FROM SUSA TO ECBATANA. Two alternatives to the Achaemenid road

Joaquín Velázquez Muñoz.

Article published in Revista Arqueología 2010, Year nº 31 Nº 356

The Achaemenid royal road that linked Susa to Ecbatana avoided the central Zagros (Lüristan) because the direct route through the land of the Cosseans was “bad, narrow and steep” (Diodorus, XIX, 19.2). In addition, it must be added that those mountain people demanded the payment of a “tribute” for the right of way (Diodorus, XIX, 19.3), which could cause that this route were not very frequented, although the reality, perhaps, could be quite different. This direct route is the one used by Antigonus the one-eyed in 317 BC, who at first refused to pay the ” tribute ” demanded by these highlanders but who, in the face of the numerous casualties of his army, lamented for not having heeded the demands of the Cosseans (Diodorus, XIX, 19.2-8).

It should be borne in mind that the texts of the classical authors try to show the weakness of the Great Kings with regard to the Greek conquerors, hence they exalt the figure of the latter, who refuse to accept the right of way and wage war against these populations, in opposition to the Achaemenid monarchs, so weak that they have no other option but to pay a tribute to those mountain people. Rather, we should think about the practice of the gift and the counter-gift between the Great King and those peoples. The Great Kings, in their annual tour between the capitals of their Empire, deliberately used the roads “controlled” by the highlanders, to whom they willingly paid a certain sum. In other words, the encounter with the Cosseans or the Uxians did not end in an act of war, but was expressed in terms of agreement and contract.


According to Strabo (XI, 13.6), in effect, the Great King did not only pay a “foros” to the Cosseans, but also gave them “gifts.” This is corroborated by Hieronymus of Kardia (Diodorus, XIX, 19.3). The case of the Cosseans is not an isolated fact: Arrian, with respect to the Uxians, uses the same term (Anab., III, 17.6). This practice is known as the “binding gift”. The “subsidy” paid by the King is “voluntary”, since it has the value of establishing an agreement, where it is clear that this annual episode accounts for a state of peace between the mountain people and the Achaemenids or, if you prefer, of a state of “regulated hostility”. The “dora” guaranteed the application, committing the two contracting parties to an irreversible process for the year that opened, although the dependence corresponded to the mountaineers, and not to the Achaemenids, since each year, the king arrived to renew a sovereignty that it had to remain largely fictitious, outside the periods in which this people had to provide military contingents.

But this “control”, carried out over their gorges by the Cosseans, was only truly effective meanwhile the Great King decided to use the direct road rather than the royal road that led to Babylon. The itinerary through the Lūristān had only two advantages: on the one hand, a climatic advantage, since it spared the rigors of the heat of the Mesopotamian plain. On the other hand, a temporary advantage, since this itinerary was much shorter, despite the possible opposition that they could find on the part of the Cosseans, since it took Antigonus, in 317 BC, only nine days to reach Ecbatana ( Diodorus, XIX, 19.8), while, on the contrary, the royal road that led through Babylon took 40 days (Diodorus, XIX, 19.2). In any case, this was an especially difficult itinerary for the heavy convoys, since the road was, as we have seen, difficult and narrow, and where to stock up was extremely difficult.


The Achaemenid royal road therefore took a much longer itinerary. The road, from Susa, would cross the Tigris at the height of Sittake, in modern ‘Aziziyya according to the distances provided by Xenophon. Later, the road headed east, through the Babylonian plain, before heading down a natural path that went up the Diyala; later it would deviate eastwards, through the Zagros, by the pass of Sar-i-Pul-i-Zuhab (the Gates of the Zagros or Gates of Media), joining the Iranian plateau by Behistun, that is, taking the ancient Khorasan route that linked the road with Kermānšāh, Ecbatana (Hamadan) and Rhagai (Diodorus, XIX, 19.2).

