Ziggurats were ancient towering, stepped structures built in the ancient Mesopotamian valley and western Iranian plateau, having 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. Their bases were square or rectangular, and they had sloping walls.
Ziggurat Architecture Technical Information
- Culture: Architecture of Mesopotamia
- Topics: Religious Architecture, Temples, Desert Architecture, Pyramids, Massive Architecture
- Location: Mesopotamian valley and the western Iranian plateau
- Dates: 2900–2350 BC to 6th century BC
- Dimensions: 50 meters (170 feet) square or 40 × 50 meters (125 × 170 feet) at the base on average
- Height: Up 30 meters (100 feet)
- Material: Mud-brick with burnt brick facing
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
Ziggurats Architecture in Mesopotamia Photographs
History of the Ziggurats
Ziggurats are some of the oldest ancient religious structures in the world, with the first examples dating to about 2200 BCE and the last constructions dating to approximately 500 BCE. Only a few of the Egyptian pyramids predate the oldest ziggurats.
The Sumerians started the tradition of creating a ziggurat, but other civilizations of Mesopotamia, such as the Akkadians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians, also built ziggurats for local religions. Each one was part of a temple complex that included other buildings. The ziggurat’s precursors have raised platforms dating from the Ubaid period during the sixth millennium.
The ziggurats began as a platform (usually oval, rectangular, or square) and were mastaba-like structures 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.
What were Ziggurats of Mesopotamia used for?
The exact purpose of a ziggurat is unknown since these religions did not document their belief systems in the same manner as, for example, the Egyptians did. It is a fair assumption, though, to think that ziggurats, like most temple structures for various religions, were conceived of as homes for the local gods. It is also believed they served practically as shelter from floods.
There is no evidence to suggest they were used as locations for public worship or ritual, and it is believed that only priests were generally in attendance at a ziggurat. Except for small chambers around the outer bottom level, these were solid structures with no large internal spaces.
The Construction of the Ziggurat Temples
The Ziggurat at Ur, a massive stepped pyramid about 210 by 150 feet, is the most well-preserved monument from the Sumerians’ remote age. 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 burnt bricks’ thick skin 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.
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 structures 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.
Interesting Facts About Ziggurats
- The height of the structure may have also been helpful during seasonal flooding.
- Only a few ramps lead 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 the “Foundation of heaven and Earth” in Sumerian.
- The early Egyptian pyramids were step pyramids similar to the ziggurats.
- The Mayans and Aztecs built stepped pyramids for their gods thousands of years later on a different continent.
Preserved Constructions in Mesopotamia
Only a tiny handful of ziggurats can be studied today, most of them badly ruined.
- One of the best-preserved is the Ziggurat of Ur, which is in the modern Iraq city of Tall al-Muqayyar.
- The most significant ruin, at Chogha Zanbil, Elam (in what is now southwestern Iran), is 335 feet (102 meters) square and 80 feet (24 meters) high, though this is less than half its estimated original height.
- An ancient ziggurat is located at Tepe Sialk in modern Kashan, Iran.
- Some scholars believe that the legendary Tower of Babel may have been a ziggurat that was part of a temple complex in Babylon (present-day Iraq). Only the faintest ruins now remain of that ziggurat, however.
Ziggurat of Mesopotamia Plans
Ziggurat Mesopotamian Architecture Gallery
- Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian born in Halicarnassus in the Persian Empire. He is known for writing the book The Histories, a detailed record of his “inquiry” on the origins of the Greco-Persian Wars.
- 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 Sumerians’ archaeology and has worked widely in Iraq and the Gulf. She is the author of Sumer and the Sumerians (second edition, 2004).
Editor Note: This post was originally published on April 18th, 2016, and has been revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness