What is a Ziggurat?

Ur Ziggurat Ruins
Ur Ziggurat Ruins. CC Flickr User The National Guard.

Description 

A ziggurat is a very ancient and massive building structure of a particular shape that served as part of a temple complex in the various local religions of Mesopotamia and the flat highlands of what is now western Iran. Sumer, Babylonia and Assyria are known to have about 25 ziggurats, evenly divided among them.

The shape of a ziggurat makes it clearly identifiable: a roughly square platform base with sides that recede inward as the structure rises, and a flat top presumed to have supported some form of shrine.

Sun-baked bricks form the core of a ziggurat, with fire-baked bricks forming the outer faces. Unlike the Egyptian pyramids, a ziggurat was a solid structure with no internal chambers. An external staircase or spiral ramp provided access to the top platform. 

The word ziggurat is from an extinct Semitic language, and derives from a verb that means "to build on a flat space."

The handful of ziggurats still visible are all in various states of ruin, but based on the dimensions of their bases,  it is believed that they may have been as much as 150 ft. high. It is likely that the terraced sides were planted with shrubs and flowering plants, and many scholars believe that the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon was a ziggurat structure. 

History and Function

Ziggurats are some of the oldest of ancient religious structures in the world, with the first examples dating to about 2200 BCE and the last constructions dating to approximately 500 BCE.

Only a few of the Egyptian pyramids predate the oldest ziggurats. 

Ziggurats were constructed by many local regions of the Mesopotamia regions. The exact purpose of a ziggurat is unknown, since these religions did not document their belief systems in the same manner as, for example, the Egyptians did.

It is a fair assumption, though, to think that ziggurats, like most temple structures for various religions, was conceived of as homes for the local gods. There is no evidence to suggest they were used as locations for public worship or ritual, and it is believed that only priests were generally in attendance at a ziggurat. Except for small chambers around the bottom outer level, these were solid structures with no large internal spaces. 

Preserved Ziggurats

Only small handful of ziggurats can be studied today, most of them badly ruined. 

  • One of the best-preserved is the Ziggurat of Ur, which is in the modern Iraq city of Tall al-Muqayyar. 
  • The largest ruin, at Chogha Zanbil, Elam (in what is now southwestern Iran), is 335 feet (102 meters) square and 80 feet (24 meters) high, though this is less than half its estimated original height.
  • A very old ziggurat is located at Tepe Sialk in modern Kashan, Iran.
  • Some scholars believe that the legendary Tower of Babel may have been a ziggurat that was part of a temple complex in Babylon (present-day Iraq). Only the faintest ruins now remain of that ziggurat, however.