The only station mentioned by Herodotus should be located on this route. The Greek author indicates (VI, 119) that Darius installed the Eretrious “in their own station”, called Arderikka, in the country of the Cissians, 120 kilometres (210 stadia) west of Susa, so it must have been located halfway between the ancient Elamite capital and Babylon. This site, however, is generally identified with the modern city of Kir-āb, on the north of Susa. The ancient name, reflected in the Greek Arderikka, has been identified with the Urdalika mentioned by Aššurbanipal in 640 BC. as one of the 29 cities belonging to the Elamite kingdom (Prisma Rassam, column. V, line 51). In any case, we must bear in mind and not confuse this location with another locality with the same name, which was in Assyria (Herodotus, 1, 185.2) and is described as a kome (village) located on the Euphrates, to the north of Babylon, although it cannot be located with certainty.

This same route, in Parthian times, is mentioned by Isidorus of Charax in his work,  Parthian Stations or Stathmoì Parthikoí [Σταθμοὶ Παρθικοί], a path that had to follow, practically, the same itinerary followed by the ancient Achaemenid royal road, which, starting from Babylon, reached Mandali, via Opis, from where the royal road would head towards Ecbatana. Opis was a central point in the campaign of the Elamite Sutruk-Nahhunte in his attack on Babylon in 1170 BC. In one of his campaigns he made his way from Ešnunnak to Opis, where, after taking it and crossing the Tigris, he made his way through Dūr-Šarrukēnu, Dur-Kurigalzu (‘Aqrqūf), Sippar and Babylon. It is the same route followed by Cyrus II, since Herodotus (l, 189) mentions how the Achaemenid monarch descends the Gyndes (Diyāla), and Alexander, who from Gaugamela crossed the Tigris at Opis to go later to Babylon. It is also revealing that the Greek contingent in which Xenophon was serving found in Opis troops of the Great King sent as reinforcements from Susa and Ecbatana (Anab., Il, 4.25-26). This city, under Cambyses, played a very important role in commercial traffic since it was a centre where slaves and donkeys were bought (Camb., 143, 144, 145).

Similarly, at the height of Opis, access to the south was blocked by “the wall of Media”, between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Between its confluence with the Diyāla and the Persian Gulf a marshy area extended, during this period, along the Tigris, that made any attempt at direct communication with Elam impossible. So, if you wanted to reach Susa, you had to reach Mandali, in order to descend, or go to Babylon, since to the south of the latter city there was another communication route with Susa, that is, through the Kherka valley.

A testimony of this itinerary confirms the fact that when the Great King came to reach his winter quarters in Susa from Ecbatana, he used to order carrying out a collection of supplies, all around the city of Ur and its surroundings, for the needs of his Palace. In the same way, the group of texts from the Murašȗ archive mentions the grouping of the royal army around Uruk, which suggests that the Achaemenid troops could easily reach Susa. In this way, the Achaemenid royal road would most probably lead from Persia and Elam westward through the alluvial plain between Ur and Sippar, later passing, probably through Nippur, the main administrative district of the Babylonian satrapy, located on the road of Uruk, Der and Elam, since we know that Nippur was the starting point of travelers heading to Anšan as early as the period of the III Dynasty of Ur (ABL 866). From Nippur onwards, the road would follow the Banitu canal to reach Babylon.

According to Isidorus’s account in his account, for going to Media, the road crossed the regions of Apolloniatide and Chalonitide, mentioning in each territory two stations, Artemita (which has been identified in present-day Khalassar) and Khala (identified with the modern Hulwan) , located on the road to accommodate travellers who were preparing to cross the Zagros towards Ecbatana. Once in Media, the first place mentioned by Isidorus is Karina, in the current Kerend region, 48 kilometers away from Hulwan. The next post he mentions is Baptana (Begistana), in the Cambadene region, a locality that has been linked to Bisutun (Behistun). From this point on, the road headed to Concobar, a location that has been related to the current Kangavar; that was separated by 3 “esxoinoi” from the next site mentioned on the road, Bazigraban, a location that has been wanted to be located in the area of current Khorsabad. The last place mentioned by Isidorus before reaching Ecbatana is Adrapana, far 12 “esxoinoi” from the old medieval capital. Other stations must have existed along the way, although these are omitted by Isidorus.


