Ziggurats were ancient towering, stepped structures built in the ancient Mesopotamian valley and western Iranian plateau, having the form of a terraced step pyramid of successively receding stories or levels. They were made of mud-brick that appear to have served as temples to the ancient gods of Mesopotamia. Ziggurat bases were square or rectangular. Their walls were sloping.
Ziggurat Temples Technical Information
- Culture: Architecture of Mesopotamia
- Typology : Religious Architecture / Temples
- Location: Mesopotamian valley and the western Iranian plateau
- Dates: 2900–2350 BC to 6th century BC
- Evocative topics: Massive Architecture, Dessert Architecture
It is usually assumed that the ziggurats supported a shrine, though the only evidence for this comes from Herodotus1, and physical evidence is nonexistent. Erosion has usually reduced the surviving ziggurats to a fraction of their original height, but textual evidence may yet provide more facts about the purpose of these shrines.
In the present state of our knowledge, it seems reasonable to adopt as a working hypothesis the suggestion that the ziggurats developed out of the earlier temples on platforms and that small shrines stood on the highest stages…
– Harriet Crawford2
The ziggurat was built to honor the main god of the city. The tradition of creating a ziggurat started by the Sumerians, but other civilizations of Mesopotamia, such as the Akkadians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians, also built ziggurats for local religions. Each ziggurat was part of a temple complex that included other buildings. The precursors of the ziggurat were raised platforms that date from the Ubaid period during the sixth millennium.
The ziggurats began as a platform (usually oval, rectangular, or square), and was a mastaba-like structure with a flat top. The sun-baked bricks made up the core of the construction with facings of fired bricks on the outside. Each step was slightly smaller than the level below it. The facings were often glazed in different colors and may have had astrological significance. Kings sometimes had their names engraved on these glazed bricks. The number of floors ranged from two to seven.
Construction of the Ziggurat
The Ziggurat at Ur, a massive stepped pyramid about 210 by 150 feet in size, is the most well-preserved monument from the remote age of the Sumerians. It consists of a series of successively smaller platforms that rose to a height of about 64 feet and was constructed with a solid core of mud-brick covered by a thick skin of burnt-brick to protect it from the elements. Its corners are oriented to the compass points, and like the Parthenon, its walls slope slightly inwards, giving an impression of solidity.
To build a ziggurat, builders stacked squares of diminishing size, like a step pyramid, but unlike a step pyramid, there were stairs to climb to the next higher level. With a base of about 50 feet to a side, ziggurats may have been as high as 150 feet. At the top was a small room assumed to be a religious place. Ziggurats may have been conceived of as homes for the ancient gods.
The ziggurat was part of a temple complex that served as an administrative center for the city, and it was also thought to be the place on earth where the moon god Nanna, the patron deity of Ur, had chosen to dwell. Nanna was depicted as a wise and unfathomable older man with a flowing beard and four horns, and a single small shrine to the god was placed upon the ziggurat’s summit. This was occupied each night by only one person, chosen by the priests from among everyone in the city. A kitchen, likely used to prepare food for the god, was located at the base of one of the ziggurat’s side stairways.
Notable ziggurats include the Great Ziggurat of Ur near Nasiriyah, Iraq. The Ziggurat of Aqar Quf near Baghdad, Iraq; the now destroyed Etemenanki in Babylon; Chogha Zanbil in Khūzestān, Iran; and Sialk near Kashan, Iran.
Facts About Ziggurats
- The height of the ziggurat may have also been useful during seasonal flooding.
- There were only a few ramps leading up to the top of the temple. This made the top levels easy to guard and helped keep the priest’s rituals private if they wanted.
- The ziggurat at Babylon was named Etemenanki. This meant “Foundation of heaven and Earth” in Sumerian.
- The early Egyptian pyramids were step pyramids similar to the ziggurat.
- The Mayans and Aztecs built stepped pyramids to their gods as well thousands of years later in a different continent.
Ziggurat Temples Gallery
- Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus in the Persian Empire. He is known for having written the book The Histories, a detailed record of his “inquiry” on the origins of the Greco-Persian Wars. (Source: Wikipedia)
- Harriet Crawford is Reader Emerita at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology and a senior fellow at the McDonald Institute, Cambridge. She is a specialist in the archaeology of the Sumerians and has worked widely in Iraq and the Gulf. She is the author of Sumer and the Sumerians (second edition, 2004).