What is Chogha Zanbil?

Brendan McGuigan

Chogha Zanbil is an enormous ziggurat located in Iran. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1979. The site is more than three-thousand years old, and is in remarkably good condition. It is also one of the only ziggurats built outside of Mesopotamia.

Chogha Zanbil is a 3,000-year-old ziggurat in Iran.
Chogha Zanbil is a 3,000-year-old ziggurat in Iran.

Ziggurats were constructed by a number of the people who inhabited Mesopotamia, including the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and the Sumerians, all of whom constructed enormous examples. The oldest ziggurats reach back to the 4th millennium BCE, and they were no longer built after about the 6th century BCE. In that three-thousand year span of time, more than thirty known ziggurats were constructed, and Chogha Zanbil is one of the greatest examples of its kind, and the largest in modern-day Iran.

Ziggurats were built as resting places for the gods.
Ziggurats were built as resting places for the gods.

Ziggurats were built not as temples in the traditional sense, in that they weren’t meant for priests to reside in or perform rituals in. Instead, a ziggurat was viewed as a resting place for the gods. By building a ziggurat near a major city, the rulers could ensure that the gods stayed near, offering their aid in battle and keeping the crops growing. Ziggurats were essentially large pyramids, with anywhere from three to seven stories. The ziggurats were closed to all but the priests of these Mesopotamian societies, who made offerings at a shrine that was located at the top of the ziggurat.

Chogha Zanbil is one of the most intact ziggurats left in the world, and as such offers an excellent opportunity to view this fascinating bit of history from thousands of years ago. Chogha Zanbil was built sometime in the 13th century BCE, by king Untash-Napirisha. The ziggurat was constructed as a dwelling for Inshushinak, one of the three major Elamite go. Inshushinak was also known as the Father of the Week, and was looked at as a wise and generous god, judging the dead in the underworld along with the goddess Lagamal.

Inshushinak was also known as the Lord of Susa, where his major temple was. Some people believe that Untash-Napirisha constructed Chogha Zanbil in an effort to turn the region into a new religious hub, taking the place of Susa. The grand project was abandoned, however, upon Untash-Napirisha’s death, although Chogha Zanbil continued to be occupied and used until the 7th century BCE, when it was damaged by the Assyrians.

The entire complex of Chogha Zanbil contains eleven minor temples, in addition to the ziggurat of Inshushinak, a royal palace, various tombs, and a three-tiered wall guarding the area. Originally it appears the complex was meant to house a full twenty-two temples, each devoted to a various minor god of the Elamites. Because of the breadth of gods represented, it is possible Untash-Napirisha intended Chogha Zanbil to help unite the religions of the highlands and lowlands in Elam.

The ziggurat at Chogha Zanbil has five stories, and although it has collapsed over the years from wind and water, and from earlier attacks, it is still remarkably preserved. The entire shape can still be seen quite clearly from a distance, inscriptions are still found on many stones, water channels made of brick are still fully intact, and a number of carved visual elements are still found in situ.

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