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Ziggurat Temples

In the earliest phases of ancient Mesopotamian history, the temple lay at the center of every city and town, the center of power and influence. As the offices of Kingship, or big men, "Lugals" arose, the temple became subsidiary to the Royal palace.

Economic Centers

The Sumerian temples, in many ways, formed the economic centers of the outlying communities. Any temple of even moderate size needed to maintain a full-time staff, requiring regular and reliable sources of income. Offerings of animals and other substances by worshipers supplied a certain amount, but the temple largely relied on leased parcels of farm land rented out to tenant farmers.

As the transactions grew, a rather complex system of bookkeeping and accounting developed. Many inscriptions recovered from the Ur III period (ca. 2100–2000 BC) actually list quite a few transactions involving animals, farmland produces, and even banking records of deposits and withdrawals from "shekel silver" accounts.

Chambers and Rituals

The first temples consisted of small one room structures, eventually evolving into a rectangular building atop an artificial platform. The center cultic room lay flanked by side priestly quarters. Originally opened to everyone, as the temple grew more and more complex, the central room remained off limits to the general public, and the altar of the god lay outside in the courtyards for people to pray and offer food.

The innermost sanctuary housed the patron god, in a place called the "adytum", where the priests laid out meals for the deity to eat. If the meals pleased the god, the priests believed that the god may inhabit the statue, and thus, the city. In order for a priest to even approach the adytum, the disciple needed to conduct several purification rituals.

Another place in the temple, "the abzu" (also a name for the mythical fresh water underworld that lay beneath the land), in the temple most likely a pool or cistern; the priests probably used the pool to wash the hands for ceremonies, or perhaps even bathe. Archaeologists still do not know where such a room existed within the complex. The abode of the abzu comprised the realm of Enki, the god of wisdom, hence the pool may be also the "pool of wisdom".

The duku chamber is still an even more mysterious area hidden within the temple. The name literally means, holy mound or holy hill. A particular text labeled VR50+51, alludes to the duku as a place of judgement, where Shamash, the sun god, comes forth to deliver a verdict on supplicants.

A temple hymn describes the duku as the "House, holy mound, where pure food is eaten." Archaeologists subsequently speculate that the "duku" of the temple is a place where priests spread out cultic meals in offering to the god in order to entice the mighty Shamash from the great mountain, the "Duku", and then the supplicants might ask favors or divine the future.

Inner Temple Orders

The hierarchy of priests within the temple divided into three categories: cultic, divination (analyzing sacrificial entrails), and incantation. Men and women both served as priests. In fact, since the head priest "married" the patron deity of the temple, by default, the head priest always remained the opposite sex (often females).

The female En priestess never married yet had children occasionally. Officially married to the head deity, she performed sacrificial services, and purification rites. The En female resided in a specific room called the gipar.

The secondary high ranking priest, the sanga priest, an office that combined cultic and administrative powers, held the education of a scribe, and usually functioned simultaneously on a panel of judges. The king personally appointed the sanga, in fact many kings took on the position.

The gudu practiced bloodless offerings to the dead, and engaged in musical acts. The gudu probably wore a special set of clothes, as the closely related Akkadian name of the Sumerian gudu translates to pasisu, "anointed", also similar to the Hebrew, Kutonet Passim, meaning, "coat of many colors."

List of Ziggurats and Temples

The following is a list of most of the known ziggurats and temples dotting the middle eastern region. Due to the flooding and erosion rates concomitant with the alluvial plain of the two rivers, little remains of the sites and/or lie under large amounts of sediments, and sand.

Eridu Temple

Perhaps the earliest and biggest ziggurat and temple (surprisingly), lay at Eridu, adjacent the Persian Gulf shores, which historians agree is the location of the original flowering of urban civilization in ancient Mesopotamia. Little but mounds and dirt remain, but originally a great temple stood on the site perhaps as early as 5300BC, to the god Enki, god of wisdom.

Artist Rendering of Eridu Temple


Anu Ziggurat of Uruk

The Anu district at Uruk, near the Persian Gulf, consists of a single massive terrace, dedicated to the Sumerian sky god, An. Within the Uruk III period, a huge White Temple rose up atop the terrace, and under the northwest edge in the Uruk IV period, the Stone Temple.

The Stone Temple consisted of limestone and bitumen on a podium of rammed earth, plastered with lime mortar. Under the podium, a woven reed mat called a giparu lay, also a word meaning nuptial bed. Allusions on vessels, channels and tanks, connects the temple with the sacred creation myth of Enuma Elish.

