A ziggurat or ziggurat is a Mesopotamian stepped religious building also present in Elam, consisting of several terraces probably supporting a temple built at its top. The term comes from the Akkadian ziqqurratu(m) (feminine, sometimes abbreviated to ziqratu, in Assyria siqurratu or sequrattu, in Sumerian ideograms U6.NIR), derived from the verb zaqāru, “to raise,” “to build on high.” It can thus be translated as “the very high”. It is a type of monument characteristic of the Mesopotamian civilization, the memory of which survived long after its disappearance thanks to the biblical account of the Tower of Babel, inspired by the ziggurat of Babylon.

Since the discovery of the great Mesopotamian capitals, several of these buildings have been analyzed, even if there are no longer any intact ones, many of them being very dilapidated and appearing as hills, while others have completely disappeared. The Mesopotamian civilization has also left few descriptions of them, either texts or images. Some ziggurats (above all that of Babylon) are mentioned by Greek authors (Herodotus and Ctesias). If their general aspect is now fairly well known, there are still grey areas as to their meaning and their function in the absence of explicit text on this subject.

From temples on terraces to ziggurats: the question of origins

Historically and from the architectural point of view, ziggurats are commonly seen as the heirs of the cult buildings built on terraces in Lower Mesopotamia. This relationship has long been criticized, but today it seems to be accepted. However, the limits between the buildings described as ziggurats and those that preceded them are not fixed in the same way according to the specialists.

These buildings appeared in the course of the 5th millennium B.C., consisting of the elevation and enlargement of high brick terraces, supporting monumental buildings identified as temples, with a tripartite plan characteristic of this period, which undoubtedly concentrated the main rituals of divine worship; they are attested throughout the Mesopotamian area, and also in Susiana. The oldest example of a building erected on a terrace that can be interpreted as a temple is attested at Eridu during the Ubeid period, around 5000 A.D. It consists of four successive constructions (levels IX to VI) of increasing size in the course of time and of a tripartite plan, common at that time, but situated on a platform more than one meter high. This type of construction on a low terrace is common in protohistoric Mesopotamia (notably in the buildings of Uruk IV and III, second half of the 4th millennium, during the Late Uruk and Djemdet-Nasr periods), a context in which certain constructions are distinguished by the fact that they are erected on an increasingly high terrace (roughly more than two meters). This is the case of the building at Uruk called “Anu’s ziggurat” by the excavators of the site, a high terrace supporting a remarkably preserved temple (the “White Temple”), already preceded by similar buildings dating from the Obeid period. The best preserved high terrace temple was excavated at Tell Uqair in Lower Mesopotamia. It dates from the end of the Uruk period and the Jemdet Nasr period (end of the 4th millennium). It consists of two superimposed terraces, the first with a curvilinear façade while the second is rectangular, on which is built a building interpreted as being a temple, still partly preserved.

In the 3rd millennium (period of the Archaic dynasties), a temple on a terrace was apparently built in the second sacred district of Uruk, the Eanna, but its ruins are covered by the later ziggurat and therefore poorly known. Another similar building from the same period is the “Oval Temple” of Khafadje, in the Diyala Valley, of which only the rectangular terrace decorated with pilasters of 25 x 30 meters, still 4 meters high, remains, with a perpendicular staircase leading to the temple that stood at its top and which has now completely disappeared. This building takes its name from the two oval enclosures that isolate it from the rest of the city. Another terrace that was supposed to support a temple, whose foundations have disappeared, has been uncovered in the south at Tell Obeid. Other terraced temples of the same period are attested in Upper Mesopotamia and in Syria, notably at Tell Brak, Tell Mozan.

Some sites on the Iranian plateau of the third millennium show monumental constructions comprising several superimposed terraces: at Tureng Tepe, Tepe Sialk, Konar Sandal in Iran and as far as Mundigak in Afghanistan and Altyn-depe in Turkmenistan. Although they are sometimes still called “ziggurats” by their excavators, there is no evidence that these buildings are related to the Mesopotamian terrace temples, from which they diverge in many aspects. The links between the two types of constructions remain little studied in any case, notably because the Iranian terraces are still poorly known.

When did the first buildings that could be called ziggurats appear? From the point of view of terminology, the term ziqqurratu(m) does not appear until the beginning of the 2nd millennium, after the construction of the first buildings of this type. Texts prior to Ur III of several kings of Lagash, notably Gudea, mention constructions designated by the Sumerian term GI.GÙ.NA (or GI.GUNU4), which should perhaps be identified as temples on the terrace, and more precisely the temple built on the terrace since this term is taken up again later in an Akkadianized form gigunû to designate the temple that overlooks the ziggurat. This term may have originally designated reed sanctuaries (meaning of the term GI) erected on terraces. Constructions resembling ziggurats (i.e., multi-storey constructions) appear on cylinder seals as early as the end of the Uruk period and the time of the Archaic Dynasties as well as in the Akkadian period, but there is no confirmation that they are indeed temples on terraces, as they could be altars with a degree or other cult constructions.

