Susa, an important region in Sassanid Period

Susa has played an important role in the Iranian history, and like the Achaemenids, the Sassanids considered Khuzestan to belong to the Iranian core of their empire and to be part of the lands that their “fathers, grandfathers and ancestors ruled from antiquity.”

This region, centered on the Susa Plain, formed an extremely fertile and well-watered area of arable land close to the Persian homeland. Its cities became major sites of agriculture as well as industrial and artisanal activity, including metalwork and silk production. Still more, by the fifth century, the Susa Plain was filled with numerous monuments to the exploits of the kings, especially “living monuments” in the form of newly founded cities themselves. Dams, weirs, and mills built partially through the labor of captured Roman engineers and masons supported the plain’s great agricultural and industrial expansion, especially textile production, a water-intensive industrial activity.

The old city of Susa suffered considerable damage in the course of the Sassanid conquest. Roman Ghirshman, a Russian-born French archeologist, noticed the effects of siege engines, catapult stones, and projectiles as well as extensive burning in his excavations of the late Parthian levels.

Although Sassanid Susa did not recover its Seleucid and Parthian extent, certain sectors were rebuilt, and some areas gained important aristocratic dwellings. Ghirshman’s excavations in the royal city cleared an area associated with the first Sassanid city, which was built on top of the burned late Parthian city destroyed by the Sassanid conquest. This sector revealed densely built-up blocks of early Sassanid houses. In the course of clearing the area known as the “Donjon,” located to the south of the city, R. de Mecquenem, a French archaeologist, uncovered a large Sassanid villa with hunt frescos that incorporated reused Achaemenid bases in both the interior colonnade of its interior great room and its exterior peristyle forecourt. The area of the Achaemenid Apadana, which had long fallen into ruin, was built over with domestic structures. The early French expeditions did not systematically excavate the upper levels of the former Elamite acropolis. We know only that it yielded some architectural fragments and luxurious small finds. These included several bowls, one made of rock crystal and gold, another of jade, and two of fine silverwork, as well as stucco decoration and glazed ceramics. One can only speculate about what occupied the acropolis in the early Sassanid Period, be it houses, merchant depots, or a villa, yet its small finds and architectural remnants make it unlikely that it was a slum.

Between the reigns of Shabuhr I and Shabuhr II, the Sassanids invested heavily in the Susa Plain, converting the region to a center of industry unparalleled in the empire and favored it with newly founded royal residence cities. In addition to the old city of Susa, the Sassanids founded two new cities, Weh-Andiog-Shabuhr and Eran-Xwarrah-Shabuhr, which coordinated numerous hydraulic and industrial works, such as water mills, weirs, bridges, and royal workshops. Shabuhr I refounded and expanded a Parthian military settlement located about 25 kilometers northeast of Susa as Weh-Andiog-Shabuhr, known more commonly in post-conquest sources as Gondeshapur. The king made his foundation an important royal residence and major urban monument to his victories in Aneran. It became an important winter residence for the early Sassanid kings, and we even hear of the Sassanid king receiving Roman legates there. Mirroring its status as a royal residence, the city became the seat of the East Syriac bishop who controlled this important region, and appears to have been second in precedence only to Seleucia-Ctesiphon. Weh-Andiog-Shabuhr and its associated engineering works were founded to bring the Susa Plain to maximum agricultural and industrial exploitation, especially textile production. Evocative remains of hydraulic works survive in Khuzestan, many of which were closely associated with Shabuhr I’s foundation of Weh-Andiog-Shabuhr. The masonry techniques and engineering solutions of Roman engineers captured by the king are especially noticeable in a 400-meter-long weir on the Dez River and a 550-meter bridge and dam on the Karun River at Shushtar, 38 kilometers southeast of Weh-Andiog-Shabuhr. The fine ashlar masonry of this bridge indexed the project to Shabuhr I’s other monuments that harnessed Roman labor, especially Bishabuhr, and like them displayed it as a royal ornament and victory monument. Analogous works at Pa-ye Pol and Ahvaz further south point to a similarly complex and well-developed hydraulic landscape.


The above is a lightly edited version of a chapter entitled, ‘Sassanid Rupture and Renovation’ from a book entitled ‘The Iranian Expanse’, written by Matthew P. Canepa’, published by University of California Press’.