PARIS — I visited the ancient Persian city of Susa only once, in 1982, on a trip to Iran’s western border during the Iran-Iraq war. The Iraqis had attacked a huge swath of Khuzestan province,where Susa is, and the Iranians wanted to show the destruction to the outside world.
In the Old Testament, Susa is best known as the place where Esther outwitted Haman to save the Jews from annihilation. It is also the site of the 250-acre palace complex built by Darius the Great in the fifth century B.C. The Iraqi strikes had badly damaged the ruins of the palace’s audience hall.
When Darius became the ruler of the Persian Empire, he made Susa his permanent capital. One of the oldest cities in the world, it became a commercial, bureaucratic and political hub that was as important as Persepolis, a largely ceremonial site about the same size, which Darius also built.
Even before the Iraqi attacks, however, there would have been little for us to see in Susa. Over the centuries, invaders captured, plundered and destroyed the palace complex.
Starting in 1885, French archaeologists carried out wide-ranging excavations there. Most of the artifacts they discovered — tens of thousands in all — ended up in the Louvre.
“France made a very clever diplomatic agreement and had a monopoly,” said Julien Cuny, curator of the Persian collections at the Louvre. “For decades, only the French could dig, and everything they dug up was allowed to come to France.”
It was only after Reza Shah came to power in Iran in 1925 that a new agreement was negotiated, and from 1928 on, the discoveries were shared by the two countries. The 1979 Iranian revolution put an end to such joint projects.
These days, the Louvre considers the remnants of Susa among its most prized holdings. But unlike its blockbusters, including the Mona Lisa (the museum’s most-visited work of art, for which it has placed signs from the main pyramid entrance to the painting itself), and the Islamic collection (which has its own 30,000-square-foot modernist wing), the Darius palace rooms are little-visited and hard to find.
To get there, you take the escalator by the Passage Richelieu entrance under the pyramid, turn right and enter the Near Eastern Antiquities section, an unwieldy collection that spans 9,000 years, from prehistory to the early Islamic period, and covers an area from North Africa to Central Asia and the Arabian Peninsula.
Then you walk straight until you reach a flight of stairs. You climb the stairs, continue through Room 231, turn left at Room 305 and keep walking until your destination: several rooms, starting with 308. If there is a more direct route, I haven’t found it.
It is worth the journey. The story of Susa is little-known, even among some Iranian visitors, who often confuse it with that of Persepolis, Cuny said. In late 2018, the Louvre installed an interactive 3D display in French, English and Spanish, at which visitors can take a virtual visit of Susa, beginning with the Great Gate to the large courtyard, and continuing into the palace’s column-lined audience hall and throne room.
The centerpiece of the main Persian room at the Louvre is the upper part of what was a nearly 70-foot-tall limestone column, decorated at the top with two kneeling bulls. Thirty-six of these columns once supported the roof of the 128,000-square-foot audience hall, or apadana, at Susa. The column was pieced together from several fragments that were found on the site.
Susa was a center for artistic brickmaking. Large, decorative friezes of polychrome glazed bricks, some of them molded into bas-reliefs, line the walls, pieced together like giant puzzles from thousands of fragments. One frieze shows bearded, richly clad archers carrying bows, quivers and spears as they march. Others depict muscular lions, their mouths open wide as they bare their teeth; griffons with lions’ heads, bodies and forelegs, the hind legs of an eagle and the horns of a ram; and winged bulls. The friezes use dazzling glazes of turquoise, green, brown, white and yellow.
One of the most unusual objects in the Louvre collection is a handle of a fourth-century-B.C. vase in the shape of a winged ibex. It was made in silver and gold, so delicately that it seems to be flying. There are also clay accounting tokens (representing quantities of goods) and pottery; carved cylindrical seals; gold jewelry with semiprecious stones; terra cotta figurines; and metal, clay and ivory sculptures. Fragments of black-and-white floor tiles from an unknown composite material show that they had been made to look like marble.
If you leave the Darius palace rooms and retrace your steps, you will come upon another treasure uncovered in Susa: a 7-foot-tall black stone stele in the shape of an index finger, standing alone under spotlights. Carved into it in cuneiform script is the Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian system of law in ancient Mesopotamia. Dating from about 1750 B.C., the stele was plundered and taken back to Susa in the mid-12th century B.C.
It consists of 282 laws, including ones governing trade, slavery, theft, interest rates, the presumption of innocence and the principle of “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” with graded punishments determined by the violator’s social status.
Unlike much of the Louvre, the Near Eastern Antiquities section is gloriously free of crowds. The Code of Hammurabi, however, has been added to the French elementary school curriculum, and on any given day, there may be several classes of students sitting at its base, as museum curators tell its story.
“You ask me why I am interested in Iran, well, it’s because it was the center of the world,” Cuny said. “The Persian Empire — the center of the world in that era. You enter these rooms, and you have arrived in Persia.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.