Observations of Mesopotamian and Elamite Ziggurats

This essay was written for the Mesopotamian Archaeology 123A course taught by Professor David Stronach at the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.

The ziggurat is often defined in the context of a pyramidal, stepped temple tower that serves as the center of religious functions. Unlike the pyramids of Egypt where the pharoahs were entombed for eternity, the ziggurats of Mesopotamia were centers of worship for that city-state?s particular deity. This architectural structure was characteristic of the major cities of Mesopotamia (now in Iraq) from about 2200 until 500 B.C.. The ziggurat was always built with a core of mud brick and an exterior covered with baked brick. It had no internal chambers and was usually square or rectangular, averaging either 170 feet square or 125 x 70 feet (40 x 50 meters) at the base. Approximately 25 ziggurats are known, being equally divided in number among Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria.

No ziggurat is preserved to its original height. Ascent was by an exterior triple stairway or by a spiral ramp, but for almost half of the known ziggurats, no means of ascent has been discovered. The sloping sides and terraces were often landscaped with trees and shrubs (hence the Hanging Gardens of Babylon). The best-preserved ziggurat is at Ur (modern Tall al-Muqayyar). The largest, at Chogha Zanbil in Elam, is 335 feet (102 m) square and 80 feet (24 m) high and stands at less than half its estimated original height. The legendary Tower of Babel has been popularly associated with the ziggurat of the great temple of Marduk in Babylon.

In order to have a greater understanding of the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia and Elam we must first investigate the historical and architectural aspects as such and second we must be aware of the similarities and differences that arose among the ziggurats of these two geographical regions.

We will first turn our attention to the ziggurat of Ur-Nammu (2112-2095 B.C.). According to the foundation-cylinders of Nabonidus, the original Third Dynasty Ziggurat was the joint work of Ur-Nammu and his son Dungi but it was left unfinished. The construction of the ziggurat was continued more or less in the same fashion for a period of 17 years. Approaching the end of the second millennium B.C., the disintegration of the Third Dynasty of Ur began in the early years of Ibbi-Sin’s reign. The gradual collapse of the government was in part due to the feigned ignorance of the year formulae of the Ur monarchy. The continuation of Ibbi-Sin’s reign brought about great conflicts among Ur’s core dominions and eventually led the populace to openly rebel against the government. The forces of Elam under the guise of Kindattu and Shimashki dealt the death blow to the Third Dynasty of Ur at 2002 B.C. I

The Elamite attack on Ur generated a good deal of damage to the public buildings; however, the damage to the Ur-Nammu Ziggurat cannot be accurately gauged but instead must be extrapolated from the condition of the surrounding buildings. The damage cause by the Elamites is explicitly described in parts of the Sumerian compositions of Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur and The Eridu Lament:

The Su-peoples and the Elamites, ‘the destroyers’, looked at ‘the holy kettle, which no one may look at’. The attack is markedly compared to the ‘roaring storm’, distorting the ‘essence’ of the city, tossing the ziggurat ‘into a heap of debris’. Ibid.

Therefore, the evidence from the Neo-Babylonian foundation-tablets accurately corroborate the Sumerian texts in describing the overall condition of the structure. The Neo-Babylonian texts state that at the end of the sixth century B.C. only the lowest stage of Ur-Nammu’s Ziggurat was still standing but the structure remained tolerably well preserved in spite of its age of seventeen centuries. III

We will now cover the architectural aspect of the Mesopotamian ziggurat, but we will specifically focus on the Ur-Nammu Ziggurat. The ziggurat can be cataloged under the early southern variety due in large part to its rectangular platform and three staircases:

A three-storied solid mass of mud brick faced with burnt bricks set in bitumen, rather like a stepped pyramid; on its summit was a small shrine. The lowest stage measures at its foot some 210 by 150 feet (64 by 46 meters), and its height was about 40 feet. On three sides the walls, relieved by shallow buttresses, rose sheer. On the northeast face were three great staircases, each of 100 steps, one projecting at right angles from the center of the building, two leaning against its wall, and all three converging in a gateway between the first and the second terrace. From this a single flight of steps led upward to the top terrace and to the door of the god’s little shrine. VI

As an aside, the roof of the gateway at which the staircases converge is mired in academic controversy (may be not so much of a controversy). Two different theories persist in this argument – the first theory says that the roof of the gateway is flat, while the second theory states that the roof is domed. Moreover, these two theories also apply to the roof of the shrine at the top of the ziggurat.

The excavations showed that by the 3rd millennium B.C. Sumerian architects were acquainted with the column, the arch, the vault, and the dome — i.e. with all the basic forms of architecture. The ziggurat exhibited its refinements. The walls all sloped inward, and their angle, together with the carefully calculated heights of the successive stages, leads the eye inward and upward; the sharper slope of the stairways accentuates that effect and fixes attention on the shrine, the religious focus of the whole huge structure. Surprisingly, there is not a single straight line in the structure. Each wall, from base to top and horizontally from corner to corner, is a convex curve, a curve so slight as not to be apparent but giving to the eye of the observer an illusion of strength where a straight line might have seemed to sag under the weight of the superstructure. The architect thus employed the principle of entasis — the convex curve given to a column, spire, or similar upright member, to avoid the optical illusion of hollowness or weakness that would arise from normal tapering. Ibid

The Ur-Nammu ziggurat consists of four separate stages and evidence has been found that each of these stages was colored a particular, and different color. The four colors of the ziggurat: upper stage being red, the base being black, the middle being whitewashed, and the shrine being a bright blue glaze. The four colors are significant in that they correspond to the astrological views of that time: the stages represent the underworld, the earth, sky, and heaven.

Now, we turn our attention to Elam and the Choga Zambil Ziggurat. It dates from the thirteenth century B.C., the ‘golden age’ of Elam, when king Shutruk-Nahhunte overthrew the Kassite dynasty of Babylon and carried off the statue of Marduk to Susa. And as such belongs, of course, to ancient Sumerian architecture, and to that extent Elam is here following the experiment with modifications of the original design. Instead of the triple stairway against the facade of the building, its three flights converging at the center, the Elamite ziggurat has single stairways on three of its faces, and these have monumental vaulted gate-towers behind which the flights run through vaulted passages contrived inside the brick mass of the building. Here, apparently, we have evidence of originality on the part of Elamite architects; but even so their originality does not go beyond playing a variation on an old theme.

Moreover, the one aspect of the Elamite ziggurat that distinguishes itself from the Ur-Nammu and various other Mesopotamian ziggurats is the addition of the golden horns onto the exterior of the structure – the horns being an overly Elamite symbol that continues till today. Potts’ The Archeology of Elam references several sources that attest to this architectural addition, specifically Assurbanipal’s and Shilhak-Inshushinak’s texts. For example, Assurbanipal states that he destroyed the ziggurat of Susa and broke of its ‘horns’ of shining bronze. Shilhak-Inshushinak refers to the casting of the horns for a place of sacrifice while a horned building appears in the seal impression of Susa II. I


I Potts, D.T. The Archaeology of Elam.
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1999: 70, 142-145, 284-285
II Oates, Joan Babylon.
Thames and Hudson Ltd., London 1979: 156-159
III Wooley, C.L. Ur Excavations: “The ziggurat and its surroundings”,
London 1939: 128-142
IV Roaf, Michael Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia
and the Ancient Near East
, Facts on File, New York 1990: 104-105
V Archaeologische Mitteilunge Aus Iran,
Neue Folge Band 9, Berlin 1976: 101 und Tafel 25
VI Encyclopedia Brittanica: The Excavations of Ur