(7am-6pm, guarded 24hr) One of Iran's UNESCO World Heritage sites, Choqa Zanbil's magnificent brick ziggurat is the best surviving example of Elamite architecture anywhere. It stands 45 kilometres from Susa, on the road to Ahvaz. Even if you are not a fan of ancient ruins, the great bulk and splendid semi-desert isolation of Choqa Zanbil can't fail to impress. Although close access is prevented after 6pm, the ziggurat arguably looks most appealing after dusk when the golden floodlighting emphasises the structure's form better than the hazy desert daylight.
The ancient inhabitants of proto-Iran attached great religious importance to mountains. Where they had no mountains, they made their own. This was the origin of distinctive pyramidal, tiered temples known as ziggurats.
In 1330 BC, a change of dynasty in the Elamite kingdom marked the beginning of a new period of territorial expansion. In the XIII century BC, the king Untash-Napirisha (or Untash-Gal according to the old method of transcription) founded a religious capital, Dur Untash, on the road from Susa to Anshan, the main city of Elam. Choqa Zanbil's ziggurat was the raison d'etre of the town of Dur Untash. Dur Untash bloomed especially in the early XII century ВС when it had a large number of temples and priests.
At this period, the temple consisted only a vast square courtyard enclosed within walls. The ziggurat was built later when the king decided to dedicate the temple not just to Inshushinak, the god of Susa, but also to Napirisha, the god of Anshan. The original construction became the ground floor of the ziggurat and the upper four storeys were built one inside the other (rather than one on top of the other as was the case in Mesopotamia) until the entire surface of the old central courtyard was covered over. A small temple was erected at the summit. Today, the ziggurat stands only 25 metres tall but would have reached over 60 metres originally. Unlike the Mesopotamian ziggurats, which are squatter and have three outer staircases, this has only a single covered staircase, which is invisible from the outside.
On the northwest side of the ziggurat stood a group of temples dedicated to the secondary divinities (Ishnikarab and Kiririsha). An oval wall surrounded these temples and the ziggurat; a second larger wall enclosed yet more temples, and a third and final one protected the city of Al-Untash. It appears that houses were never actually built in the city, but a royal quarter has been identified in the southeast, which included residential buildings and a funerary palace equipped with vaults to hold the royal ashes. A nearby temple was dedicated to Nusku, the fire god.
Al-Untash was abandoned in the XII century BC when the Elamite kings moved to Susa, taking with them the treasures of Choqa Zanbil, which were to decorate the newly-restored temples of Susa. In 640 BC, Al-Untash was completely destroyed by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal a few years after his conquest of Susa and, incredibly, remained 'lost' for more than 2500 years.
Investigatory excavations were first carried out on the site in the 1930s by the Frenchman Roger de Mecquenem, and systematic excavations followed between 1951 and 1962, directed by Roman Ghirshman. In 1979, Choqa Zanbil became the first Iranian site to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The ziggurat, a pyramidal stepped temple, evolved from the early Sumerian temple platforms and became characteristic of Mesopotamia. Choqa Zanbil, however, is so far a unique example of this form of architecture in Elam. The ziggurat was dedicated to Inshushinak, the chief god of the Elamite pantheon and patron of Shush. In those days the area was fertile and forested, and the ziggurat was built on a slightly raised base to guard against flooding. It has a square plan with sides measuring 105m. The original five storeys were erected vertically from the foundation level as a series of concentric towers, not one on top of another as was the custom in neighbouring Mesopotamia. At the summit (now lost) was a temple accessible only to the highest elite of Elamite society. Even now the taboo remains and you are not allowed to climb the remnant stairways that rise on each of the four sides.
The structure is made of red bricks so well-preserved that an observer could believe they are brand new. However, if you look very closely, a brick-wide strip at around eye-level is intricately inscribed in cuneiform, the world's spiky first alphabet that looks like a spilt box of tin-tacks. The inscriptions are not easy to make out unless you cross the rope cordon. Permission to do so is the only apparent advantage of tipping the 'guide'. Easy to spot is an ancient sun dial (facing the southwest central stairway) and, beside it, a strangely moving footprint of an Elamite child, accidentally preserved for three millennia.
Around the Ziggurat
The ziggurat was surrounded by a paved courtyard protected by a wall. At the foot of the northeastern steps would once have been the Gate of Untash Gal, two rows of seven columns where supplicants would seek the pleasure of the king. Around the wall was originally a complex of tomb chambers, tunnels and qanat channels. Once the site's climate became drier, qanats brought water an incredible 45km from ancient rivers. Vestiges are still visible. Outside were the living quarters of the town and 11 temples dedicated to various Elamite gods and goddesses. Little of this remains.
Walk a couple of minutes east of the main asphalt access road toward s an isolated lamppost to find some more, excavated Elamite royal tombs. There is little to see here, either, though steep ancient steps lead down into (unlabelled) tomb number five. Descending is unwise as the pit stinks of toiletry misdemeanours... especially bad when the temperature hits 45°C. Nonetheless, it's still worth strolling up the slight rise nearby to look back at the ziggurat from a particularly photogenic angle.
Chogha in Bakhtiari means "hill". Choga Zanbil means 'basket mound.' It was built about 1250 BC by the king Untash-Napirisha, mainly to honor the great god Inshushinak. Its original name was Dur Untash, which means 'town of Untash', but it is unlikely that many people, besides priests and servants, ever lived there. The complex is protected by three concentric walls which define the main areas of the 'town'. The inner area is wholly taken up with a great ziggurat dedicated to the main god, which was built over an earlier square temple with storage rooms also built by Untash-Napirisha. The middle area holds eleven temples for lesser gods. It is believed that twenty-two temples were originally planned, but the king died before they could be finished, and his successors discontinued the building work. In the outer area are royal palaces, a funerary palace containing five subterranean royal tombs.
Although construction in the city abruptly ended after Untash-Napirisha's death, the site was not abandoned, but continued to be occupied until it was destroyed by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in 640 BC. Some scholars speculate, based on the large number of temples and sanctuaries at Chogha Zanbil, that Untash-Napirisha attempted to create a new religious center (possibly intended to replace Susa) which would unite the gods of both highland and lowland Elam at one site.
The main building materials in Chogha Zanbil were mud bricks and occasionally baked bricks. The monuments were decorated with glazed baked bricks, gypsum and ornaments of faïence and glass. Ornamenting the most important buildings were thousands of baked bricks bearing inscriptions with Elamite cuneiform characters were all inscribed by hand. Glazed terracotta statues such as bulls and winged griffins guarded the entrances to the ziggurat. Near the temples of Kiririsha and Hishmitik-Ruhuratir, kilns were found that were probably used for the production of baked bricks and decorative materials. It is believed that the ziggurat was built in two stages. It took its multi-layered form in the second phase.
The ziggurat is considered to be the best preserved example in the world. In 1979, Chogha Zanbil became the first Iranian site to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Getting There & Away
There is no public transport. An ideal way to visit the site is as side trips on a taxi-charter from Shush to Shushtar. Choqa Zanbil is still located within a military zone and it is necessary to get written permission from the Shush Archaeological Bureau to visit it. Photography is not allowed at the site.