Ziggurats, Stairways to Heaven

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Hedieh Ghavidel

Active Image
Choqa Zanbil ziggurat (1250 BCE), Khuzestan Province, Iran
Active Image
A model image of a ziggurat
Active Image
Egyptian pyramids
Active Image
Mayan temple, Mexico
Active Image
Sialk Mound, Kashan, Iran
Active Image
Ziggurat at Ur, Iraq

Ziggurats were a form of ancient Mesopotamian mudbrick temple-tower common to the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians from approximately 2200 until 500 BCE. Some of these architectural marvels still stand today.

The word ziggurat is derived from the Babylonian 'ziqqurratu', meaning 'mountain peak' or 'pinnacle'. The ancients considered mountains to be the link between the heavens and earth; for instance, Mount Olympus was home to the Greek pantheon.

Their function as celestial mountains is manifested in the names given to these ancient religious structures. The ziggurat at Til Barsip was called 'the house of the seven directions of heaven and earth'. In Babylon, it was revered as 'the house of the foundation of heaven and earth'. In lower Babylonia, it was known as 'the house of the bond between heaven and earth'.

Sumerian temples were believed to have had astrological significance. They were thought to be a vertical bond between heaven and earth, the earth and the underworld, and a horizontal bond between the lands.

While their actual function still remains obscure, it has been suggested that ziggurats symbolized the primeval mound which the universe was thought to have been created upon, heavenly mountains, bridges between heaven and earth or celestial stairways between the gods and humans.

Mesopotamians considered mud to be the purest of substances; therefore, it was employed in the construction of these stepped structures which ascended toward heaven, bringing man closer to the gods and facilitating his worship.

Considered the temporal dwelling of a deity or the meeting place of gods and humans, ziggurats had a high temple, a low temple and no internal chambers. They were not used as places for performing public religious rites and rituals, but rather as the earthly house of god.

Built in receding tiers upon rectangular, oval, or square platforms, ziggurats were pyramidal structures with sun-baked brick cores and multicolored glazed-brick exteriors. The number of tiers ranged from two to seven, with a shrine or temple at the summit.

The seven levels of the ziggurat are said to have represented the number of heavens, planes of existence, planets and the seven metals and the colors associated with them.

Their resemblance to Egyptian pyramids and the pyramidal structures of Central America has been the cause for numerous academic debates; however, as ziggurats had no funerary purposes, nor were they used as sacrificial altars, any link between the three structures has been ruled out.

Each city had its own patron god, and that god was usually perceived to be the landowner of the temple and its surrounding area; the king was his bailiff; the king's daughter was the high priestess of the shrine.

Priests were the only ones allowed inside the ziggurat temples. They were tasked with attending to the needs of the gods, giving them absolute power over society.

The temple at the base of the ziggurat was where the deity inhabiting it was fed and clothed daily. The ziggurat also had sacred workshops, granaries, storehouses, kitchens, and rooms for priests and slaves, who were employed in smelting, weaving, and preparing goods for sale.

Access to the shrine was either via exterior stairways, a series of ramps on one side of the ziggurat, or a spiral ramp from base to summit. No means of ascent, however, have been found in half of the 25 known ziggurats, four of which are located in Iran.

Sialk, in Kashan, Iran, houses the world's oldest ziggurat which was built in 2,900 BCE and is one of the four Elamite religious structures in Mesopotamia. The other three are Susa ziggurat (1,800 BCE), Haft Teppeh (1,375 BCE) and Choqa Zanbil (1,250 BCE), all in Khuzestan Province.

The largest ziggurat, Chogha Zanbil, is located near Susa in southwestern Iran. This ziggurat was a temple complex with three palaces and was dedicated to Inshushinak, the bull-god of Susa. It was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1979.

The best-preserved ziggurat is the one at Ur in modern day Iraq which was dedicated to the Sumerian moon god Nanna.

In 1985, Saddam Hussein ordered the rebuilding of the ziggurat at Ur, using bricks bearing his name in imitation of Nebuchadnezzar. One of these inscriptions read, "This was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq".

Borsippa (modern Birs Nimrud site, Iraq) was an important Sumerian city in which Nebuchadnezzar built a ziggurat some 2,500 years ago, dedicating it to Nabu, the god of wisdom.

This 231-feet-tall ziggurat consisted of seven terraces built of millions of mud bricks and has been identified in the Talmud as the Tower of Babel by which humans attempted to climb to the heavens.

While archeological studies have unraveled some of the mysteries surrounding these architectural marvels, they continue to guard many more secrets about the religious and cultural past of Mesopotamia.