The Achaemenid royal road had to go first through the lslamabad valley, located 60 kilometers west of Kermānšāh, at an altitude of approximately 1,400 meters. The excavations carried out by K. Abdi at the region revealed settlements from all historical periods, registering three possible sites belonging to the Achaemenid period, such as Choga Baft, where various fragments of Achaemenid-style stone vessels were found. Thus, after passing the Gates of the Zagros and ascending to the Iranian plateau from Kermānšāh and Qasr-i Shirin, the road ran through a small valley where, at its eastern end, is the current town of Shahabad Gharb, point from where it ascends to the Manidasht region.

Among the stone monuments deposited in the Taq-e Bostan museum, there are four column bases and two plinths in two levels surmounted by a bull, coming from Shahabad; these bases are very similar to the square bases of the Achaemenid period. In any case, they were published in sketch form, without scale and without observations on the stone work, so it is very difficult to date them to the Achaemenid period. In the Mahidasht region, east of Kermānšāh and south of Behistun, L. D. Levine conducted a series of surveys between 1975 and 1978, covering a territory of 4,000 km². Levine observed a significant increase in employment in that region during the Iron Age III, not observing any significant change in the distribution of places neither from Iron III to the Achaemenid period, nor from the latter to the Arsacid period, such as he observes at sites such as Jameh Shuran, although given the smallness of the surveys, no architectural structure could be highlighted.

The road proceeded east following the Ab Gamas current, passing through Behistun, Sahneh, Kangavar and the valley of Asadabad before continuing towards the ancient Median capital. As for Behistun, known above all for the famous bas-relief of Darius I, it is an intensely populated place from the Iron Age to the Mongolian period. Behistun is a favorable place for human employment, both for its geographical position, on the great east-west highway, and for the natural resources, such as water, abundant and accessible. To the northwest of the bas-relief of Darius, a fortification is known of some 1.5 hectares of surface on the foothills, with three successive terraces, which has a brick wall. Surveys carried out in 1966 provided an abundant number of painted pottery attributable to the Iron Age and a fibula dating from the VI century BC. as well as some painted ceramic fragments that resemble those existing during the Achaemenid and post-Achaemenid periods, indicating that the employment in the place was not limited to the VIth century BC.

Another spot on this itinerary could be found in Godin Tepe, a few kilometres south of Kangavar, site of a former Median residence. In the settlement it is observed that the monumental architecture of Iron III is supplanted by a small community at the beginning of the Achaemenid period, where the material collected does not indicate a break with the previous stage (for the route of this path see the map that is attached in this article).


Ecbatana, present-day Hamadan, was located on the slopes of the Alvand mountain range, one of the most difficult mountain passes in the Zagros, where there were three possible paths that connected Ecbatana with the western side of Alvand, that is, with the royal road that came from Babylon. The first one ran west of Ecbatana, where through the Asadabad pass, the valley was reached. The second one crossed through the Alvand Range, passing closed to the Achaemenid inscriptions of Ganjnameh and heading towards Asadabad from the village of Shahrestaneh. The third route left Ecbatana to the east, circling the Sierra de Alvand, on its eastern side, heading south, towards the village of Jowkar, where it turned west to Tuyserkan and then to the valley of Kangavar. This road passed near Godin Tepe and must have been more important than the previous two roads in ancient times. Those two routes were probably used during the summer time while the latter could be used even in winter. On the other hand, Godin Tepe, was established at an important strategic point in the commercial route that connected Mesopotamia with the lands of the Iranian plateau.