Following the typology inherited from Lenzen, it is customary to distinguish between buildings built on a single terrace and those erected on several floors, which would be ziggurats in the strict sense. A. Parrot also seems to retain the number of terraces: as soon as there are three, it would be a ziggurat, which would make those of the Ur III period the oldest (assuming that they did have three terraces, see below). However, according to this same author, the first ziggurats would date from earlier periods, because he considers the stepped constructions represented on archaic cylinder seals mentioned earlier as ziggurats. But the distinction between ziggurats and the earlier monumental terraced temples may seem artificial insofar as the filiation that exists between them is difficult to contest and makes them buildings of the same nature. In fact, some of these temples on terraces of the final period of the Archaic Dynasties could be qualified by their excavators as ziggurats, as is the case for the “ziggurat of Anu” of Uruk by Lenzen (because it has two floors), or those of Kish. In any case, it is more commonly accepted that the constructions carried out in the great religious centers of Sumer by Ur-Nammu of Ur and his successor Shulgi around 2100 are true ziggurats, even if they do not use this term (nor any precise term) to designate them, and that they must therefore be distinguished from the ancient temples on terraces, even if some maintain that there were indeed ziggurats before.

The stepped building is not a new architecture in the ancient Near East, since it was implemented and repeated by the ancient Egyptians since the era of the third dynasty (c. 2700-2600 BC). According to O. Kaelin, there were Egyptian influences on Mesopotamia, with King Ur-Namma adopting the idea of tiered construction, thus breaking with the traditions of temple architecture, and is said to have introduced tiered construction to Mesopotamia with the first building, after several generations and centuries of establishing interest in the Egyptian model.

The temples on terrace of the Third Dynasty of Ur

Whether the kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur (21st century) were the “inventors” of the ziggurats or not, this period is in any case decisive for the future success of the temples on terraces that were to be called ziggurats. It is indeed from the beginning of the Third Dynasty of Ur that the great cult centers of Lower Mesopotamia are all progressively endowed with these buildings which are conceived according to the same model, although they are not strictly identical: these ziggurats have a rectangular base, with a large central perpendicular staircase establishing a symmetrical principle in their aspect, and are built within an enclosure. They thus take up from the architectural point of view the heritage of earlier traditions of terraced temples and reformulate it into a type of building that has been carefully thought out.

These constructions were apparently initiated by the founder of the dynasty, Ur-Namma (2112-2094), and continued by his son and successor Shulgi (2094-2047). At least four ziggurats were built, in the main religious centers of the country of Sumer, where the dynasty came from: Ur and Nippur. It would seem that there was also one at another important site of the period, Tell Drehem (Puzrish-Dagan) where a characteristic mound of ziggurat ruins has been identified (but not excavated), and perhaps at another major cult site, Larsa.

These buildings are built according to the same principle: terraces, three according to the most common reconstruction resulting from Leonard Woolley’s work at Ur, or two according to the alternative proposed by Schmid, piled up and probably supporting a temple, which is accessed by two lateral staircases parallel to the base and a large central perpendicular staircase, but their orientation is different. Two of them at least succeed on their site to ancient temples on terraces (those of Eridu and Uruk, and there would be traces of earlier constructions for the two others), which seems to confirm the filiation between the two types of buildings. In any case, these terraced temples are not identified by a precise term at this period, the Akkadian term ziggurat not appearing at this period, while the Sumerian term appears only as the ceremonial name of the Eridu terrace temple, E-U6.NIR (and it is perhaps according to it that this name designated all the buildings of the same type). Therefore, even for this period it is probably anachronistic to speak of “ziggurats”.

These constructions required the development of new construction techniques and the mobilization of many workers. If we look at the context of the realization of these buildings, we notice that they are part of the policy of great works implemented by the sovereigns of this real empire dominating then the whole of Mesopotamia, and served by a bureaucratic apparatus and a crowd of dependents that reached quantities never reached before. This explains why these four ziggurats are built according to the same almost standardized model, in a way “in series”. More broadly, the kings of Ur III particularly insisted on the religious aspect of their role, put forward in several royal hymns and by their “divinization”, and the building of the ziggurats under this dynasty is undoubtedly to be placed in this ideological context.

The success of the ziggurats in the 2nd and 1st millennia

After the collapse of the Third Dynasty of Ur around 2004, the construction of terraced temples continued under the impetus of the kings of Amorite origin of the Lower Mesopotamian states of the early second millennium, who were accustomed to taking up the traditions inherited from their prestigious Sumerian predecessors. It is often difficult to know to whom to attribute the construction or reconstruction of ziggurats excavated at sites, which archaeology can usually only date to a general period. Foundation inscriptions and other royal texts commemorating the construction or restoration (the difference is sometimes difficult to grasp from the texts) of a ziggurat may help to place the date of work observed during excavations more precisely, but these are only available for a minority of cases. It is in any case at this time that the term ziggurat appears

The Amorite kings to whom a great deal of activity in building ziggurats can be attributed are those of the first dynasty of Babylon. The most famous of them, Hammurabi (1792-1750), rebuilt that of the Ebabbar of Larsa (dedicated to the sun-god Shamash) according to what is reported in a later inscription of Nabonidus, who in his turn restored this edifice. But it was his son Samsu-iluna (1749-1712) who left texts on the construction of ziggurats: a foundation inscription commemorating the construction of that of the Ebabbar of Sippar (another great sanctuary of the sun-god), also celebrated in the name of his eighteenth year of reign; and another reporting work on the ziggurat of Kish dedicated to Zababa and Ishtar. The first state of the ziggurat of Babylon is also attributable to one of these rulers, and probably also those of the neighboring cities of Borsippa and Akkad. Further north, ziggurats may have been built in central Mesopotamia in the kingdom of Eshnunna, and certainly in Upper Mesopotamia around the beginning of the eighteenth century at Tell Rimah (probably the ancient Qattara) and at Ashur for the tutelary god of the city, Ashur (often confused with the great god Enlil). The best candidate for the construction of these two buildings is king Shamshi-Adad I

