingdom in present-day Iran.
Twenty-first century Iran exasperates its neighbors and defies the world’s major powers with its outrageous and often belligerent behavior. Yet over 2,600 years ago the ancient kingdom of Elam, located in present-day south- western Iran, acted in much the same way – until the ruler of that era’s greatest power, Assyria, had finally had enough.
In the mid-seventh century B.C., King Ashurbanipal ruled the powerful Assyrian empire from its capital at Nineveh (near Mosul in present-day northern Iraq) that dominated the ancient Middle East from the Caucasus Mountains in the north to Egypt, Nubia and Arabia in the south. Even once-great Babylonia had become an Assyrian vassal. Powerful Assyria, therefore, could be pushed only so far. In 645 B.C., Ashurbanipal decided to put a stop to the smaller kingdom’s provocations – he was ready to go for the kill.
Elam, whose capital was Susa (Shush in present-day Iran), bordered Babylonia in the east and extended down the Persian Gulf’s eastern shore. It had once been an ancient rival of the region’s kingdoms – and had sacked their cities on more than one occasion – but it had declined in power to become, like Babylonia, an Assyrian vassal. Yet the troublesome Elamites could not resist provoking powerful Assyria by meddling in Babylonia.
Previously, Elam and Assyria had been at peace since Ashurbanipal’s grandfather Sennacherib defeated the Elamite army at the 691 B.C. Battle of Halule. In a grim description worthy of a George “Old Blood and Guts” Patton World War II speech, Sennacherib boasted of his victory: “The wheels of my chariot, which brings down the wicked and the evil, were bespattered with blood and filth. With the bodies of their warriors I filled the plain, like grass.” Ashurbanipal’s father, Esarhaddon, also had good relations with Elam during his reign, and the Assyrians even sent food to famine-ravaged Elam and harbored large numbers of its starving refugees. Thus it came as a surprise when the Elamite king Urtaku suddenly raided into Babylonia and besieged the great city of Babylon in 664 B.C.
Ashurbanipal originally had been satisfied merely to kill Urtaku in battle and drive out his army, but Elamite dynastic struggles generated another war. Urtaku’s brother Teumann succeeded Urtaku and purged the Elamite royal family, driving out 60 princes who sought safety in Ashurbanipal’s court. Teumann impudently demanded them back, Ashurbanipal refused, and Teumann rashly invaded Babylonia in 653 B.C. to force their return.
Elam’s foolish challenge soon prompted the era’s most deadly efficient killing machine, the Assyrian army, to swing into action. Ashurbanipal’s army quickly moved to cut off the Elamites’ communications, forcing Teumann’s hasty retreat. The decisive battle was fought at the Ulai River (modern-day Karun River) outside the Elamite capital, Susa. The overwhelming Assyrian victory cost Teumann his army – and his head – and Elam again submitted to Assyria. Ashurbanipal then passed the Elamite crown to Urtaku’s other brother, Ummanigash.
Ashurbanipal was a great scholar, but paradoxically he had a taste for cruelty. In his victory parade at Nineveh, his chariot, drawn by four captured Elamite princes, featured Teumann’s severed head dangling from its side. Ashurbanipal apparently relished the moment: A carved stone bas relief from his palace depicts the king relaxing over wine with his wife in a grape arbor while nearby the Elamite’s head is nailed to a tree.
For the next five years Assyria and Elam remained at peace; but then Elam again became entangled in Babylonian affairs, this time prompted by none other than Ashurbanipal’s older brother, Shamash-shum-ukin, the Assyrian-appointed king of Babylon. Shamash-shum-ukin – who had received the lesser throne of Babylonia while the younger Ashurbanipal received the main prize, king of Assyria – sought to supplant his brother on the Assyrian throne in Nineveh. To this end he ensnared Ummanigash in his plot to overthrow Ashurbanipal.
But while Ummanigash was campaigning in Babylonia, yet another brother, Tammaritu, seized the throne in Susa, compelling the Elamite army to scurry back to Elam. Tammaritu was as hostile to Assyria as his predecessor had been, although he too, was driven out by yet another usurper, Indabigash – who wisely realized that confronting Assyria was a losing proposition. Stripped of Elamite support, and with Ashurbanipal’s army besieging rebellious Babylon, a despairing Shamashshum-ukin burned himself to death in the flames of his own palace.
Within a few years, however, yet another usurper was placed on the Elamite throne. Ummanadalash, the latest figure to seize control of Elam, was part of the faction that sought war with Assyria. Ashurbanipal must have been as amazed at the apparent death wish of the exasperating Elamites as he was by the bewildering parade of usurpers scrambling over the throne in Susa. Finally, Ashurbanipal resolved to settle things with troublesome Elam once and for all.
In 645 B.C., Ashurbanipal decided that “obliteration” would produce the most lasting remedy. He chased Ummanadalash into the mountains and then leveled the Elamite capital. After grinding Susa into the dirt, he systematically obliterated all of Elam: “For a distance of a month and 25 days’ journey I devastated the provinces of Elam. Salt … I scattered over them. … The dust of Susa … and the rest of the cities I gathered together and took to Assyria. The noise of people, the tread of cattle and sheep, the glad shouts of rejoicing, I banished from its fields. Wild asses, gazelles and all kinds of beasts of the plain I caused to lie down among them, as if at home.”
Elam never recovered. Yet perhaps completely destroying this troublesome neighbor was not Ashurbanipal’s wisest course of action. Vigorous Iranian tribes from the north eventually flooded south and filled the void left by devastated Elam. Thus by obliterating Elam, Ashurbanipal removed a sometimes dangerous but nonetheless critical buffer between Assyria and the Iranians – who would ultimately triumph over the region and rule it for much of the next 2,600 years.
Peter Tsouras is the author of 26 books on military history. He served in the Army and Army Reserve and worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency until retiring in 2010 to devote himself to writing, his roses and his grandchildren.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Armchair General.