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Ziggurats (Akkadian (transliterated): ziqqurat, D-stem of zaqāru "to build on a raised area") were massive pyramidal temples built in the ancient Mesopotamian valley and western Iranian plateau, having the form of a terraced step pyramid of successively receding stories or levels. There are 32 ziggurats known at, and near, Mesopotamia. Twenty-eight of them are in Iraq, and four of them are in Iran. Notable Ziggurats include the Great Ziggurat of Ur near Nasiriyah, Iraq, the Ziggurat of Aqar Quf near Baghdad, Iraq, Chogha Zanbil in Khūzestān, Iran, the most recent to be discovered - Sialk near Kashan, Iran and others.


Ziggurats were built by the Sumerians, Babylonians,and Assyrians as monuments to local religions. The precursors of the ziggurat were raised platforms that date from the Ubaid period during the fourth millennium BC. The step pyramid style began near the end of the Early Dynastic Period. The latest Mesopotamian ziggurats date from the 6th century BC. Built in receding tiers upon a rectangular, oval, or square platform, the ziggurat was a pyramidal structure with a flat top. Sun-baked bricks made up the core of the ziggurat with facings of fired bricks on the outside. The facings were often glazed in different colors and may have had astrological significance. Kings sometimes had their names engraved on these glazed bricks. The number of tiers ranged from two to seven. It is assumed that they had shrines or temples at the top but there is no archaeological evidence for this and the only textual evidence is from Herodotus. Access to the shrine would have been by a series of ramps on one side of the ziggurat or by a spiral ramp from base to summit. The Mesopotamian ziggurats were not places for public worship or ceremonies. They were believed to be dwelling places for the gods and each city had its own patron god. Only priests were permitted on the ziggurat or in the rooms at its base, and it was their responsibility to care for the gods and attend to their needs. The priests were very powerful members of Sumerian society. Ziggurats were usually found in the centre of villages.

One of the best-preserved ziggurats is Choqa Zanbil in western Iran. The Sialk ziggurat, in Kashan, Iran, is the oldest known ziggurat, dating to the early 3rd millennium BC. Ziggurat designs ranged from simple bases upon which a temple sat, to marvels of mathematics and construction which spanned several terraced stories and were topped with a temple.

An example of a simple ziggurat is the White Temple of Uruk, in ancient Sumer. The ziggurat itself is the base on which the White Temple is set. Its purpose is to get the temple closer to the heavens, and provide access from the ground to it via steps. The Mesopotamians believed that these pyramid temples connected heaven and earth. In fact, the ziggurat at Babylon was known as Etemenankia or "House of the Platform between Heaven and Earth".

An example of an extensive and massive ziggurat is the Marduk ziggurat, or Etemenanki, of ancient Babylon. Unfortunately, not much of even the base is left of this massive structure, yet archeological findings and historical accounts put this tower at seven multicolored tiers, topped with a temple of exquisite proportions. The temple is thought to have been painted and maintained an indigo color, matching the tops of the tiers. It is known that there were three staircases leading to the temple, two of which (side flanked) were thought to have only ascended half the ziggurat's height.

Etemenanki, the name for the structure, is Sumerian and means "The Foundation of Heaven and Earth". Most likely built by Hammurabi, the ziggurat's core was found to have contained the remains of earlier ziggurats and structures. The final stage consisted of a 15-meter hardened brick encasement constructed by King Nebuchadnezzar.

A pseudo-ziggurat in Sardinia

A ziggurat-like building with no known analogs in Europe was erected in the third millennium BCE in Sardinia near Monte d'Accoddi, see :it:Altare preistorico di Monte d'Accoddi.

Interpretation and significance

According to Herodotus, at the top of each ziggurat was a shrine, although none of these shrines has survived. One practical function of the ziggurats was a high place on which the priests could escape rising water that annually inundated lowlands and occasionally flooded for hundreds of miles, as for example the 1967 flood. Another practical function of the ziggurat was for security. Since the shrine was accessible only by way of three stairways, a small number of guards could prevent non-priests from spying on the rituals at the shrine on top of the ziggurat. Each ziggurat was part of a temple complex that included a courtyard, storage rooms, bathrooms, and living quarters, around which a city was built.

Modern buildings resembling ziggurats

The ziggurat style of architecture continues to be used and copied today in many places of the world.

Examples include: The Temple of Eck in Chanhassen, Minnesota.
The University of Tennessee Hodges Library in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The United States Bullion Depository Gold Vault in Fort Knox, Kentucky.
Halls of residence for students at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, United Kingdom.
The SIS Building, also commonly known as the MI6 Building, which is the headquarters of the British Secret Intelligence Service.
The Palace of Soviets (unfinished) in Moscow, Russia, designed by Iofan, Schuko, and Gelfreikh
The National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, DC, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
The Chet Holifield Federal Building in Laguna Niguel, California, designed by William Pereira
The Ziggurat in West Sacramento, California, headquarters of the California Department of General Services.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York was conceived by architect Frank Lloyd Wright as an "inverted ziggurat."
A look-out tower near to the National Theater of Hungary, Budapest.
A number of state buildings on Haifa street and Babel hotel in Baghdad
The Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania (Wikipedia)

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