During the second half of the second millennium, new ziggurats were built, while the previous ones continued to be maintained. In Babylonia, one of the two Kassite kings named Kurigalzu (probably the first, at the beginning of the 14th century) erected one in his new homonymous capital, Dur-Kurigalzu (Aqar Quf). Other Kassite kings restored ziggurats, such as one of Kadashman-Enlil at Nippur and Marduk-apla-iddina (1171-1159) at Borsippa, and that of Babylon was enlarged, perhaps during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar I (1126-1105). The Assyrian kings of the same period built several ziggurats at the same time as they restored the existing ones at Ashur and Nineveh. Two ziggurats known from excavations are built in the double temple of Anu and Adad at Ashur (making a total of three ziggurats identified by archaeology in this city), and another at Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta, a new city founded by Tukulti-Ninurta I (1245-1208). An inscription of the Assyrian king Salmanazar I (1275-1245) reports the restoration of several temples, including ziggurats, among which those dedicated to Ishtar at Arbèles (Erbil) and at Talmussu (exact location unknown), for which no other attestation is available. At the same time, several were built in the Elamite kingdom (in the south-west of present-day Iran), starting with that of the new city founded by King Untash-Napirisha (1345-1305), Dur-Untash (Chogha Zanbil). Inscriptions from this same kingdom mention that there were two other ziggurats at this period, in the great city of Susa and perhaps also on the site of Chogha Pahn.

The Assyrian kings of the first half of the first millennium restored the ancient ziggurats several times, and two of them built new ones in the capitals they built for their kingdom, this type of building being indispensable for a large Mesopotamian city: Assurnasirpal II (883-859) had one built at Kalkhu (Nimrud) around 870, Salmanazar III (858-824) may have initiated another at the site of Tell el-Hawa, and Sargon II (722-705) had one erected at Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad) at the end of the 8th century. A text of this last king mentions his restoration of a ziggurat dedicated to Adad in Nineveh, thus the second one attested on this site. Around the same time, Kudurru the governor of Nippur participates in the maintenance of the ziggurat of the city of Der. King Assarhaddon (680-669) had the second ziggurat of Uruk built or restored, in the sanctuary of Anu. Several large ziggurats existing in Lower Mesopotamia were restored or even enlarged by the Assyrian and Babylonian rulers of the first half of the first millennium. The best known by the texts is the ziggurat of Babylon, Etemenanki, reworked between the seventh century and the beginning of the sixth century by the Assyrian kings Assarhaddon and Assurbanipal (669-627) and then the Babylonians Nebuchadnezzar (626-605) and Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562), marks the culmination of this type of construction, while the most studied by archaeology is that of Borsippa. The inscriptions of Nabonid (556-539) indicate that he restored those of Ur, Larsa and also the two that were in the sanctuary of Ishtar in Akkad, a city whose location has not been located.

Thus, Mesopotamian texts show that there were ziggurats, traces of which have not been found even in intensively excavated sites such as Nineveh and Susa, where they were probably demolished during antiquity (or during excavations in the second case). Lists of ziggurats classified by city were found on two tablets whose copies date from the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian periods, but which are probably copies of older texts. They list respectively 22 and 23 ziggurats for the sites of Lower Mesopotamia only. But they sometimes contradict archaeological discoveries, giving in particular several ziggurats for sites where only one has been found, as at Nippur, and their interpretation is therefore difficult. In all, there could have been about thirty ziggurats in Mesopotamia (about twenty with certainty) and three in Elam, built between the end of the twenty-first century and the eighth century, knowing that there could have been others in unexcavated sites and not attested by the texts. In any case, the observation of certain sites during surveys has allowed us to note the presence of mounds that resemble the ruins of ziggurats (Drehem for example). Finally, there is sometimes disagreement among archaeologists as to whether the construction in question is a ziggurat or a temple on a terrace, due to the problems of definition mentioned above, especially for buildings whose excavations are old and which date from the Archaic period (3rd millennium): this is the case for the first “ziggurat of Anu” at Uruk, which corresponds rather to a temple on a terrace, or for the two “ziggurats” of the Archaic period at Tell Inghara in Kish, the ruins of which are not sufficient to characterize them in this way (even if this site probably had a ziggurat).

The end of the ziggurats

The ziggurats of Babylonia continued to be maintained at least until the fall of the Babylonian kingdom in 539. These buildings follow the destiny of the Mesopotamian religious tradition, which slowly declined during the second half of the first millennium. The last major works undertaken on ziggurats were at Uruk during the Seleucid period, in the middle of the 3rd century, when the ziggurat of Eanna was redeveloped and that of the new cult complex of the god Anu was built from the ruins of an older one. At the same time, it seems that those of Babylon and the main one of Ashur continue to have a cultic role. They ceased to function in the Parthian period, around 100 A.D. It is obvious that most of the ziggurats gradually fell into ruin after the fall of the Mesopotamian empires, no longer being maintained. Some were converted for a time into fortresses during the Parthian period, at Nippur, Borsippa and perhaps at Ashur. All the ziggurats were finally abandoned like most of the ancient great Mesopotamian cities where they were located and often their bricks were used as building materials by the populations living near them. This has not prevented some of them from remaining impressive despite the test of the centuries and from still arousing the imagination of travelers (at Borsippa, Dur-Kurigalzu, Chogha Zanbil), while others have completely disappeared, probably after urban reorganization (Nineveh, Susa).

