The Great Ziggurat of Ur | Mesopotamia

Ziggurats were built by ancient Sumerians, Akkadians, Elamites, Eblaites and Babylonians for local religions. Each ziggurat was part of a temple complex that included other buildings. The precursors of the ziggurat were raised platforms that date from the Ubaid period during the sixth millennium BCE.

The ziggurats began as a platform (usually oval, rectangular or square). It has the form of a terraced compound of successively receding stories or levels. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, at the top of each ziggurat was a shrine, although none of these shrines have survived.

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 of Ur or the Great Ziggurat is a Neo-Sumerian ziggurat in what was the city of Ur near Nasiriyah, in present-day Dhi Qar Province, Iraq. The city is around 350 km from Baghdad and 16 km from Nasiriyah.

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 some time in the 2nd millennium BCE.

The Ziggurat at Ur and the temple on its top were built around 2100 BCE by the king Ur-Nammu of the Third Dynasty of Ur for the moon goddess Nanna, the divine patron of the city state. It is a massive step-pyramid measuring 64 m in length, 46 m in width, and 30 m in height. This height, however, is just speculation, as only the foundations of this ancient monument survive today. The structure had crumbled to ruins by the 6th century BCE of the Neo-Babylonian period, when it was restored by King Nabonidus.

The Ziggurat of Ur consisted of successively smaller platforms that had a solid core of mud-brick which was covered by burnt brick. This outer layer protected the core from the elements. The structure would have been the highest point in the city by far and would have been visible for miles around, a focal point for travelers and the pious alike.

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 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 north western 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)

As the Ziggurat supported the temple of the patron god of the city of Ur, it is likely that it was the place where the citizens of Ur would bring agricultural surplus and where they would go to receive their regular food allotments. In antiquity, to visit the ziggurat at Ur was to seek both spiritual and physical nourishment.

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