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Ziggurat (Ur, 3rd millennium BC)

Ziggurat (Ur, 3rd millennium BC)

Ziggurats were typical terraced step pyramids used as temples in ancient Mesopotamia.



Ziggurat, temple tower, Mesopotamia, Ur, church, civilisation, edifice, sanctuary, religion, ceremony, Sumerians, city, 3rd millennium BC, history, antiquity, astronomy, architecture, temple district, clergy, deities

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  • On the banks of which river was the ancient city of Ur situated?
  • Which Biblical figure was born in the city of Ur (according to the Bible)?
  • Which god was the shrine district in Ur dedicated to?



Sumerian step pyramids

Ziggurats (from Akkadian ziqqurat ‘built on a raised area’) were massive stepped pyramids built in ancient Mesopotamia. The pyramidal shape was the result of a mere coincidence, but later architects deliberately chose this shape. Ziggurats were built in the centre of temple districts of cities. Their primary function was religious, but they were also used for scientific purposes.

Ziggurats were solid buildings constructed of clay bricks (dried mud bricks inside, fired bricks outside). Ziggurats also had drainage systems against flooding. All the levels were surrounded by thick walls.

There were external staircases leading to the shrine located on the top. The statue of the protecting god of the temple stood in the shrine, opposite the entrance. According to Mesopotamians, the shrine was the ‘residence’ of the deity.

Astronomical observations were also conducted on the top level.

The Great Ziggurat of Ur today


Sumerian religion

Sumerians had a rich mythology, certain sources mention thousands of deities being worshipped. They identified their gods with the forces of Nature. The three principal gods were Anu (father and king of the gods, sky-god), Enlil (god of the air, breath and winds) and Enki (god of the water). Utu (god of the Sun), Nanna (god of the Moon) and Innin (fertility goddess) were also worshipped with great respect.

As religious ceremonies grew more complex, the influence of the class of priests was increasing. Monarchs were also religious leaders. Divination (fortune-telling based on astronomy) was common practice. Sumerian scholars devoted themselves to religion and sciences as well.

Sumerians believed in afterlife, in Heaven and Hell. Their gods were cruel and capricious, therefore they often offered them sacrifices in the shrines.


The temple and the priesthood

The greatest cultural achievement of the 3rd dynasty of Ur (founded by King Ur-Nammu) was the construction of ziggurats.

The Great Ziggurat of Ur was dedicated in honour of Nanna, the god of the Moon. The structure measured about 30 m in height, 64 m in length and 46 m in width. There were three flights of stairs; the central one led to the shrine of the god.

The complex system of stairs and rooms designed for ritual purposes symbolised the hierarchy of priests and deities. Priests, who were leaders of religious life, mediators between the deities and humans, and also fortune-tellers, were treated with great respect.

Priests and clerks lived in chambers of the temple. The temple also contained a large room for the archives.


The city of Ur

Time travel


The peoples of ancient Mesopotamia enriched universal culture with their numerous valuable contributions. These include buildings which bear out the advanced culture of Mesopotamia. Like other ancient peoples, the Mesopotamians built their greatest buildings for religious purposes.

The ziggurats were typical Mesopotamian structures in the form of terraced step pyramids with several levels proportionally decreasing in area and a shrine at the topmost level. At first, this form grew out of the continuous renovation and extension of earlier temples. The ziggurats were part of a walled temple district in the centres of cities.

The most famous of this type of building is the Great Ziggurat of Ur. Although the ziggurats usually consisted of seven levels, this one only had four, each surrounded by walls. The building was about 30 m high, 64 m long and 46 m wide. The inner walls were built of dried mud bricks, and the outside walls were made of fired bricks.

The first level could be approached via three external staircases, which then merged and led to the topmost level of the building, to the shrine. This was where the most important sacrifices and ceremonies were conducted by the priests. This level was not only for religious purposes, but scientific purposes as well: priests and astronomers (or astrologists) observed the heavens from here.

The central, enclosed temple district and the structure of the ziggurats signify the hierarchy in Mesopotamian society. Towers were intended to serve as gateways between humans and the world of the deities.

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