Shapes and dimensions

A ziggurat is a massive building built on a vast terrace (kiggallu) serving as a foundation, and composed of several (two or three to seven) solid terraces of square or rectangular plan piled up and set back from each other, forming levels (rikbu), the last floor being supposed to support a temple. According to what seems to be indicated in the metrological texts concerning the dimensions of ziggurats, they were based on symbolic numbers, which is at least evident for the number of floors. In practice, the forms that these buildings took were varied, making them a relatively heterogeneous whole despite a similar morphology.

According to the records of the archaeological excavations (which have generally been able to bring to light only the base of the buildings), it appears that the ziggurats are buildings with a square or rectangular base: in the south the first ziggurats of the Ur III period are of rectangular base, but with time the square shape seems to triumph, while in the north they are systematically square, as well as at Chogha Zanbil in Elam. On the other hand there is no uniform orientation. These bases have variable dimensions. The smallest have sides of about thirty meters: 31.50 x 19 m at Tell Rimah, 36.60 x 35 m for the twin ziggurats of Anu and Adad at Ashur in the Medio-Assyrian period (reduced to about 24 x 21.30 meters in the Neo-Assyrian period), 31 x 31 m at Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta, 37 x 30 m at Sippar, etc. The largest on the ground are those of Chogha Zanbil, with 105.20 m on each side, and that of the Anu complex at Uruk in the Seleucid period, which would have had a base of 110 m on each side. That of Babylon in its final state has a square base of about 91 m on each side. Between these extremes, there are ziggurats with a base whose sides vary between 40 and 60 meters generally: 43.10 × 43.10 m at Khorsabad, 51 × 51 m at Kalkhu, 60 × 60 m for the ziggurat of Ashur in the city of the same name, 43.50 × 40.30 m at Larsa, 56 × 52 m at the Eanna of Uruk, 57 × 39.40 m at Nippur, 62.50 × 43 m at Ur, and up to 67.60 × 69 m at Dur-Kurigalzu.

Access to the upper levels of the ziggurats was by staircases. In the Mesopotamian south, the bases of these appear on their foundations: a main staircase is perpendicular to the building, and it is framed by two other staircases set against the monument and parallel to the wall. At Ur, where the first level of the building could be excavated, they were joined in a square doorway (Woolley’s “gate-tower”), where the pathway to the top of the building must have started. Since the upper floors are not preserved, it is impossible to know how the access to the upper temple was made, since it seems that the main staircase did not reach the top of the building. The Assyrian ziggurats, on the other hand, have not left any traces of such staircases. This is due to the particularity of their architectural environment: they were generally attached to a temple integrated into the same complex and located on a common platform: access was probably by a staircase whose base was located inside the temple or on its roof and which disappeared with the degradation of the buildings. This is what the analyses of the results of the excavations of Tell Rimah, Ashur (even if it is less obvious for the main ziggurat), Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta and Kalkhu seem to indicate. The case of the ziggurat of Dur-Sharrukin, for which Victor Place described an ascent following a helical ramp, is problematic since it would be an isolated case, and the reliability of this excavator’s statements is discussed. On the ziggurat of Chogha Zanbil, the best preserved, the ascent to the second floor was done in an original way by four internal vaulted staircases starting at the perpendicular of the building, located in the middle of each side of the second floor. External or internal staircases would then give access to the other floors.

The number of floors that the ziggurats had is in most cases uncertain, the erosion of the ziggurat tops and the lack of representation for the early periods preventing confirmation in most cases. If we follow Woolley’s proposals, there would have been three of the first ones built at the time of Ur-Nammu, but this has been disputed by Schmid who proposes more simply two floors. The one at Chogha Zanbil, the best preserved, would have had four or five, not counting the upper temple. It is evident from the texts and images that the Babylonian ziggurat had seven, which seems to be the maximum and also a number with strong symbolic value, perhaps seen as the ideal number of floors of a ziggurat in recent times. A late school tablet showing an elevation plan of a seven-story ziggurat with their dimensions is probably an abstract exercise representing an idealized ziggurat, and another tablet from Nippur does the same. In the north, Medio-Assyrian and Neo-Assyrian seals tend to depict four-tiered ziggurats, but this type of simplified representation is difficult to exploit for architectural reconstruction. A Neo-Assyrian bas-relief found at Nineveh, only preserved by a copy, represented a ziggurat, probably in an Elamite city, of four floors surmounted by a high temple with horns.

It is therefore impossible to know what height these buildings reached, only an estimate is possible. The ruins of the one at Dur-Kurigalzu are still 57 meters high, and it could have originally risen to nearly 70 meters, this building being one of the largest ziggurats. At Borsippa the ruins were 47 meters high at the time of excavation, at Kalkhu perhaps about 25 meters above the plain and could have been about 40 meters high in antiquity, and at Chogha Zanbil they are still 25 meters high and could have originally reached more than 50 meters. The one in Babylon would have been 90 meters high if we rely on the Esagil Tablet, a document that includes a description of the dimensions of the building. But the reliability of this text is questioned, since it seems to give symbolic figures because its purpose is to explain the cosmological function of the building and not necessarily to describe it as it really is. All this explains why the height of the Babylonian ziggurat is discussed despite the available sources, and the latest estimates are lower (around 60 meters).

