A ziggurat is a form of monumental architecture originating in ancient Mesopotamia which usually had a rectangular base and was built in a series of steps up to a flat platform upon which a temple was raised. The ziggurat was an artificial mountain raised for the worship of the gods to elevate the priests toward heaven.
The people of the Ubaid Period (c. 5000-4100 BCE) are thought to have come down from the mountains to the plains of Mesopotamia and influenced the Sumerians (or were Sumerians), the first to build ziggurats as religious sites mirroring sacred high places. This is speculative, of course, but suggested by Sumerian names of some ziggurats which reference mountains. The structure was known as unir in Sumerian and as ziggurratum (or ziggurartu) in Akkadian, both meaning “peak,” “pinnacle,” or “high place,” and served as a platform on which priests would perform rituals in view of the people far below.
During the Sumerian Uruk Period (4100-2900 BCE) ziggurats were raised in every city in honor of that community’s patron deity. The ziggurat/temple was not a public house of worship, but the earthly home of the god of the city, who was attended by the high priest and lesser priests of the temple complex. Ziggurat construction continued through the Early Dynastic Period of Mesopotamia (2900-2334 BCE) and was then adopted by the later Akkadian, Babylonian, and other civilizations of the region.
THE BEST-PRESERVED ZIGGURAT EXTANT IS THE ZIGGURAT OF UR.
The most famous ziggurat in history is the Tower of Babel – associated with the great ziggurat of Babylon known as Etemenanki – “the foundation of heaven and earth” – made famous from the story in the Bible (Genesis 11:1-9). The best-preserved ziggurat extant is the Ziggurat of Ur begun under the reign of Ur-Nammu (2047-2030 BCE) and completed under the reign of his son and successor Shulgi of Ur (2029-1982 BCE).
The second-best preserved is Chogha Zanbil, built during the reign of the Elamite king Untash-Napirisha (r. c. 1275-1240 BCE) and dated to c. 1250 BCE, located in the modern-day province of Khuzestan, Iran. Many poorly preserved ziggurats exist throughout the Near East, and many more have been lost due to the repurposing of the materials. Ziggurats were in use from c. 3000 BCE to c. 500 BCE when Persian Zoroastrianism changed the religious paradigm in the region. Interestingly, the same sort of structure was raised by civilizations in the Americas who never had any contact with Mesopotamia.
Purpose & Construction
As noted, the ziggurat’s purpose was to elevate the primary servant of the god (a high priest, usually, for a male deity and high priestess for a goddess) to a point between earth and the heavens. The gods were understood to live high above, and so, to confer with them clearly, one needed to draw as close to their realm as possible. Once this was accomplished, the deity was thought to spend time on earth residing in his or her statue inside the temple at the top of the ziggurat.
Herodotus (l. c. 484-425/413 BCE) discusses this purpose of the ziggurat, claiming that the god Marduk of Babylon (referred to by Herodotus as Zeus) was believed to come down to the temple at the top of the city’s ziggurat to sleep with a woman who lived there. No statue of Marduk was kept in the temple, only the woman (Histories, I:181-182). This custom, as Herodotus suggests, was in keeping with the belief that the god would have sexual intercourse with a chosen woman to ensure the fertility of the land. It is also possible, as scholar Stephen Bertman points out, that the ziggurat served the purpose of safety and preservation:
In a land ravaged by flood, the ziggurat was merely a monumental means to raise up a shrine and protect it from water damage. (197)
The structure may also have served as an observatory, a claim made by the historian Diodorus Siculus (l. 90-30 BCE), who notes how Babylonian astronomers used the ziggurat to make “their observations of the stars, whose risings and settings could be accurately observed by reason of the height of the structure” (Histories, 2:9; Bertman, 196). Bertman observes that the ziggurat could have been used for all of these purposes, and no single reason given for the structures rules out any of the others.
THE ZIGGURAT WAS BUILT OF SUN-DRIED MUD BRICKS FROM THE CENTER OUTWARD WITH NO INTERNAL CHAMBERS.
The ziggurat was built of sun-dried mud bricks from the center outward with no internal chambers. The structure was then faced with kiln-baked brick, ornamented, and painted. It rose from the temple complex courtyard, a large space for religious gatherings, with buildings around the perimeter including a sanctuary, housing for priests, a school for scribes, a kitchen and dining hall, and administrative offices all enclosed by a mud brick wall. Administrative priests would have supervised the daily operation of the complex, educational initiatives, dispensing surplus food to the people, and providing medical assistance.
The ziggurat itself was not a place of public worship and neither was the temple in ancient Mesopotamia. The temple was the home of the deity, and the height of the ziggurat simply made it easier for that god or goddess to visit. People would come to the courtyard for religious services to watch the high priest make offerings to the god on the ziggurat or enter into the temple at the top to receive important messages.
Kings & Priests
In the Uruk Period, the high priest was also the ruler of the city whose authority came directly from the patron god that watched over it. Scholar Marc van de Mieroop writes:
At the top of the Uruk society stood a man whose powers derived from his role in the temple. Hence, scholars often call him a “priest-king.” At the bottom of the social ladder of the temple dependents were the people involved in production, both agricultural and otherwise. (27)
The temple dependents (known as sirkus) were neither free nor slaves but were attached to the complex as workers in various capacities. Initially, the high priest oversaw the operation of the temple as well as administrative duties in the city, but in time, this seems to have become too taxing for a single individual and his assistants, requiring the creation of a secular leader: the king.