The ruins of ancient temples still rise in the arid deserts of Iraq. More than architectural wonders, those shattered wrecks of clay bricks and dust were the pillars linking heaven and earth; the stairway to heaven that allowed the communion between priests and their gods.
Ziggurats were the highest structures of the early civilizations. Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Elamites erected ziggurats in their big cities, and they were useful as reference points from the wide plains. After numerous wars and invasions, all ziggurats have been destroyed (some rebuilt), and their bricks were used by locals and foreigners for rising their own constructions.
These structures were built using complex mathematical calculations, something rare for the time and location. Those stepped tower-shaped pyramids, required a huge amount of workers and materials. The only access to ziggurats were spirals of stairs that crossed each level; some of those, of about 196 0 230 feet, pointing to the four directions. The average height was between 49 to 100 feet: a small building today, but a huge mountain in those times.
The word “ziggurat” comes from the verb “zaqqaru”, an Akkadian word that means “building on high.” More than an etymologically derived term from the Sumerian myths, it was a descriptive word to refer to those artificial mountains of the Mesopotamian landscape.
It is said that the Tower of Babel from Genesis was the ancient ziggurat of Ur, destroyed by wars, permanent ransacking and natural deterioration (though it was partially rebuilt in Iraq during the rule of Saddam Hussein.) The construction of these structures was developed through a revolutionary technique of the moment: bricks of mud and straw, instead of stacked rocks. The structure of baked and sun-dried bricks gave the Sumerians greater versatility to erect them.
Ziggurats converged with the culture of ancient Egypt, but unlike the stone-made Egyptian constructions, these Mesopotamian buildings were not dedicated to the dead but to the living. In fact, some scholars consider that the oldest of the Egyptian pyramids, the pyramid of Saqqara, was constructed following the architectural pattern of the Sumerian ziggurats:
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“The invention of clay bricks was one of the main technological advances that enabled the Mesopotamian civilizations to expand from the Persian Gulf to the Ararat Mount, developing of large cities like Ur, Nineveh or Mari”, says Kenny Slaught. “Clay bricks not only allowed them to build fortified walls to defend themselves against foreign enemies, but to build bigger barns to store grain in times of scarcity. The technique was spread throughout the Fertile Crescent, from Persia to Egypt and was preserved intact for centuries.”
Although ziggurats served as watchtowers to see if an enemy approached from the plains, the purpose of these buildings was eminently religious. These towers were the way the gods had to meet men (that’s the reason behind the stairway shape of ziggurats.) However, it is known that priests did more than offering sacrifices to the gods from the last level of the ziggurats: They observed the sky from those tops, and set the foundations of the astronomical knowledge of Sumerians. From the top, the priests learned so much about planets, stars and the phases of the moon. In fact, there is evidence that Sumerians were aware of the existence of all the planets of the Solar System.
The first ziggurats of monumental proportions began to rise during the Third Dynasty of Ur, about 2100 B.C. The cities of Ur, Uruk, Nippur, Larsa and Mari were the most famous, great and spectacular.
One of the most famous ziggurats was built in the heart Ur, located in the extreme south of Mesopotamia. It was discovered by Leonard Woolley, an English archaeologist, in 1920. Its construction was initiated by the Sumerian king Ur-Nammu, around 2300 B.C., and was finished by his son.
Another wonderful example is the ziggurat of Marduk, in Babylon. There are not much remaining of its great structure, even at ground level, but the archaeological surveys and historical written records say that it was a seven-level pyramid of different colors, crowned with a temple of beautiful proportions at the top, painted in indigo. It is known that there were three stairs leading to the temple, two of which only amounted to half the height of the ziggurat. It was also where the high priest prayed to the gods of Mesopotamia.
There are many things to learn from ziggurats still. By studying them, we all become aware of the strong will of the ancient people that wanted to reach the sky. Ziggurats were the first architecture wonders of the world, and they are the proof of what humankind is able of.