On the first of the aforementioned routes a station has been found, located in the village of Deh-Bozan, placed 11 kilometers south of the modern city of Asadabad, and 3 kilometers east of the road that connects the towns of Asadabad and Kermānšāh. Its proximity to the Alvand Mountains could be indicating its position as the last station, before reaching Ecbatana, of the royal road that crossed the Mesopotamian plain from Babylon. Fragments of five bulls and three bases of bell-shaped columns without decoration have been found at the site, made of polished black calcareous stone. The axes of the columns would probably be made out of wood, fixed on the bases and their bulls. One of the bulls is badly damaged, although the rest are relatively well preserved. The bases have a diameter of 90 centimetres and a height of 40 centimetres, while the bulls have a diameter of 64 centimetres and a height of 15 centimetres. It is probable that the site had six columns, with a probable wooden roof over them, which would indicate the existence of a palatial station in Deh-Bozan.

The flared shape of the bases helps us to date them to the Achaemenid period, although the absence of decoration is a problem for giving an exact date and a comparison. In any case, some experts think that chronological data are lacking for dating these columns in the Achaemenid period, since in addition, the presence of remains from the Arsacid period were not taken into account by Mousavi, although it cannot be discarded that Achaemenid buildings were reused in later times . There are scarse examples of such bases, comparable to those of Deh-Bozan. So far, only one attempt has been made to compare them with the few examples of these bases dated from the Achaemenid period. The two closest models to the Deh-Bozan bases are those found at Mudjesir and Sahneh. The base of the Mudjesir column, in Iraqian Kurdistan, is flared and undecorated, with a diameter of 64 centimetres. On the base there is a bull; the height of the base with its bull is 36 centimetres. The base of the column in Sahneh’s tomb, 60 kilometers northeast of Kermānšāh, has a diameter of 70 centimetres and a bull upon it. The height of the bull is 10 centimeters, identical measurement to that of the Deh-Bozan bulls. At Tliq-i Bostan, near Kermānšāh, another base with an undecorated bull has been found, although its dimensions are smaller than those just mentioned. The base is flared and similar to the bases found in  the harem of Xerxes in Persepolis and Susa. The column bases of Fakhrigah’s tomb are undecorated and belong to the final moments of the Achaemenid period. They are conical in shape, possibly being an imitation of the Achaemenid bell-shaped bases, although there are authors who think they come from the Hellenistic period.


There has also been speculations about the possibility that a royal road would link the cities of Erbil and Ecbatana (see the map attached to this article). This would be an ancient route that would date back to the Assyrian and Median periods, preserving, during the Achaemenid rule, the importance it had previously. A description of this route is mentioned by Strabo (XVI, 1.4), being, in addition, the path taken by Darius III after his defeat in the battle of Gaugamela (Arrian, III, 16.2). In this way, Darius would have gone from Erbil to Ecbatana through the valley of the Lower Zab, Ranja, Bāna. Or Panjwin and Sihna.

One of the stations on this path could have been found at Tell ed-Daim (Dukan), a site on the lower Zab, in the northeastern part of the Kirkūk region, where significant evidence for the Achaemenid period has been discovered. At the top of a prehistoric mound an important and well-constructed building dating from the Achaemenid period has been found that may have been a fortified palace, perhaps intended for a local governor. Associated to this building have been found, on the walls, bronze plates with floral decoration in relief, more elaborate than their Assyrian counterparts, as well as a bronze horse bit, very well known in Achaemenid contexts, as in Persepolis, Deve Hüyük and elsewhere, and kohl tubes with stripe decoration that taper off at the top. The pottery has obvious parallels with that from Nimrud, which has been identified as Achaemenid, and there are also two ceramic bowls that can be compared to silver examples dating from the Achaemenid period in the Erzincan area of eastern Turkey. and maybe in Altin Tepe.

In short, there were two routes that linked two of the Achaemenid capitals, Susa and Ecbatana. A much shorter and more direct route led through the central Zagros region (Lūristān), while a much longer route, properly the Achaemenid royal road , ran west from Susa through the alluvial plain between Ur and Sippar, to reach Nippur and Babylon. From that point onwards, the road headed east, through the Babylonian plain, before heading along a natural path that went up Diyāla, crossing the Zagros and joining the Iranian plateau through Behistun, that is, taking the ancient route of Khorasan that would also join the road with Kermānšāh and Ecbatana.

Maps of the road layouts explained in this paper


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