Later in history, an unknown group of people destroyed the temple, ritually, covering the remains with alternating layers of clay and stone, and then filled entirely with mortar in a separate stage later on. 

The Anu Ziggurat mound possessed a cella at the top, c.4000BC, and expanded over 14 phases of construction. The earliest phase used typology similar to settlements in early Anatolia (modern Turkey), evidenced with terazzo floors, replete with bull heads, iconography common at Catal Huyuk (7500-5200BC).

In phase E, corresponding to Uruk III period c 3000 BC, the White Temple started to rise above the plains of the city. The designers clearly intended the White Temple to be seen from afar, as the building reached 21 meters, covered in white gypsum plaster, blindingly reflective in the desert sun.

In addition to the temple, the Anu Ziggurat also contained a monumental limestone paved staircase used in religious processions. A trough running parallel to the staircase drained waster water away from the ziggurat.

The Great Ziggurat of Ur


The name of the Ur Ziggurat, E-temen-niguru, literally means "House whose foundation creates terror," a name that might explain Suddam Hussein's past infatuation and obsessive restoration of the site.

The ziggurat is perhaps the most famous of all ziggurats in Mesopotamia. Historians believe that Ur-Nammu built the temple in the 21st century BC, the Ur III Dynasty period. In that time the structure stretched 210 ft in length, 150 ft in width, and 100 ft in height. King Shulgi finished the temple, dedicated to Nanna the mood god in the 21st century BC. During Shulgi's reign, the city ruled over a larger part of the greater Mesopotamian region.

Before Hussein's Renovations

King Nabonidus of the Neo-Babylonian kingdom c. 6th century BC, restored the monument, which at that point amounted to little but the base level. Nabonidus instead built the temple in seven tiers rather than Ur-Nammu's previous three.

The first western explorer William Kennett Loftus described the ruins in the early 19th century. Extensive excavations began under Sir Leonard Woolley, originally appointed to lead digs by the University of Pennsylvania and the British Museum.

Remains of the ziggurat consist of three layers of mud brick faced with burnt bricks with bitumen mortar. The lowest layer corresponds to the original construction of Ur-Nammu, while the two upper layers are Neo-Babylonian restorations.

Saddam Hussein in the 1980's, rebuilt the facade of the structure, and partially restored the monumental stair case. Despite damage done in the 1991 Gulf War, shaken by four nearby bomb explosions, and marred by 400 bullet holes, the monument remains the best preserved ancient Ziggurat in Iraq and Iran, next to that of Chogha  Zanbil. Curator Dief Mohssein Naiif al-Gizzy now protects the site.

Sippar Ziggurat (Abu Habbah)

The Ziggurat of Sippar lay dedicated to Utu (Akkadian name: Shamash), the patron deity that fought darkness and evil, god of justice, the supreme judge, also the protective divinity of the kingship and one of the most important divinities of the Mesopotamian kingdoms. The area is located about 60 km north of Babylon and 30 km southeast of modern Baghdad in the Babil Iraqi governate (also Tell Abu Habbah).

The first written reference to Sippar dates to the 23rd century BC. Around 35,000 written records from the 19th-16th c. BC ("old-babylonian period") and especially from the 8th-6th c. BC (neo-babylonian period) inform us on the economy and administration of the city as well as on religious beliefs and literature. The main sanctuary "E-babbar" of the sun god Šamaš remained in use for about 2000 years and underwent countless renovations over the years.

Nebuchadnezzar II and Nabonidos of Neo-Babylon later record repairing the Shamash temple of E-babbara.

Scholars believe that the victory stele of King Naram-Suen and the famous Law Code of Hammurabi originally lay within the city. The golden age of the city ended with the neo-babylonian period.

Hormuzd Rassam did excavations of the site between 1880 and 1881, for the British Museum. Tens of thousands of tablets unearthed from the site included the Tablet of Shamash in the temple. Most comprised of Neo-Babylonian era tablets.

The tablets ended up in the British Museum, and still remain under study. Still many people think a large portion of tablets are lost due to popular vandalism and theft near Baghdad.