The high temple

It is generally believed that the top floor of ziggurats included a temple, most often called gigunû. In the case of the Babylonian ziggurat we find šahūru (a term that may in fact refer only to its terraced roof), or rarely bīt ziqrat (“temple (lit. house) of the ziggurat”). That of the ziggurat of Anu at Uruk during the Seleucid period has a temple name, É.ŠÁR.RA (“House of the Whole”).

All these buildings have disappeared as a result of the erosion of the buildings supporting them, which makes it impossible to be certain of the existence of such a building at the top of each ziggurat, even if this solution is generally retained, especially since these buildings are derived from the ancient temples on terraces, which are temples in the true sense of the word, having several rooms (including a cella), with dimensions of 22.30 × 17.50 m for the “White Temple” of the ziggurat of Anu of Uruk, and about 18 × 22.50 meters for the temple of Tell Uqair. For the ziggurats, the question is also to know if it would be a temple proper, or rather a smaller chapel. The interpretation depends in many cases on the number of floors reconstructed: for Ur, L. Woolley’s reconstruction places this construction on a supposed third floor, which would only leave room for a smaller building, while for H. Schmid (after E. Heinrich) the high temple would be built on the second floor (which is about 36 meters long and 26 meters wide), and there would then be space for a proper multi-room temple.

The best way to have information on these buildings is to refer to the few texts mentioning the one of Chogha Zanbil, and especially to the documentation relating to the one of Babylon in the first millennium, namely a recently rediscovered stele on which the building is represented with its high temple, accompanied by a plan of this one and especially texts, like the description of Herodotus, or the Tablet of Esagil. According to the latter, this temple measured 25 × 24 meters, and would have reached 15 meters in height. Access was through doors on each side of it, leading to six cellae (papāhu) arranged around a central covered courtyard. It was built with cedar beams, its outer walls were covered with blue glazed bricks. Herodotus says that there were no statues in it, only “a large, well-stocked bed, and near this bed a golden table”. So there was at least the rich furniture of the gods, as in normal cellae. An image of the ziggurat, probably Elamite, carved on a bas-relief from Nineveh, shows that the upper temple was decorated with two horned animal heads on at least one of its sides, and the Babylonian Creation Epic perhaps indicates that the ziggurat of that city also had horns.

Building materials and techniques

The ziggurats are built in the fetish building material of the Mesopotamian civilization: the clay brick. Stone is only used where it is available, in Assyria, to build the bases and coverings of these buildings, as has been observed for the base level of the ziggurat of Kalkhu. The clay brick can be rectangular or square, laid on edge or flat, according to different types of apparatus (in the form of a mound or a panneresse). The central core of the ziggurats was made of mud bricks, the great majority of the bricks used for their construction. It was generally framed by a casing of fired bricks, much stronger and less permeable to water. This formwork is about 1.50 meters wide for the ziggurats of the Ur III period, but reaches 15 meters in the one of Babylon during its final state. The last ziggurat to be built, that of Anu at Uruk in the Seleucid period, has a base built around a core dated to its Neo-Assyrian state, but surrounded by a brick apparatus separated by notable thicknesses of mortar, constituting a more crude construction than the traditional ziggurats. The ziggurat of Chogha Zanbil has the specificity of not having been erected according to a horizontal principle of stacking terraces, but according to a vertical principle, starting from a block constituting the upper floor around which the lower levels are built, all levels starting from the ground.

The walls generally had an exterior decoration of pilasters and redans, and were slightly curved to compensate for the effects of perspective (entasis). In addition to this decoration, the walls of the Uruk ziggurat of the Ur III period seem to have been covered with a light-colored plaster that was intended to give the building a shine. At Tell Rimah, the west façade of the ziggurat had a decoration of twisted half-columns, following a decoration that is also found in the temple.

The staircases and floors of the floors are generally made of fired bricks as well. Glazed bricks may have been used, from the first millennium B.C. onwards, for some of the upper temples as seen above and perhaps for the upper floors, in any case fragments of such bricks have been found in the ruins of some ziggurats, such as that of Nippur. At Dur-Sharrukin, if we follow Victor Place’s description of the ziggurat, the walls of the floors of the building would each have a specific color, but this testimony has been disputed. However, other testimonies from the ancient excavations of Borsippa and Ur would also point to specific colors assigned to certain floors, which does not appear for other sites.

The mass that constituted the whole of the millions of bricks agglomerated in a ziggurat posed various physical problems: weights, pushes, settlements, lateral slides, in addition to problems of infiltration or water run-off. The Mesopotamian builders had therefore implemented different processes to ensure the durability of these buildings. Bitumen was used to waterproof the base of the ziggurats. The rainwater running down on the upper floors was evacuated by “gutter-drains” made of unbaked brick. Layers of reeds placed at regular intervals between the bricks constituted a chain that prevented the bricks from slipping. Some ziggurats (Uruk, Borsippa, Dur-Kurigalzu) included in addition an anchorage of braided reed ropes running along their entire length. Tree trunks could also be placed in the brick mass (as at Chogha Zanbil and Borsippa), serving as a chain or framework, linking the mud brick core to the fired bricks of the outer layer. Small tunnels were also left in the ziggurat, probably to allow the drying of the brick mass, or to compensate for the variation in size of its bricks according to heat or humidity. The builders of the Tell Rimah ziggurat used different techniques, probably with the same purpose: a space of 90 cm separates the heart of the building from the outer walls, and a central vaulted chamber, empty and inaccessible, was left inside the ziggurat. This same procedure is found in other Assyrian ziggurats, such as at Kalkhu.

