Susa – The City Between Two Rivers

Tepe of the Royal city (left) and of the Acropolis (right) seen from the Tepe of the Apadana. Susa, Iran.

The modern metropolis of Shush, in Iran, rises over the ruins of an ancient cultural center of grandeur and wealth: the great city of Susa.

Susa is one of the oldest cities in the world. Excavations have uncovered evidence of continual habitation going back to 4200 BCE. Susa was a principal city of the Elamite, Persian and Parthian empires (capital of the Elamites) and was originally known to the Elamites as `Susan’ or `Susun’. The Greek name for the city was Sousa and the Hebrew, Shushan, which has roots in both the Akkadian and Egyptian languages for `water lily’, a name perhaps given due to the city’s proximity to water and how it `floated’, like a lily, between two rivers. The modern city of Shush, Iran, presently occupies the ancient site.

The old city, situated between the modern rivers Karkheh and Dez (Karkheh is the ancient river of Choaspes and Dez the river Eulaeus mentioned in the Biblical Book of Daniel 8:2, where Daniel received his vision. These two rivers bring mud down from the Zagros Mountains making the area one of the most fertile in the region) was the political center of Elam early in the fourth millennium and there is a fortress, still extant, which dates back to this period.

Assurbanipal’s Attack on Susa

The Assyrian king Aššurbanipal destroyed Susa completely between 645-640 BCE to avenge the perceived wrongs the people of Mesopotamia had suffered at the hands of the Elamites.The city was rebuilt and inhabited sometime after Assurbanipal’s attack only to be conquered by the Persian king Cyrus the Great in 538 BCE. It was then made the capital of the Persian Empire by Cambyses II and was rebuilt by the Persian King Darius the Great (549-486 BCE) who favored it over his other residences.

Susa in Literature

The Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote extensively on the Achaemenid Empire, reported that Susa was the grand capital of the Persian Empire and the only capital he knew of. The Hebrew prophet Daniel lived in Susa and his tomb may be visited there today. The prophet Nehemiah also lived in Susa during his exile. The Biblical Book of Esther is set in Susa, where king Ahasverus (Xerxes) threatened the Jews with genocide and Esther saved them. After Xerxes, during the rule of Artaxerxes I (465-424) a huge fire destroyed much of the city from this period.

King Artaxerxes II Mnemon (404-358) built an audience hall (apadana) at Susa which was said to be most impressive and ancient writers on the city always mention the grandeur of the buildings. There were other capitals in Persia (Pasargadae, Persepolis, and Ecbatana), but it is clear that Susa was the best known and most often mentioned (Persepolis, owing to its location, was unknown to the Greek historians until it was destroyed by Alexander the Great).

The End of the Great City

After the defeat and destruction of the Achaemenid Empire by Alexander the Great, and then Alexander’s death, Susa became part of the Seleucid Empire. It was then known as Seleucia on the Eulaeus and Greek architecture and stylings began to appear beside the older works of the Elamites and the Persians. The city remained an important intellectual and cultural center until it was sacked by Muslim armies in 638 CE and destroyed. Rebuilt yet again, the great city between two rivers thrived until 1218 CE when it was utterly destroyed by invading Mongols.


  1. Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Aubrey De Selincourt, 1954
  2. Will Durant, The Life of Greece, 1939
  3. Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage, 1935
  4. The Bible, King James Translation, 1611