History and major facts about ziggurats

The ziggurat stands as an emblematic structure of the ancient Mesopotamian world, a testament to humanity’s architectural and religious aspirations. With its massive size and intricate design, these stepped pyramids not only functioned as religious centers but also epitomized the might and splendor of the civilizations that built them.

Ziggurats, with their grandeur and complexity, encapsulate the essence of ancient Mesopotamia’s religious, cultural, and architectural achievements.

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Below, World History Edu delve into the history, significance, and major facts about ziggurats, from their inception to their eventual decline.

Origin and Historical Context

Mesopotamia, the “land between the rivers” Tigris and Euphrates, was home to several early civilizations, including the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians.

Amidst this cradle of civilization, around 3000 BC, ziggurats began to emerge as focal points of cities. The Sumerians, who were among the first to create urban centers, initiated the ziggurat-building tradition.

The word “ziggurat” is derived from the Akkadian “ziqqurratu,” which means “to build on a raised area.” True to their name, ziggurats were often constructed on elevated platforms, setting them apart from the surrounding cityscape.

These massive structures were typically made of mud-brick, a readily available material in the alluvial plains of Mesopotamia. Over time, as civilizations succeeded one another, each added to the architectural legacy, refining the design and scale of ziggurats.

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Religious Significance

Central to understanding ziggurats is their religious significance. In stark contrast to the secular pyramids of Egypt, ziggurats served primarily as religious edifices. They were not tombs but were instead associated with the divine. Each ziggurat was dedicated to a city’s patron deity and was believed to bridge the gap between heaven and earth.

The ziggurat’s design is thought to be a symbolic representation of the sacred mountain, an archetype found in various ancient cultures. By climbing its steps, priests could metaphorically ascend to the heavens, communing with the gods. At the pinnacle of many ziggurats was a temple or shrine, where priests conducted rituals and made offerings.

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Architectural Features

The White Temple of Uruk in ancient Sumer exemplifies a basic ziggurat. Serving as the temple’s foundation, the ziggurat elevates it towards the heavens. Steps provide ground-to-temple access, emphasizing the structure’s spiritual ascent. Image: Anu ziggurat and White Temple at Uruk (in present-day Al-Warka, Muthanna Governorate, Iraq). The “Anu Ziggurat”, which is the original pyramidal structure, dates to the people of Sumer around 4000 BC; while the White Temple was built on top of it around 3500 BC.

From a distance, ziggurats might appear as simple stepped pyramids. But a closer examination reveals a sophisticated engineering process. These structures were made of millions of mud bricks, which required advanced knowledge of materials and construction techniques to ensure stability.

Most ziggurats had a core of sun-dried bricks with a protective outer layer of fired bricks, ensuring durability. They were constructed in a series of steps or tiers, often diminishing in size as they ascended. Stairways or ramps allowed access to the different levels, culminating in a shrine or temple at the top.

Prominent Examples

Ziggurats were massive religious buildings in ancient Mesopotamia. Almost similar in shape to the mastaba (i.e. a tomb) in ancient Egypt, ziggurats were built in the form of terraced compound of successively receding levels. The Sumerians believed that their gods dwelled in the uppermost level of the ziggurats. Image: The Great Ziggurat of Ur (in modern-day Tell el-Muqayyar, Dhi Qar Province, Iraq) was built around 2100 BC in honor of the moon god Nanna

Several ancient ziggurats have left indelible marks in historical records. Among the most notable:

  1. The Great Ziggurat of Ur: Located in modern-day Iraq, this structure was dedicated to the moon god Nanna. Constructed during the reign of Ur-Nammu around 2100 BC, it underwent several renovations under subsequent rulers. Though now partially in ruins, its remnants offer insights into the architectural prowess of the Sumerians.
  2. Ziggurat of Dur-Kurigalzu: Built by the Kassite king Kurigalzu in the 14th century BC, this ziggurat was once a dominant feature of the cityscape.
  3. Etemenanki: Perhaps the most legendary, this ziggurat in Babylon is believed to have inspired the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Nebuchadnezzar II rebuilt it during the 6th century BC, aiming to create a structure that reached the heavens.

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Cultural and Societal Implications

Beyond their religious and architectural importance, ziggurats also held societal implications. Their construction necessitated vast resources, labor, and coordination, often reflecting the state’s power and administrative capability. The involvement of rulers in ziggurat projects bolstered their divine legitimacy, asserting their role as intermediaries between the gods and the people.

Moreover, the areas surrounding ziggurats often evolved into bustling urban centers, with thriving markets, administrative buildings, and residential zones. These structures, therefore, played a pivotal role in urban planning and development.

Notable examples of modern works that have been inspired by the shape of the ziggurat

The ziggurat’s iconic shape has inspired modern architecture, particularly during the Brutalist movement of the 1970s. Some notable examples include: the Al Zaqura Building in Baghdad which houses the office of Iraq’s prime minister, and the Babylon Hotel both echo ziggurat design elements.

