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A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Architecture

By Gwendolyn Leick | Go to book overview

Z

ziggurat

Religious structure of considerable height which dominated the skyline of most Mesopotamian cities. They were composed of numerous layers of solid mudbrick, with an outer casing of baked bricks. Most ziggurats (the Akkadian word from which the name is derived means ‘to be high’) are severely eroded and there are very few original texts which throw any light on their function and appearance.

Only the exterior of these solid monuments could be utilised, and ramps and stairways gave access to the top. One unique sanctuary on the summit of a ziggurat was found (at URUK) and it is not certain whether the later (2nd and 1st millennia BC) structures also had ‘High Temples’. Herodotus (Hist. I. 185) describes a ritual known as the Sacred Marriage, which culminated in the sexual union of a priestess and the king to symbolise the communion of mankind and the gods; this was supposedly celebrated in a temple on top of the ziggurat. There is, however, no support for this account in Akkadian texts, and the association of the ziggurat with Sacred Marriage rites, which was assumed as factual in most earlier publications discussing ziggurats, needs to be revised. It has been suggested (Lenzen) that the ziggurat developed from the rectangular socle or platform of early Mesopotamian temples.

One of the earliest excavated examples (c. first quarter of the 3rd millennium BC) is the so-called Anu Ziggurat in Uruk (level VI). It had an irregular outline and a ramp parallel to one of the outer faces, which were inclined and articulated with buttresses. The shrine on top, the so-called White Temple, has the architectural features of the period. The great age of the ziggurat, however, coincides with the great age of Mesopotamian architecture, the Ur III period. The best preserved example is the ziggurat built by Urnammu at UR. It stood within its own enclosure or temenos, was oriented to the points of the compass, and access to the first stage was by three ramps, the middle one of which rose from the ground at right angles to the outer face. The mudbrick core was carefully drained with clay pipes and there were internal layers of rush-matting and reeds to even out the pressure. Only the first two stages have survived and nothing is known about the upper parts of the structures.

The northern ziggurats (MARI, TELL AL-RIMAH, ASSUR etc) were not entirely free-standing structures, but were attached to lower temple buildings, the CELLAE of which were hollowed out of the ziggurat’s core. If these monuments had any shrines on top, which is not certain, access must have been via the roof terraces of these temples. In the 1st-millennium Assyrian temples, such comparatively small ziggurats were annexed to most major temples (in the case of the double sanctuary of Anu and Adad in Assur, one for each).

The Elamite ziggurat at CHOGA ZANBIL was probably inspired by the Mesopotamian prototype, but had many

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