The Elamites of Iran

While the Iranian plateau did not experience any rise of urban, literate civilization in the later 4th and early 3rd millennia on the Mesopotamian model, lowland Khūzestān did. Elamite civilization was centred in lowland Khūzestān. Geographically, Elam encompassed more than Khūzestān; it was a combination of the lowlands and the immediate highland regions to the north and east. Elamite strength was based on their uncanny ability to hold these various areas together under a coordinated government that allowable the maximum exchange of the natural resources unique to each region. Customarily this was done through a federated governmental structure.

Closely linked to that form of government was the Elamite system of inheritance and distribution of power. The normal form of government was that of an overlord ruling over vassal princes. In the earliest times the overlord resided in Susa, which acted as a federal capital. With him reigned his brother closest in age, the viceroy, who typically had his seat of government in the native city of the currently reigning dynasty.  Viceroy was the heir apparent to the overlord. Yet a third official, the regent or prince of Susa (the district), pooled power with the overlord and the viceroy. He was more often then not the overlord’s son or, if no son was available, his nephew. On the demise of the overlord, the viceroy and not the prince became the overlord. The prince of Susa retained the office, and the brother of the old viceroy closest to him in age became the new viceroy. Only if all brothers were deceased was the prince of Susa promoted to be viceroy, thus empowering the overlord to name his own son (or nephew) as the new prince of Susa. Such a complex system of governmental checks, balances, and power inheritance was bound to break down and often broke down, notwithstanding bilateral descent and levirate marriage (the mandatory marriage of a widow to her deceased husband’s brother). What is noteworthy is how often the system did work; it was only in the Middle and Neo-Elamite periods that sons more frequently succeeded fathers to power.

Elamite history is divided into three main phases: the Old, Middle, and Late, or Neo-Elamite, epochs (periods). In all epochs Elam was quite closely involved with Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria, more often through war but sometimes through peaceful trade too. Similarly, Elam was often a serious participant in events on the Iranian plateau. Both involvements were linked to the combined requirement of all the lowland civilizations to control the warlike peoples to the east and to utilise the economic resources of the plateau.

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