Ziggurat is an anglicized form of the Akkadian word ziqqurratum, the name given to the solid stepped towers of mud brick. It derives from the verb zaqaru, ‘to be high'.
The ziggurat was part of the religious architecture found at the centre of Mesopotamian settlements and was probably a feature of most cities after c.2000 B.C. Millions of sun-dried mud bricks were used in their construction. Layers of bricks were often separated by layers of reeds, perhaps helping to spread the load or allow drainage. Baked bricks and bitumen were used to protect the exterior from rain and wind. In Babylonia ziggurats had a shrine on the top-most stage but it has been suggested that in Assyria there were no buildings on the summit.
Cuneiform texts from 2100 B.C. onwards refer to temples with seven storeys, and are described as being like mountains linking earth and heaven. However, depictions on cylinder seals, boundary stones, stone reliefs and clay tablets show buildings with either four or five storeys. Some of the seals date to the mid-third millennium B.C. which shows that the idea of a ziggurat predates the best known and best preserved example at Ur (c.2100 B.C.).
It seems likely that ziggurats developed in southern Mesopotamia from the need to raise important buildings above the flat flood-plain. As a mud brick shrine became too small or old, the foundations and first few courses of brick work were incorporated into the platform supporting the next temple. This process is best known from excavations at the sites of Uruk and Eridu.
The mountains to the east of Mesopotamia were thought to be where some gods lived (especially celestial deities which appeared to rise up from them). The ziggurat may therefore have been thought of as bringing the home of the gods to the flat plains of Mesopotamia. It may also have been viewed as a stairway to heaven or the point where heaven and earth met. They would have been an ideal place to view the stars, but there is no evidence that they were ever used for astrological observations.
The ziggurat at Ur, excavated by Leonard Woolley, is 64 by 46 metres at base and originally some 12 metres in height with three storeys. It was built under Ur-Nammu (c.2100 B.C.) and rebuilt under Nabonidus (555-539 B.C.) when it was increased in height to probably seven storeys.
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