In 1894, Jean-Vincent Scheil briefly worked at Sippar, recovering many Old Babylonian tablets for the Istanbul Museum. Recently, in 1972 to 1973, a Belgian team conducted digs and later, the Iraqi University of Baghdad led by Walid al-Jadir and Farouk al-Rawi, started to dig in 1977 and still continue to the present day. The German Archaeological Institute joined the Iraqi team in 2000.

Archaeologically traces of younger periods such as the Achaemenid, Seleucid and Parthian period (6th c. BC-2nd/3rd c. AD), litter the site.

Etenenanki (The Tower of Babel)Hypothetically rendered Model

The greatest ziggurat of all time surely would have been, if it had not been dismantled by Alexander the Great in the 3rd century BC out of jealousy, the ziggurat Etemenanki of Babylon (the tower of Babel). According to a tablet from Uruk, the tower rose 7 stories 248 feet high, half the height of the Great Pyramid at Giza. Hebrew scholars such as Stephen L Harris contend that the Etemenanki ziggurat inspired the account of the tower of Babel during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews during the time of Nebuchannezar II.

What remains of the tower today

When exactly the building originally rose is contested by scholars, but a number propose a date as early as the 14th century BC. In Nebuchannezar II's own words:

"A former king built the Temple of the Seven Lights of the Earth, but he did not complete its head. Since a remote time, people had abandoned it, without order expressing their words. Since that time earthquakes and lightning had dispersed its sun-dried clay; the bricks of the casing had split, and the earth of the interior had been scattered in heaps. Marduk, the great lord, excited my mind to repair this building. I did not change the site, nor did I take away the foundation stone as it had been in former times. So I founded it, I made it; as it had been in ancient days, I so exalted the summit."

Archaeologist Robert Koldewey claimed to originally have discovered the remaining base of the tower in 1917.

Assur Ziggurat

The Assyrian King Shamshi-Adad I built the ziggurat of Assur in 1813-1781BC, surrounded by temples dedicated to Ishtar, Adad, and Ashur. During the Assyrian empire, the city remained the religious center of the country.

Aqar Kuf Ziggurat

The Kassite King Kurigalzu built the Ziggurat of Dur-Kurigalzu (Aqar Quf) in the 14th century BC. The core structure consists of sun dried square bricks, with reed mats lain every 7 layers to drain runoff and hold the bricks together, outlined with burnt bricks to provide additional strength to the weathering elements. An inscription on one of the fired bricks states that it was lain in the reign of King Kurigalzu II. Today both types of brick, sun dried and fired, are still used in Iraq to build farm houses. 

The ziggurat at Aqar Quf has been a very visible ancient monument for centuries and next to the Ziggurat of Ur, and Chogha Zanbil, the monument is excellently preserved. For camel caravans and modern road traffic, the ziggurat served, and still does, a signal of near approach to Baghdad. Baghdadi families often picnic on Fridays in the vicinity of the monument. A small museum served visitors to the site in the 1960's. That structure needs renovation, however.

Claudius James Rich first described the site in western literature in 1811. Francis Rawdon Chesney later visited Aqar Quf (referred to then as Akerkuf, Agger Koof, or Akar-kuf) in 1837. Henry Creswicke Rawlinson identified inscriptions linking Dur Kurigalzu to the ziggurat in the mid 1800's.

Taha Baqir, the Iraqi Directorate-General of Antiquities and Seton Lloyd of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq joined to conduct excavations from 1942 to 1945 of the entire site. A total of 100 cuneiform tablets dating to the Kassite era lay in the ruins, now residing in the National Museum of Iraq. Saddam Hussein restored the lowest stages of the building in the 1970's, and the Iraqi Directorate-General of Antiquities continues excavations of the ziggurat to the present.

Aqar Quf is currently suffering environmental damage and urban encroachment. Rain and standing groundwater contribute to the erosion of the ziggurat especially along the south-west side. The structure is in danger of collapse if measures are not taken soon.

The developing suburban areas and industrial zones of Baghdad continue to enroach upon the site; trenches dug in the 1980's by the Iraq Army also added to the instability of the walls on the south-west side, further complicated by irrigated farms nearby extending the water table closer to the monument.

During the latest U.S.-Iraq War, vandals looted the site. The modern administration building, museum, event stage and restaurant that once served picnickers and students now lies in ruins. Local government officials and the U.S. military plan to devise a series of renovation plans. Since mid-2008, plans are in the works, but the Iraq Ministry of History and Ruins is not forthcoming with funds, as the country is in dire financial straits.

