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Mesopotamia, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in present-day Iraq, is often considered the cradle of civilization. It was here that civilization, characterized by cities, monumental architecture, and writing, began to develop about 7,000 years ago. One of the characteristic forms of Mesopotamian monumental architecture is the ziggurat. The ziggurat is a Mesopotamian religious monument consisting of a series of stepped mud-brick platforms.

Ur-Nammu Ziggurat

ziggurat drawing

The ziggurat evolved out of the platform temples of the Ubaid culture (5000 to 3800 BCE). These platforms were intended to raise the shrine of the god closer to heaven. The White Temple at Uruk (about 3150 BCE) appears to be part of an early predecessor of the ziggurat.

Ziggurats first appeared during the Early Dynastic Period  (2900 to 2400 BCE) and are associated with the Sumerian City-States. The typical ziggurat had a rectangular base and built against one of its sides were three ascending staircases forming a T-shape. Mesopotamia was resource poor in that it lacked stones for building. Unlike ancient Egypt, this meant that large buildings had to be built out of mud-brick.

Ziggurats were a part of a larger temple complex. This complex included places for slaughtering sacrificial animals, altars for making the offerings to the gods, places where the priests could bathe and purify themselves, dwelling places for the priests, and storehouses for ritual equipment.

The oldest surviving ziggurat is the Temple of Sin (Nanna) built by Ur-Nammu at Ur about 2100 BCE. Under the rule of Ur-Nammu, Ur boasted paved roads, tree-lined avenues, schools, poets, scribes, and highly developed art. This ziggurat consists of three platforms of unbaked brick (cased with outer layers of baked brick). The lowest platform covers about 3000 square meters and is about 11 meters high. The other two layers and the temple have eroded away. It is assumed that there was a structure on top which served as a chapel or temple.

Ur-Nammu is shown seated in the seal below:

The ziggurat at Ur is shown below:

Sin (Nanna) is the moon god, seen in Sumerian mythology as the son of Enlil and Ninlil. Sin (Nanna) was the principal god of Ur. He is seen as the lord of fertility as well as the god of the moon. As Ur rose to prominence in the Euphrates Valley, Sin became to be regarded as the head of the pantheon in the area.

Sin was portrayed as having a beard of lapis lazuli and riding a winged bull. On cylinder seals, he was portrayed as an old man with a flowing beard and the crescent symbol. Symbolically, he was represented by the number 30 and the moon. The number 30 probably refers to the average number of days in a lunar month.

At Nippur, the Semitic rulers razed the earlier temple structures and erected a terrace of bricks about 12 meters high which covered about 32,000 square meters. On this was built a ziggurat with three stages of dry brick faced with kiln-fired bricks laid in bitumen. On the summit of this tower, was placed a small chamber, a special shrine or abode of the god. Access to the stage of the ziggurat from the court was by an inclined plane on the south-east side.

The most famous ziggurat is the temple of Etemenanki at Babylon, which is traditionally equated with the Tower of Babel. It is not clear exactly when this ziggurat was first constructed. Nabopolassar threw off Assyrian rule over Babylon in 626 BCE. His son, Nebuchadnezzer II  then made Babylon into one of the wonders of the ancient world. He ordered the complete reconstruction of the imperial groups, including the rebuilding of the Etemenanki ziggurat.

On a stele from Babylon, excavated in 1917, the ziggurat of Etemenanki ("House of the Foundation of Heaven on Earth") is depicted as having seven terraces with a temple on top. A cuneiform tablet from Uruk in 229 BCE  (which was a copy of an earlier tablet) describes the ziggurat as having a height of 91 meters (298 feet) and having a square base of 91 meters on each side. The size of the base of the structure has been confirmed through archaeological excavation.

In 440 BCE, Herodotus wrote:

The ascent to the top is on the outside, by a path which winds round all the towers. When one is about half-way up, one finds a resting-place and seats, where persons can sit for some time on their way to the summit. On the topmost tower there is a spacious temple, and inside the temple stands a couch of unusual size, richly adorned, with a golden table by its side. There is no statue of any kind set up in the place, nor is the chamber occupied of nights by any one but a single native woman, who, as the Chaldeans, the priests of this god, affirm, is chosen for himself by the deity out of all the women of the land.

The Etemenanki ziggurat was associated with the temple of Marduk, the patron deity of Babylon. Marduk was associated with water, vegetation, judgment, and magic.

Marduk is depicted below:


Marduk was a very important god. His name was considered so holy that it was almost never pronounced. Marduk had defended the other gods against the diabolical monster Tiamat. After he had killed her, he brought order to the cosmos.

On top of the Etemenanki ziggurat was the temple which contained several cult rooms. It was in one of these rooms where Marduk lived with his wife Sarpanitum. A second room offered accommodation to the scribe-god Nabû and his wife Tashmetu. In addition there were rooms for the water god Ea, the god of light Nusku, and the god of heaven Anu.

Overall, archaeologists have identified more than 30 ziggurats in Mesopotamia. Each great city had one. Perhaps, like modern skyscrapers, in order to be considered a city, it had to have a ziggurat.

This diary was originally posted on Street Prophets

Originally posted to Ojibwa on Wed Jan 12, 2011 at 08:26 AM PST.

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