The ziggurat in the urban space and landscape

Like the main monuments built by the ancient Mesopotamians, the ziggurat is located in a city. It is generally part of the central district of the city, where the main political and religious buildings are located. More precisely, it is often located in a real “sacred district”, which forms a real whole, with cult spaces, stores, kitchens, workshops, residences and administrative services. The ziggurats are located near the main low temple which is usually associated with them, often in a large walled courtyard. In some cases, such as Ur, there is no independent low temple with which the ziggurat is associated; the main cult rooms (offering preparation areas and divine apartments) are probably located in the enclosure bordering the tower, or in the ziggurat temple (see below).

In the large cities of Lower Mesopotamia, the ziggurats are located in a vast complex generally isolated from the rest of the urban space by an enclosure delimiting a sacred perimeter, to which only the cult personnel usually had access. This seems to be systematic from the first millennium. Thus, an entire architectural complex covering 350 x 300 meters at Uruk is organized around the ziggurat, with sanctuaries at its feet, several courtyards surrounded by wide walls in which rooms serving as dependencies for cult activities (kitchens, warehouses, workshops, chapels, etc.) are enclosed. In Babylon at the same period, the enclosure surrounding the ziggurat and its complex measures about 400 meters on a side, and is separated from the associated low temple, the Esagil, located to the south. The Elamite ziggurats are also located in a sacred quarter, which would be named (in Elamite) kizzum at Susa and siyan-kuk at Chogha Zanbil, surrounded by an enclosure, the former possibly containing a sacred grove (husa). In Upper Mesopotamia, ziggurats are often directly adjacent to the low temple to which they are associated, and in all likelihood access to their upper floors was by a staircase coming from the temple, which could not be found because of the degradation of these buildings. Two Assyrian ziggurats are, however, isolated from the other buildings: that of Dur-Sharrukin, for which the restitution of the access to the upper floor poses a problem as seen previously, as well as the ziggurat of the god Ashur in the city of the same name.

It seems that several cities had more than one ziggurat: this is certainly the case of Ashur where traces of three such buildings have been found (including a group of two twin ziggurats attested only at this site), of Nineveh where two ziggurats are mentioned in the foundation inscriptions, at Uruk with those of the complexes of Ishtar and Anu, at least in the Neo-Assyrian and Seleucid periods, and perhaps in other cities of Lower Mesopotamia if we rely on the Lists of ziggurats.

By their mass and their elevation, and in spite of their isolation in enclosures, the ziggurats had to dominate the city in which they were built. In Lower Mesopotamia, the flat relief should have made them visible for miles. In Upper Mesopotamia, where the relief is more irregular, they are built on the kind of acropolis that constitute the main quarter of the great cities, combining palaces and temples. They thus overhung the rest of the constructions, a fortiori when they were located near the edge of the hill, as at Kalkhu and Ashur (for the main ziggurat). The ziggurats were thus prominent elements of the urban landscape of the great capitals and sacred cities of Mesopotamia. Even today, the ruins of the ziggurats that are relatively well preserved dominate the sites where they are located.

A prestigious monumental construction

Because of their mass and spectacular appearance, and the means used to build and preserve them, the ziggurats are among the most important monuments built by the ancient Mesopotamians. Their construction is a task taken in charge by the rulers, who put their administration and their manpower in action for that. As for the palaces, the great temples and the city walls, the constructions of the ziggurats are described in building inscriptions, which emphasize their monumental aspect and the symbolic importance that their construction had for the kings and their personal prestige. The Sumerian term for these buildings, É.U6.NIR, can be translated as “House of admiration”. The names given to certain ziggurats emphasize the respect that these buildings inspired or their spectacular aspect: the “House-foundation adorned with terror” (É.TEMEN.NÍ.GÙR) in Ur or the “House-mountain exalted” (É.KUR.MAH) in Kish. The metaphor of the mountain is however common for Mesopotamian temples in general. Some ziggurats or parts of ziggurats sometimes received a cult: it is the case of the temple of the ziggurat of Nippur which appears among the recipients of offerings at the time of Ur III alongside its tutelary god and its throne, and certain Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian texts indicate that the ziggurats, in addition to receiving offerings in the same way as other objects of worship such as the weapons of the gods, were divinized (their name was then preceded by the determinative of the divinity).

An attempt was made to estimate the material and human resources required for the construction of the ziggurats. Mr. Sauvage estimated the quantity of bricks necessary for the construction of the second floor of the ziggurat of Ur at more than 7 million (raw and fired). According to him, the construction of this floor would have required about 95,000 workdays for bricklaying, and 50,000 workdays for other tasks, that is to say 95 and 50 days respectively if 1,000 workers were employed, a number attested in the case of the construction of a temple in the same period. A text from the Neo-Babylonian period tells us that more than 8,500 people were employed in the construction of the ziggurat of Sippar, which is considerable. For the same period, J. Vicari estimates that the ziggurat of Babylon includes 36 million bricks (but that depends on the dimension which one allots to him), being able to be implemented according to him by 1 200 men in 1 250 days, theoretical calculation insofar as this building is in fact an extension of an anterior ziggurat smaller and thus did not require such a work; whereas M. Sauvage estimated that it would have taken about 330 days of work to 1,500 workers (including a good thousand masons) to build it, without taking into account the other materials (wood, reeds) and the stewardship.