Nippur Ziggurat (Place of Kings)

A very early strata at Nippur reveals an early version of the final ziggurat of Ur-Nammu, a building of supposedly great antiquity standing on a raised platform, a characteristic in keeping with the well known Ziggurat form.Partly razing the constructions of predecessors, Ur-Nammu (2047-2030BC) erected a terrace of bricks, about 12 m high, covering a space of about 32,000 m² at the spot. Near the northwestern edge, towards the western corner, the king built the ziggurat out of three stages of dry brick, faced with fired bricks lain in with bitumen mortar.

Top Most shrine

On the summit stood, as at Ur and Eridu, a small chamber, the special shrine or abode of the god. An inclined plane on the south-east side granted access to the higher stages of the ziggurat from the court beneath. To the north-east of the ziggurat stood the House of Bel, and in courts below, various shrines and treasure chambers. The whole structure, like the Great Pyramid of Giza, is oriented with corners toward the cardinal points of the compass, reemphasizing the sites apparent religious and cultural significance.

Often kings of other city states referred to the city as the holy place to which kings might gain respect as the head King in the region. The foreign Akkadian conqueror, Sargon the Great, attempted to claim divine status by traveling to the city, and wrote the name of Nippur down in imperial records alongside the King's name.

Borsippa Ziggurat (The Tongue Tower)

The ziggurat of Borsippa (The Tongue Tower) is about 11 miles southwest of Babylon. For the most part, the site lay in the regional control of the Neo-Babylonian empire, with a temple dedicated to Nabu, the son of Marduk (the patron of Babylon) at the site. A large amount of the structure fell into ruins with a revolt to Xerxes of the Persian empire around 484 BC.

Many legal administrative and astronomical texts originate at Borsippa. An inscription of Nebuchadnezzar II, the "Borsippa inscription," recounts how the ruler restored the temple of Nabu, "the temple of the seven spheres," with "bricks of noble lapis lazuli." covering the ziggurat with a rich blue glaze, surely a memorable sight.

Austrian archeologists at site since the 1980's speculate that Nebuchadnezzar's ziggurat encased the ruins of a smaller tower from the second millennium BCE. Completed, the tower reached a height of 231 feet, in seven terraces; even in ruin it still stands a striking 172 feet over the perfectly flat plain.

Chogha Zanbil Ziggurat

The ziggurat of Chogha Zanbil lies approximately 42 kilometeres South Southwest of Dezfoul, 30 kilometers West of Susa and 80 kilometers North of Ahvaz in Iran.

Choga Zambil means 'basket mound.' The King Untash-Napirisha built the temple in 1250 BC to honor the patron god Inshushinak. Originally, the name of the site, Dur Untash, "Town of Untash", remained mostly a religious sacred site, as archaeologists do not believe many domestic structures surrounded the temple.

The complex is protected by three concentric walls which define the main areas of the 'town'. The inner area is wholly taken up with a great ziggurat dedicated to the main god, which scientists think lies atop an earlier square temple loaded with storage rooms. The middle area holds eleven temples for lesser gods. In the outer area are royal palaces, a funerary palace containing five subterranean royal tombs.

Completed Model of Chogha Zanbil

Although construction in the city abruptly ended after Untash-Napirisha's death, the site remained occupied, until ruthless Assyrian King Ashurbanipal ravaged the temple in 640BC. Scholars believe that Chogha Zanbil represented an attempt by Untash-Napirisha to unify the lower and northern Elamite cultural spheres and disparate gods at Dur-Untash, between Susa and Anshan in the southeast.

Tepe Sialk

The Sialk mound arose in what is now modern Iran around the 8th century BC. Iran's Cultural Heritage Organization, the Louvre museum, and the Insitut Francais de Recherche en Iran verify that Sialk dates as far back as 5500-6000BC.

Tepe Sialk is a mud-brick platform, possibly providing support for a building in the distant past, perhaps not a temple or ziggurat. What little remains of the platforms is now increasingly threatened by urban development of the ever expanding city of Kashan. Kids often kick soccer balls in the ruins.

Sialk, and the entire area, probably prospered due to the close by large water sources. The Fin garden, built quite recently in the 17th century, is a popular tourist attraction. Persian kings of the Safavid dynasty also spent vacations away from the capital cities nearby. Piruz (Abu-Lu'lu'ah), the Iranian assassin that killed Islam's second Caliph, is also buried close to the ruins.


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