Zikkurat: The Ancient Mesopotamian Temple Tower
A zikkurat (also spelled ziggurat) is a type of massive structure built in ancient Mesopotamia. It has the form of a terraced compound of successively receding storeys or levels. Zikkurats were built by ancient Sumerians, Akkadians, Elamites, Eblaites and Babylonians for local religions. Each zikkurat was part of a temple complex that included other buildings. The word zikkurat comes from the Akkadian ziqqurratum, meaning “to protrude, to build high”.
Zikkurats were the precursors of the pyramids and the skyscrapers. They were designed to reach the heavens and connect the earth with the divine realm. The zikkurats began as platforms (usually oval, rectangular or square) that date from the Ubaid period during the sixth millennium BC. The zikkurats evolved into mastaba-like structures with a flat top and a series of steps on each side. The sun-baked bricks made up the core of the zikkurat with facings of fired bricks on the outside. Each step was slightly smaller than the step below it. The facings were often glazed in different colors and may have had astrological significance.
The number of floors ranged from two to seven. The top floor usually housed a shrine or a temple dedicated to a specific god or goddess. Only priests and other highly respected individuals could enter the shrine. The shrine was also used for astronomical observations and rituals. The lower floors served as storage rooms, administrative offices, workshops and living quarters for priests and temple staff.
Some of the most notable zikkurats include the Great Ziggurat of Ur near Nasiriyah, Iraq; the Ziggurat of Aqar Quf near Baghdad, Iraq; the now destroyed Etemenanki in Babylon, Iraq; Chogha Zanbil in Khuzestan, Iran; and Sialk in Kashan, Iran. The zikkurats influenced other cultures and civilizations, such as the Maya, who built similar stepped pyramids for their temples.
Zikkurats are among the oldest and most impressive monuments of human civilization. They reflect the religious beliefs, artistic skills, engineering knowledge and social organization of ancient Mesopotamia. They are also a testament to the human desire to reach for the sky and communicate with the gods.
Ancient Mesopotamia was a rich and diverse culture that witnessed the rise and fall of many civilizations and empires. It was the birthplace of writing, law, urbanization, science, art, literature and religion. Ancient Mesopotamia is often called the cradle of civilization because of its many contributions to human history.
The history of ancient Mesopotamia can be divided into several periods based on the dominant political power or culture. The earliest period is the Ubaid period (c. 6500-3800 BC), which was characterized by the development of agriculture, irrigation, pottery and trade. The Ubaid culture was followed by the Uruk period (c. 3800-3100 BC), which saw the emergence of the first cities, writing, monumental architecture and state formation. The Uruk culture gave rise to the Sumerian civilization (c. 3100-2000 BC), which was the first literate society and produced many achievements in art, literature, mathematics, astronomy and law.
The Sumerian civilization was challenged by the Akkadian Empire (c. 2334-2154 BC), which was founded by Sargon of Akkad and became the first empire in history. The Akkadian Empire collapsed under the pressure of invasions by the Gutians and other peoples, leading to a period of fragmentation and decline known as the Ur III period (c. 2112-2004 BC). The Ur III period was followed by the rise of the Babylonian Empire (c. 1894-1595 BC), which was founded by Hammurabi and reached its peak under Nebuchadnezzar II. The Babylonian Empire was known for its law code, astronomy, literature and architecture.
The Babylonian Empire fell to the Hittites and the Kassites, who ruled Mesopotamia for several centuries until they were conquered by the Assyrian Empire (c. 911-612 BC). The Assyrian Empire was a powerful and ruthless military state that expanded its territory through warfare and diplomacy. The Assyrian Empire was famous for its art, libraries, palaces and siege warfare. The Assyrian Empire collapsed under the combined attacks of the Babylonians, Medes and Scythians, leading to a period of chaos and upheaval known as the Neo-Babylonian period (c. 626-539 BC). The Neo-Babylonian period was marked by the revival of Babylonian culture and the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
The Neo-Babylonian period ended with the conquest of Mesopotamia by Cyrus the Great of Persia in 539 BC. Cyrus established the Persian Achaemenid Empire, which ruled over Mesopotamia until Alexander the Great invaded in 331 BC. Alexander’s death in 323 BC led to the division of his empire among his generals, who fought for control over Mesopotamia for several decades until it became part of the Seleucid Empire in 312 BC. The Seleucid Empire was challenged by the Parthian Empire, which eventually gained control over most of Mesopotamia by 141 BC. The Parthian Empire was succeeded by the Sassanid Empire in 224 AD, which ruled over Mesopotamia until it was conquered by the Arab Muslim armies in 651 AD.