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What is a Ziggurat?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 31 July 2014
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A ziggurat is a structure which takes the form of a terraced pyramid, with a flat platform at its apex. Ziggurats can be found scattered across lands once occupied by Mesopotamian civilizations, and also in parts of Mesoamerica. These mammoth structures are quite remarkable, when one considers that the people who built them did not have access to modern architectural, engineering, and construction tools, and they are fascinating sites to visit and study.

Some people believe that the Mesopotamian ziggurat served as the model for the Egyptian pyramid, and this is certainly possible. In some cases, parts of ziggurats were even covered with smooth facing, causing them to closely resemble pyramids, but they also featured stairs and ramps for access, and the platform on top typically housed a temple, as ziggurats were used as places of worship, rather than burial.

From archaeological evidence, historians surmise that the Sumerians and Babylonians viewed ziggurats as homes of the gods, and access to them appears to have been restricted to priests and other religious officials. These officials cared for the ziggurat and made offerings to the god it housed, holding various ceremonies to honor the gods and ask them to help the community. These massive temple towers were typically enclosed in large complexes with space to house priests, sacrificial animals, and an extensive support staff.

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Some famous ziggurats which people can visit include Sailk in Iran, believed to be the oldest ziggurat, along with the White Temple of Uruk, a simple ziggurat, and the massive Ziggurat at Ur. The Sailk Ziggurat dates back to before the third millennium BCE, illustrating how very old it is. Although the walls of these structures are made of dull stone today, when they were built, the ziggurats were glazed and painted in a myriad of colors, with murals and other works of art decorating the structure both inside and out. Much of this art undoubtedly had religious significance.

It is interesting that not long after the Babylonians and Assyrians built their massive ziggurats, Mesoamerican cultures constructed their own step pyramids, and the structures are remarkably similar. It is unlikely that these cultures had contact with each other, so apparently the association of pyramids and religious worship arose spontaneously and totally independently in these very different regions of the world. Whether in the lush jungles of Central America or the remote deserts of Iraq, these structures are distinctive and they tend to dominate the surrounding landscape, just as they did thousands of years ago, when they were in active use.

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Discuss this Article

Monika
Post 3

I'm always amazed at how ancient people were able to build these gigantic structures without any modern tools. I saw a picture of a Babylonian ziggurat once, and I'm telling you, I would have no idea where to start to make something so gigantic.

From what I understand though, these projects took many decades to complete. It's not like today where you start on a building and it's finished in under a year. So while it is amazing ancient people were able to build these, I don't think it's totally outside the realm of possibility!

KaBoom
Post 2

@indemnifyme - I've caught bits and pieces of those specials on television about pyramids and aliens and things like that. I think it's a lot more likely that the tradition of pyramids and ziggurats is even older than there is evidence of today.

Even though people in South America didn't have any contact with people in the Middle East during ancient times, there's no reason why they couldn't have common ancestors or something.

Anyway, I think it's kind of interesting that ziggurats in Mesopotamia were used as temples, while the pyramids were used for burial. Similar structures, but totally different uses.

indemnifyme
Post 1

I learned about pyramids and ziggurat building when I took history of western art in college. I was amazed at how similar the ziggurats in the Middle East were with the ones in South America. Really, I think they look almost identical.

I know there are a lot of conspiracy theories about the pyramids and aliens and things like that, but I think they really arose spontaneously in different parts of the world. It kind of makes sense, considering the two groups of people probably had similar tools, and maybe a similar worldview. So they evolved very similar styles of religious architecture.

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