What Is a Ziggurat and How Were They Built?

Understanding the Ancient Temples of the Middle East

Great Ziggurat of Ur, Iraq, 1977.
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You know of the pyramids of Egypt and the Mayan temples of Central America, yet the Middle East has its own ancient temples, called ziggurats. These once towering structures dotted the lands of Mesopotamia and served as temples to the gods.

It is believed that every major city in Mesopotamia once had a ziggurat. Many of these step pyramids have been destroyed over the thousands of years since they were constructed. Today, one of the best-preserved ziggurats is Tchongha (or Chonga) Zanbil in the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan.

What Is a Ziggurat?

A ziggurat is an ancient temple that was common in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq and western Iran) during the civilizations of Sumer, Babylon, and Assyria. Ziggurats are pyramidal in shape but not nearly as symmetrical, precise, or architecturally pleasing as Egyptian pyramids.

Rather than the enormous masonry that made the Egyptian pyramids, ziggurats were built of much smaller sun-baked mud bricks. Like the pyramids, ziggurats had mystical purposes as shrines, with the top of the ziggurat the most sacred spot. The first ziggurat dates back to around 3000 BCE to 2200 BCE, and the latest dates from around 500 BCE.

The legendary Tower of Babel was one such ziggurat. It is believed to have been the ziggurat of the Babylonian god Marduk.

Herodotus' "Histories" includes, in Book I (para. 181), one of the best-known descriptions of a ziggurat:

"In the middle of the precinct there was a tower of solid masonry, a furlong in length and breadth, upon which was raised a second tower, and on that a third, and so on up to eight. 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 are wont to sit 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."

As with most ancient cultures, the people of Mesopotamia built their ziggurats to serve as temples. The details that went into their planning and design were carefully chosen and filled with symbolism important to the religious beliefs. However, we do not quite understand everything about them.

How Were Ziggurats Constructed?

The bases of ziggurats were either square or rectangular shaped and averaged around 50 to 100 feet per side. The sides sloped upward as each level was added. As Herodotus mentioned, there may have been up to eight levels, and some estimates place the height of some finished ziggurats at around 150 feet. 

There was significance in the number of levels on the way to the top as well as the placement and incline of the ramps. Unlike step pyramids, these ramps included external flights of stairs. It should also be noted that some monumental buildings in Iran that may have been ziggurats are believed to have had only ramps, while other ziggurats in Mesopotamia used stairs.

Excavations have found the construction of multiple foundations on a site, done over time. With the deterioration of the mud bricks or the destruction of the entire edifice, suceeding kings would order the structure rebuilt on the same location as its predecessor.

What the Ziggurat of Ur Has Revealed

The Great Ziggurat of Ur near Nasiriyah in Iraq has been thoroughly studied and has led to many clues regarding these temples. Early 20th-century excavations of the site revealed a structure that was 210 by 150 feet at the base and topped with three terrace levels.

A set of three massive staircases led to the gated first terrace from which another staircase led to the next level. On top of this was the third terrace, where it is believed the temple was constructed for the gods and priests.

The interior foundation was made of mud brick, which was covered by baked bricks laid with bitumen (a natural tar) mortar for protection. Each brick weighs approximately 33 pounds and measures 11.5 by 11.5 by 2.75 inches, significantly smaller than those used in Egypt. It's estimated that the lower terrace alone required around 720,000 bricks.

Studying the Ziggurats Today

Just as is the case with the pyramids and Mayan temples, there is still much to be learned about the ziggurats of Mesopotamia. Archeologists continue to discover new details and uncover fascinating aspects of how the temples were constructed and used.

As one might expect, preserving what is left of these ancient temples has not been easy. Some were already in ruins by the time of Alexander the Great (who ruled 336–323 BCE), and more have been destroyed, vandalized, or otherwise have deteriorated since then.

Tensions in the Middle East have not helped the progress of our understanding of the ziggurats, either. While it's relatively easy for scholars to study the Egyptian pyramids and Mayan temples to unlock their secrets, conflicts in this region, especially in Iraq, have significantly curbed study of the ziggurats. The Islamic State group apparently destroyed the 2,900-year-old structure at Nimrud, Iraq, in the second half of 2016.