The ruins of the ancient Elamite city of Dur Untashi at the site now known as Chogha Zanbil, in southern Iran.

They were scouting for oil in Iran. They found an ancient temple instead

Chogha Zanbil was first spotted from a surveillance airplane in 1935. The excavated complex was discovered to be one of the few ziggurats built outside Mesopotamia.

The ruins of the ancient Elamite city of Dur Untashi at the site now known as Chogha Zanbil, in southern Iran.
Georg Gerster/Age Fotostock

Flying a reconnaissance mission in 1935 over the Khuzestan region in southwestern Iran, oil prospectors noted an odd looking hill on the landscape.

The Iranian Archaeological Service was notified of the sighting. They in turn contacted the French archaeological delegation to Iran, which was excavating at nearby Susa, the ancient capital of the Elamite kingdom. When French archaeologists led by Roland de Mecquenem inspected the mound, they found it contained the ruins of a city. Later studies would reveal a ziggurat at its heart, the largest outside of Mesopotamia.

City of Elam

Local people knew the hill as Chogha Zanbil, meaning “basket-shaped mound.” It became the official name for the site whose excavation began in 1936, under the direction of Mecquenem.

The French team identified the mound as ancient Dur Untash, “the city of Untash,” built by Untash-Napirisha, an Elamite king. Untash-Napirisha, who descended from a long line of Elamite kings who had dominated the region for centuries, reigned around the start of the 13th century B.C.

(Buried for 4,000 years in Iran, this ancient culture could expand the Cradle of Civilization.)

Extending across the plateau east and north of the Persian Gulf, Elam straddled today’s border of Iran and Iraq. It comprised a loose federation of leaders, whose chief monarch ruled from the ancient city of Susa.

The people of this region called themselves the Hatami. The name Elam fell into popular use when archaeologists adopted the Hebrew term from the Old Testament, in which there are numerous references to the kingdom. A king of Elam in Genesis (14:1) is named as Chedorlaomer, and according to tradition ruled Elam and the wider region at the same time as the Sumerian king Hammurabi, in the 18th century B.C. Historians do not know if Chedorlaomer was a historical figure, but the biblical references reflect Elam’s regional importance.

Revealing the ziggurat

In 1939 the outbreak of World War II suspended the work of the French archaeologists at Chogha Zanbil and the mother site at Susa. More than a decade would pass before work finally resumed. The newly appointed head of the French archaeological delegation in Iran, Roman Ghirshman, would now continue the excavations at the site.

(One of the most scenic railways in the world spans Iran.)

Born in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Ghirshman emigrated following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and established a career in archaeology in France. He chalked up a series of successful projects, including excavations at the Sassanian-Persian city of Bishapur (Iran) and the ancient Kushan city of Begram in Afghanistan. His 1946 appointment to France’s archaeological delegation in Iran centered on the ongoing excavation at Susa, and from this base, Ghirshman restarted the excavation at Chogha Zanbil in 1951.

Turning their attention to the mound, his team peeled away the earth to reveal a stepped pyramid, or ziggurat. Ghirshman established that the three-story structure once had five stories (including the temple on top) and originally stood more than 170 feet tall by some estimates, double the height of the existing ruins.

The ziggurat was the highest expression of Mesopotamian architecture. Because these structures were built with mud-baked bricks, most Mesopotamian ziggurats have been unearthed in a poor state of preservation. Chogha Zanbil is an exception. It is the largest outside Mesopotamia, and the best preserved of its kind.

(The royal tombs of Ur revealed Mesopotamia's golden splendor.)

Ghirshman and his team of archaeologists would spend nine seasons at the Choga Zanbil site, methodically working to uncover the remains of the Elamite structures there. A royal quarter had been built near the protective city walls, which surrounded several smaller temples and the towering ziggurat.

Holy city

The ziggurat dominates the central, sacred area of Dur Untashi where Ghirshman uncovered temples dedicated to Elamite gods, including Pinikir, the mother goddess. Beyond the sacred area lay the royal quarter consisting of richly decorated palaces, built using brick, plaster stucco, majolica, and glass. Underground, a hypogeum contains vaulted burial chambers.

The forces of Assyrian emperor Ashurbanipal sacked the then-abandoned site of Chogha Zanbil in the mid-seventh century B.C. and carried away a great deal of plunder. Nevertheless, Ghirshman’s excavations resulted in a wealth of finds, including decorations or furnishings from the city’s palaces and temples, like this terra-cotta model of a tall tower from circa 1300 B.C.
The forces of Assyrian emperor Ashurbanipal sacked the then-abandoned site of Chogha Zanbil in the mid-seventh century B.C. and carried away a great deal of plunder. Nevertheless, Ghirshman’s excavations resulted in a wealth of finds, including decorations or furnishings from the city’s palaces and temples, like this terra-cotta model of a tall tower from circa 1300 B.C.
Franck Raux/RMN-Grand Palais

The ziggurat was dedicated to Inshushinak (god of the earth) and Napirisha (god of Susa), the two principal Elamite deities. Choosing these gods, Untash-Napirisha may have intended the new city to transcend the role of a local religious center and become an equal to (or even outshine) Susa. Coinciding with a surge of Elamite regional power and confidence, Untash-Napirisha’s reign produced notable artworks such as the magnificent detailed bronze statue of his queen, Napirasu, found at Susa, along with the works of art found at Chogha Zanbil.

After Untash-Napirisha’s death, however, the complex was not finished. Tiles were stacked unused, and the royal burial vaults remained empty. The site was spared plundering and became a place of pilgrimage until around 1000 B.C., when it was abandoned.

By the first millennium B.C., Elam was a worthy competitor to the great powers of the region. It was no match, however, for Ashurbanipal and the Assyrians, whose troops sacked (but did not destroy) Chogha Zanbil in the mid-seventh century B.C. One hundred years later, Elam was absorbed into the Persian Empire. Its treasures were entombed and forgotten until its rediscovery, 2,500 years later, in the age of colonialism and oil.

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