It is likely that the administrators in charge of these sites adjusted the personnel mobilized according to the time scheduled for construction and their means. They did not need specialized personnel to prepare the bricks. The workers were probably not available all year round, due to the obligations of agricultural work, maintenance of other public constructions such as canals, etc., which makes it difficult to estimate the time needed for the construction or restoration of a ziggurat, not to mention possible contingencies. Another problem was to find the specialized personnel, the master masons, who could have very wide-ranging skills and were therefore indispensable to the site. On the other hand, nothing is known about the architects who designed and supervised the construction of these buildings, as the ruler systematically presented himself as the designer of them.

Finally, the construction of a ziggurat does not represent a considerable workload, and not necessarily much more than another monument, since a large temple required about 20 million bricks (without counting its dependencies). A royal palace or a wall required much more means.

A high temple

Since the first explorations and excavations of ziggurats in Mesopotamia, speculations have been made as to their function. The first analyses made by explorers and excavators of archaeological sites (Niebhur, de Sarzec) are utilitarian: they are elevated buildings allowing people to shelter from the heat and mosquitoes that abound in the humid zones of Lower Mesopotamia. For Victor Place, the ziggurat of Khorsabad is an observatory for astronomers. This is not their main function, but it is still possible that they were used to observe the Sky, especially since the Mesopotamian “astronomers” were priests. The following interpretations are oriented towards the religious sphere: it has been proposed that the ziggurat is a funerary construction (Hommel), or a symbol of the cosmos or of the earth in miniature (Rawlinson, Jensen, Lagrange), or a divine throne (Lethaby, Dombart).

There is indeed no doubt that ziggurats are buildings with a religious function: they are located in a sacred space, are dedicated to a deity, and bear a ceremonial name in Sumerian like other Mesopotamian temples, beginning with the term É, meaning “house”, because a temple is considered to be the residence of a deity.

If the interpretation of the ziggurat as a temple is accepted, the question remains as to the true meaning of a raised temple. It is generally considered that ziggurats, or rather the temples that surmount them, are not “ordinary” temples, which are those on the ground. Thus, it was quickly identified that if these buildings are indeed architecturally continuations of the archaic terraced temples, from the functional point of view this is not necessarily the case. The German architect and archaeologist Walter Andrae was the first to propose a theory on this subject. He sees in the ziggurat a building intended to carry an elevated sanctuary (Hochtempel) linked to a sanctuary located nearby at ground level (Tieftempel), because indeed ziggurats are usually adjacent to a traditional temple. According to him, the “high temple” would be the usual terrestrial residence of the deity, who can descend to his low temple on occasion. But the textual documentation does not indicate that the ziggurat temples had such an important ritual role (see below).

Moreover, a recent proposal, based in particular on the excavations of the ziggurat of Borsippa, is that the ziggurat should be interpreted as a temple in its entirety, and not only as a support for the high temple on its summit.

A cosmological interpretation: a link between Heaven and Earth

A. Parrot has taken up and extended Andrae’s reflection on the symbolism of ziggurats as a link between the divine world and the world of humans. He sees these buildings as manifesting the desire of men to rise (this is the etymology of the word designating them), undoubtedly in order to be closer to the divine world whose dwelling place is Heaven, as illustrated by the addition of more and more terraces to the ziggurats over the centuries. Later interpretations retained the cosmological aspect of the ziggurat as a link between Heaven and Earth. This is based in particular on the names of certain ziggurats: that of Larsa, “House-bond of Heaven and Earth” (É.DUR.AN.KI), that of Babylon, “House-foundation of Heaven and Earth” (É.TEMEN.AN.KI), or that of Sippar, “House-pure threshold of Heaven” (É.KUN4.AN.KÙ.GA). An inscription of King Nabopolassar concerning the construction of the first one proclaims thus: “Marduk, my lord, commanded me about Etemenanki, to ensure its foundation in the bosom of the lower world and to make its summit rival the heavens. The image of the sky to be reached is also found in the inscriptions of its distant predecessor Samsu-iluna, as well as in Genesis, which tells us that the builders of the Tower of Babel wanted its “top to touch the sky” and that it would be a “gateway to heaven.

This interpretation requires a development of the Mesopotamian conception of the World. According to various texts, especially mythological ones, the ancient Mesopotamians thought that it was made up of Heaven (AN), and of the whole constituted by the Earth and the Lower World (KI), which had been separated at the beginning of Time by a deity or a group of creative deities, whose identity varied according to local traditions. Heaven was the home of the main deities of the Mesopotamian pantheon, the Anunnaki, while the Underworld is the equivalent of the Underworld. Between the two is the earthly surface, where humans live. The ziggurat could therefore symbolize a kind of link between the two great parts constituting the World, or even a passage from one to the other, as the name of the ziggurat of Sippar indicates. The Babylonian Creation Epic (Enuma Eliš) makes the Babylonian ziggurat the center of the World, in the place where the god Marduk created Heaven and Earth after having defeated the primordial deity Tiamat. Principles derived from this cosmology may have governed the construction techniques used to erect the ziggurats, particularly the layout of the foundations and staircases, but this point remains to be clarified in view of the limited textual and archaeological sources. This does not preclude combining this interpretation with older symbolic analyses, such as that which sees the ziggurat as a reproduction of a sacred mountain, an important symbol in Mesopotamian religion as a source of life and especially of contact with the divine world.

