Elam (Country), Elamites

See also Elam

ELAM (Country), ELAMITES ē’ ləm, ē’ ləmīts (עֵילָ֣ם, LXX Αιλάμ, meaning uncertain; perhaps high land).

1. Introduction. Elam is the Biblical designation of a people and a country in the southern area of the Iranian plateau in the Zagros mountains E and NE of the valley of the Tigris. It is approximately equivalent to the present Iranian province of Khuzistan. The name derives from the Elamite Haltamti. It is the Elamtu of the Assyrians and the Babylonians and the Elymais of the Greeks who also called it Susiana from the capital Susa (Shushan), modern Shush. Scholars are not agreed in regard to the relationship of the language of the Elamites to the other languages of the Near E. The earliest stage of the language is written in a script not yet completely deciphered, but from which there developed in c. 1600 b.c. a cuneiform writing which in its turn gave way at the end of the 6th cent. b.c. to the Elamite adaptation of the writing of the Achaemenid Pers. The language is non-Sem. The history of the Elamites is known largely from the records of other peoples which makes breaks in its continuity inevitable.

2. Early history. The Biblical record traces the Elamites back to Elam a son of Shem (Gen 10:22; 1 Chron 1:17). Scholars classify them as non-Sem. Caucasians. Archeology and anthropology shed no particular light upon Elamite origins but it is clear that Elam was influenced by the Jemdet Nasr culture during the later period of the fourth millennium b.c. The dependence culturally of Elam upon Mesopotamia that began in this early period lasted through her entire history. Elam’s earliest appearance in Mesopotamian records shows it in subjection to the Sumer. Eannatum of Lagash in 2450 b.c. This further strengthened the influence of Sumer. culture upon the Elamites. Elamite dependence upon Mesopotamia continued after hegemony in the Tigris-Euphrates valley shifted from the Sumerians to the Akkadians under Sargon of Akkad (2360-2305 b.c.). It was in this period that the Elamites appropriated the Sumero-Akkad. cuneiform script with which they produced their inscrs. on clay tablets and stone. Elamites from Susa participated in the building of the temple of Gudea of Lagash (c. 2000 b.c.).

With the decline of Akkad. power Elam gained her freedom and established an independent dynasty. But the third dynasty of Ur eventually gained control of much of Elam and dominated many of the country’s cities. However, the Elamites were eventually able to reassert their independence and to destroy their oppressor’s capital city, carrying back to Elam the last king of the dynasty of Ur, Ibbi-Sin (c. 2030 b.c.). The destruction of Ur by the Elamites is bewailed in a Sumer. lamentation text.

At this time of Elamite history the rulers of the country were known as “governors” and not as kings in the Mesopotamian sense of the term. The rulers of Elam were actually feudal lords who were considered to be representatives of Inshushinak, god of Susa. A unique cultural form appeared in this period which served to determine the method of the transition of power from one ruler to another to the end of Elamite history. This was the principle of matrilinear succession in which the throne was hereditary through women so that the new ruler was the son of a sister of a member of the previous ruler’s family. The quality of the succession was somewhat protected by the regulation that the successor was expected to have had some experience as viceroy, usually at Susa.

The power of Elam spread into Mesopotamia under King Kutir-Mabug who made Rim-Sin king of Larsa and through him controlled southern Babylonia as far N as Babylon. Larsa fell to the First Amorite Dynasty of Babylon under Hammurabi (c. 1728-1686 b.c.) who made Elam a province of his empire, according to his records, in the thirtieth year of his reign. The empire of Hammurabi’s dynasty fell before the Kassite invasion (c. 1600 b.c.) and Elam was delivered from Babylonian domination. For the next 300 years practically nothing is known about Elam. In the last quarter of the fourteenth cent. b.c. the Kassite Kurigalzu III claims to have conquered Elam.

3. The classical period. This period begins c. 1200 b.c. when Elam again gained independence and re-emerged as an international power. A succession of capable kings expanded Elamite power and an invasion of Babylon in 1160 b.c. destroyed Kassite domination. Babylon was made a satellite of Elam. Scores of temples were built throughout the empire dedicated to Elamite deities and tribute flowed into Susa the capital. Archeological excavations at Susa have disclosed that the Elamites plundered several Babylonian cities. Among the trophies found at Susa were the stele of the Code of Hammurabi and the victory stele of Naram-Sin. Many of the captured monuments were set up in the courts of important city temples and dedicated to the gods of Elam. These Elamite successes were abruptly ended by Nebuchadnezzar I who captured and plundered Susa (c. 1130 b.c.) and once more made Elam subject to Babylon. And once again for nearly 300 years nothing is known of Elamite history.

The Babylonian Chronicle mentions Elam as an independent state in 742 b.c. and it is described in the same way in the inscrs. of the Assyrian kings Tiglath-pileser III (745-727 b.c.) and Sargon II (722-706 b.c.). The Assyrians demonstrate great diplomatic skill in playing the various claimants to the Elamite throne against each other. Elamite inscrs. begin with Shutruk-Nahhunte II (717-681 b.c.) and are an important supplement to the Assyrian inscrs. The Elamites cooperated with the Babylonian rebel Merodach-baladan against Sennacherib (705-681 b.c.) which resulted only in Elam becoming a refuge for the rebellious Babylonians humiliated by the Assyrians. Sennacherib was unable to gain a decisive victory over Elam. In at least one battle the Elamites inflicted a defeat upon the Assyrians. The struggle between the two powers continued until the later years of the reign of the Assyrian Ashurbanipal (633-619 b.c.). Ashurbanipal defeated King Teumman and in one of his reliefs shows the defeated Elamite monarch’s head dangling from a tree in the palace garden where he and his queen are feasting with other nobles. Ashurbanipal placed a puppet upon the throne of Elam but he proved disloyal with the result that in 640 b.c. the Assyrian monarch invaded Elam, sacked Susa and deported many of the population to Samaria. Elam as an independent nation thus comes to an end. At the rise of the Pers. empire 550 b.c. Elam was made a satrapy paying tribute to the Achaemenid kings. Susa was maintained as an important city and was used as the king’s residence for three months of the year. It was widely known for the beauty of its halls and palaces. The city was mentioned by Gr. writers such as Arrian, Ctesias, and Herodotus.

4. Elam in the Bible. Elam, the progenitor of the Elamites, with Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, and Aram, was a son of Shem (Gen 10:22). In Genesis 14:1-17 Chedorlaomer, king of Elam, is described as the overlord of three other Mesopotamian kings. Cuneiform tablets discovered at Mari indicate that in this period Elamite mercenaries served in the armies of the kings of Mesopotamia and that Elamites traveled as emissaries as far as Aleppo and Hazor which may help to understand Genesis 14. It is impossible on the basis of present knowledge to synchronize adequately the rulers of the Mesopotamian cities and the Elamite kings.


Bibliography G. C. Cameron, History of Early Iran (1936); G. A. Barton, Archaeology and the Bible (1937); E. Herzfeld, Iran in the Ancient Near East (1941); J. A. Thompson, The Bible and Archaeology (1962); J. Gray, Archaeology and the Old Testament World (1965).