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.
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.