Al-Zaqura Palace, located in Baghdad’s Green Zone, is an essential Iraqi government structure. It primarily houses the office of the prime minister, signifying its central role in Iraqi governance. Commissioned during Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr’s presidency, the building was constructed in 1975 by Saeed Ali Madhlum and CP Kukreja Associates for the Council of Ministers, Iraq’s cabinet. Image: Al Zaqura Building in the Green Zone in the capital Baghdad.

In the U.S., the Chet Holifield Federal Building in Laguna Niguel, California is another building that took inspiration from the shape of a ziggurat. Built between 1968 and 1971, the building is informally called “the Ziggurat” due to its resemblance.

Similarly, The Ziggurat in West Sacramento, California, borrows from this ancient design. Constructed in the 1990s, the structure was originally built as the headquarters for The Money Store, a loan company. Later, it was acquired by the State of California and now houses various state offices. The building’s terraced step design and its location next to the Sacramento River make it a standout structure in the region. Its reflective glass surface mirrors the surrounding environment, especially during sunset, creating a picturesque view.

The Ziggurat in West Sacramento is an office building located beside the Sacramento River in Yolo County. It serves as the headquarters for the California Department of General Services. Drawing architectural inspiration from ancient Mesopotamian ziggurats, this unique structure was finalized in 1997, blending historical design elements with modern functionality. Image: Front entrance of the Ziggurat

Across the Atlantic, the SIS Building in London, with its stacked appearance, draws clear inspiration from ziggurats. Commonly referred to as the MI6 Building, the building is located at Vauxhall Cross and serves as the headquarters for the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), also known as MI6. Erected in 1994, this imposing structure, with its modern design, immediately became an iconic part of the London cityscape. Sir Terry Farrell, a renowned British architect, designed the building, which blends elements of modernism with motifs hinting at fortress-like security, fitting for an intelligence agency’s headquarters. Not just architecturally significant, the MI6 Building has also been culturally prominent. It has appeared in several James Bond films, cementing its association with British espionage in popular culture.

The MI6 Building

The SIS Building is characterized by its cascading layers, ziggurat-like setbacks, and green-tinted windows. Its presence on the bank of the River Thames offers it a striking backdrop. The structure has a reinforced exterior to ensure security and can reportedly withstand various types of attacks.

The above modern adaptations demonstrate the lasting influence of ancient Mesopotamian architecture on contemporary design, bridging cultures and millennia.

Decline and Legacy

As empires waned and new powers emerged, the tradition of building ziggurats gradually declined, particularly after the Achaemenid conquest of Mesopotamia. The region’s focus shifted from city-states with individual patron deities to larger empires with more centralized religious practices.

However, the legacy of ziggurats persisted. They influenced subsequent architectural styles and religious constructs. The idea of ascending towards the divine, manifested in the ziggurat’s tiered design, can be seen in various global religious structures, from Mesoamerican pyramids to the medieval cathedrals of Europe.

Frequently asked questions about ziggurats

Below are some of the most frequently asked questions about these massive structures of ancient Mesopotamia:

Where were ziggurats located?

Ziggurats were mainly found in ancient Mesopotamia, which covers parts of present-day Iraq, Syria, and Kuwait.

What was the primary purpose of a ziggurat?

Ziggurats were primarily religious structures, often serving as temples or shrines. They were believed to bridge the gap between heaven and earth, facilitating a closer connection between the gods and humans.

How were ziggurats constructed?

Ziggurats were primarily constructed using sun-dried mud-bricks, with an outer layer of fired bricks to protect against the elements. Their construction required sophisticated knowledge of materials and engineering.

Were ziggurats used as tombs like the pyramids in Egypt?

No, unlike the pyramids of Egypt which often functioned as tombs, ziggurats were primarily religious structures and did not serve as burial sites.

Who built the ziggurats?

The ziggurats were constructed by various Mesopotamian civilizations, including the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians.

What’s the difference between a ziggurat and a pyramid?

While both structures are pyramidal in shape, there are key differences. Ziggurats are step-like with terraced platforms and flat tops, while pyramids, especially those in Egypt, are smooth-sided and come to a point at the top.

Do any complete ziggurats still exist today?

While no ziggurats exist in their original, complete form, remnants and ruins of several can still be seen. The best-preserved example is the Ziggurat of Ur in present-day Iraq.

Is the Tower of Babel a ziggurat?

While the Bible does not explicitly describe the Tower of Babel as a ziggurat, many historians and archaeologists believe that the story might have been inspired by the Etemenanki ziggurat in Babylon or similar Mesopotamian structures.

How were ziggurats funded and maintained?

Ziggurats were typically commissioned by rulers and were often funded by the state or through tribute. Their construction and maintenance would have been a significant community effort, involving skilled laborers, artisans, and administrators.

Why did people stop building ziggurats?

The decline in ziggurat construction can be attributed to the fall of Mesopotamian city-states and the rise of empires with more centralized religious practices. Additionally, invasions, conquests, and changes in religious beliefs also played roles in their decline.

How were ziggurats used in daily life?

Besides religious rituals and ceremonies, areas around ziggurats often became hubs of daily life, including markets, administrative centers, and residential zones. The structures themselves, however, were primarily reserved for religious and elite activities.

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