The Great Ziggurat of Ur: A Monumental Temple in Ancient Mesopotamia

If you ever visit the ancient city of Ur, near Nasiriyah in present-day Iraq, you will be amazed by the sight of a massive structure rising above the desert landscape. This is the Great Ziggurat of Ur, one of the most impressive and well-preserved monuments of the ancient Near East.

A ziggurat is a type of stepped pyramid that served as a temple and an administrative center for a city-state. Ziggurats were built by various civilizations in Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, from the 3rd millennium BC to the 6th century BC. They were designed to connect the earthly realm with the divine realm, and to honor the patron gods or goddesses of each city.

According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, at the top of each ziggurat was a shrine, although none of these shrines have survived. The Great Ziggurat of Ur was dedicated to Nanna, the moon god, who was also the patron deity of Ur. The ziggurat was built by King Ur-Nammu around 2100 BCE, during the Neo-Sumerian period, when Ur was one of the most powerful and prosperous cities in Mesopotamia. The ziggurat was part of a larger temple complex that included a courtyard, a shrine, and several buildings for priests and officials.

I have visited The Babylon Hotel in Baghdad many times. The hotel was originally opened in 1982 as the Babylon Oberoi Hotel, managed by Oberoi Hotels & Resorts. Oberoi severed their connection with the hotel due to the 1991 Gulf War. The hotel’s architecture is a Ziggurat, in the form of a terraced step pyramid of successively receding stories or levels. It was designed by Slovenian architect Edvard Ravnikar and was originally intended to be built as a beach resort at Budva in Montenegro. When that project fell through, the plans were re-used and slightly adjusted for the new site in Baghdad.

Babylon Hotel, Baghdad. (Credit: Pinterest)

The very first ziggurats pre-date the Egyptian pyramids, and a few remains can still be found in modern-day Iraq and Iran. They are as imposing as their Egyptian counterparts and also served religious purposes, but they differed in a few ways: ziggurats had several terraced levels as opposed to the pyramids’ flat walls, they didn’t have interior chambers and they had temples at the top rather than tombs inside.

The ziggurat itself was a rectangular platform with three levels of terraces, each smaller than the one below. The base measured 64 by 45 meters (210 by 148 feet), and the original height was probably over 30 meters (98 feet). The core of the ziggurat was made of mud bricks, covered with baked bricks that were glazed in different colors. The bricks were held together by bitumen, a natural tar-like substance. The ziggurat had three monumental staircases, each with 100 steps, that led to a gate at the first terrace. From there, a single staircase ascended to the second terrace, where a small temple stood. On top of the temple was another terrace that supported the main sanctuary, where only the king and the high priest could enter.

Each of the ziggurat’s four corners pointed in a cardinal direction, and a grand staircase was oriented toward the summer solstice sunrise.

The city of Ur dates from the Ubaid period circa 3800 BCE and is recorded in written history as a city-state from the 26th century BCE, its first recorded king being Mesannepada. The city’s patron deity was Nanna, the god of the moon. Ur is possibly the city of Ur Kasdim mentioned in the Book of Genesis as the birthplace of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim patriarch Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic), traditionally believed to have lived sometime in the 2nd millennium BCE.

The ziggurat was not only a place of worship, but also a place of administration and distribution. It was where the king performed his duties as the representative of Nanna on earth, and where he received tribute from other cities. It was also where the people of Ur brought their agricultural surplus as offerings to Nanna, and where they received their regular food rations from the temple. The ziggurat was thus a symbol of both religious and political authority, as well as economic prosperity.

The Mesopotamian ziggurats 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 and Assyro-Babylonian society.

As the Mesopotamian gods were commonly linked to the eastern mountains, the ziggurat may have functioned as a representation of their homes. Thus, the people of Ur believed that their ziggurat was the place on earth where Nanna chose to dwell. Therefore, a single small shrine was placed on the summit of the ziggurat for the god. The people of ancient Mesopotamia believed that their gods had needs just like their mortal subjects. Hence, a bedchamber was provided for Nanna in the shrine on top of his ziggurat. This chamber was occupied by a maiden chosen to be the god’s companion. On the side stairway of the ziggurat’s northwestern part is a kitchen, which was likely used to prepare food for this god. The god’s mortal servants had to be provided for as well, and the outer enclosure of the ziggurat contained a temple storehouse, the houses of the priests and a royal ceremonial palace. (Source: Ancient Origins)

The ziggurat survived for centuries, until it fell into decay and ruin during the Neo-Babylonian period (6th century BCE). It was partially restored by King Nabonidus, who added another layer of bricks to the structure. However, after his defeat by the Persians in 539 BCE, the ziggurat was abandoned and forgotten.

The Ziggurat of Ur in the process of excavation. Source: Woolley, C. Leonard. “The Ziggurat of Ur.” The Museum Journal XV, no. 2 (June 1924): 107-114.

The ziggurat was rediscovered in 1850 by William Loftus, a British explorer and archaeologist. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was excavated and reconstructed by Sir Leonard Woolley, who revealed its original shape and size. In the 1980s, under Saddam Hussein’s regime, the ziggurat was further restored and reinforced by a concrete shell that covered its façade and staircase.

Today, the Great Ziggurat of Ur is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular tourist attraction. It is also a source of pride and inspiration for many Iraqis, who see it as a reminder of their ancient heritage and culture.

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