The interest of the ziggurat as a point of contact with Heaven seems particularly important. The name of the ziggurat of Borsippa, “House of the Seven Wise Men of Heaven” (É.UR.IMIN.AN.KI.A), refers to its seven floors, which may themselves refer to the seven “wandering” astral bodies known at the time (the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter). One interpretation of a cosmological type seeks to relate the stages of the ziggurat to these stars: the most successful form of the ideal ziggurat (at least in recent times) would be to have seven stages, like the seven astral bodies known by the Mesopotamians. Staying with the observation of the sky, the ritual of Uruk of the Seleucid period which takes place at the top of the ziggurat of this city is linked to the appearance of several stars which can be observed there at night. The name of the high temple of this ziggurat, É.ŠÁR.RA (“House of the Whole”), may be related to the fact that the whole sky could be observed there and approached. It also refers to the old interpretation that these buildings were observatories for the sky, which cannot be completely abandoned.

Ritual function

If the ziggurat has a religious function, and it is generally accepted that it symbolizes a kind of link between the human world and the divine world, although this is never explicitly stated in ancient texts, its ritual function is very poorly documented and little studied, the few hypotheses on this subject are very conjectural.

The ziggurat has a ceremonial name of its own and is distinguished from the low temple in which most of the divine worship is directed. There is very little evidence to suggest that the temples on top of the ziggurats had a cultic role. Nevertheless, architecturally there is a difference between the ziggurats erected after the period of Ur III that function well around the low temple couple

More precise information comes above all from the sanctuary of Marduk in Babylon. We know from the Esagil Tablet that the high temple had six cellae that could house the statues of several deities: Marduk, Nabû and his goddess Tashmetu, Ea, Nusku, Anu and Enlil. Opposite the cella of Marduk was a room containing his bed and his throne. Again, if there is no text mentioning the performance of daily or routine rituals in the temple of the ziggurat, even if such a thing could be assumed. Herodotus says that the divine room sheltered during a ritual the union between the god and a woman of the country. Other Babylonian texts, too fragmentary to be well understood, seem to evoke other rituals taking place in the high temple: the lighting of a brazier during one of the rituals marking the kislimu festival; another rite apparently involving divine images, also taking place in several Babylonian temples; a cultic calendar mentions a day dedicated to “Marduk and Zarpanitu of the Etemenanki”, thus probably the manifestations of the divine couple of the temple at the top of the ziggurat; the mythological and ritual commentary nicknamed Marduk’s Ordalia also seems to evoke rites taking place on the ziggurat of Babylon. It thus emerges from these meager testimonies that the top temple of the ziggurat of this city probably had only a minor ritual function.

Information on rituals that may have taken place in other ziggurats confirms this impression of the secondary role of these buildings in the cult. Two texts from Uruk in the Seleucid period describe two similar rituals taking place on the roof of the temple atop the ziggurat of the god Anu. One of these takes place at night and is apparently intended to ensure the perpetuation of light in a sacred fire, in connection with divine stars. During what seems to be the high point of the ritual, when the stars of the god Anu and his goddess Antu appear, songs are sung, followed by sacrifices punctuated by the appearance of other stars, and the lighting of a torch carrying a sacred fire which is then carried to other places in the sanctuary. The ritual continues in the temple and the rest of the city until dawn. In these cases, therefore, it would be the height of the ziggurat that makes it the ideal place for part of this ritual linked to deified stars, from which one can approach the celestial fullness, and light a torch that perhaps serves to capture the light of the stars of the night, and would symbolize the regeneration of the night, and

Elsewhere in Mesopotamia, texts from the first millennium B.C. (from Borsippa, Sippar and Assur) mention rituals and cult personnel in connection with the ziggurat or its temple, or the deified ziggurat. At least it appears from this very meager documentation that the temples of the ziggurat had a ritual function in these periods.

Elamite documentation on ziggurats also provides clues, at least on the existence of a ritual taking place in the sacred space surrounding that of Chogha Zanbil, at the foot of which a cultic space has been uncovered, including offering tables and an ablutions basin. It can be linked to an Elamite work found in Susa and dated to the following century, the miniature representation of a “sunrise” ritual (sit šamši). Two priests perform a ritual between two buildings, which may well be a stepped altar and a ziggurat (or a second stepped altar), and near an ablution basin. According to its name, this ritual would have taken place at dawn, whereas the worship space of Chogha Zanbil is precisely located on the side of the rising sun.

The architectural posterity of ziggurats after their disappearance seems nil. It is sometimes argued that an Iraqi minaret such as that of Samarra takes its helical form from the ziggurat of Khorsabad, but it is more likely that it was the model of this minaret that influenced Victor Place’s proposed reconstruction of the ziggurat rather than the ziggurat that inspired medieval architects. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine that the ancient building was sufficiently well preserved to serve as a model for the ninth century AD. The meager architectural legacy of the ancient ziggurats since their rediscovery by archaeology can be seen in some of the modern buildings that they more or less inspired.

The ziggurats’ notable posterity concerns only one of them, the ziggurat of Babylon, which partly inspired the myth of the Tower of Babel to the authors of Genesis. This story explains how the inhabitants of Babel (a city inspired by Babylon) tried to reach Heaven before being prevented by God who confused them by multiplying languages. The building also appears in other ancient Greek descriptions of Babylon, and has inspired many artists, especially in Europe, to this day.

It is worth noting that the word “ziggurats” has marked a generation of players of the video game Warcraft 3. Indeed, the phrase “We need more ziggurats!” is an expression often heard by players during the Undead campaign.

Civilizations of the Ancient Near East

Religions and sanctuaries of the ancient Near East

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  1. Ziggurat
  2. Ziggurat
  3. (en) A. L. Oppenheim et al., The Assyrian Dictionary Volume 21, Z, Chicago, 1961, p. 55-56.
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