Like modern skyscrapers or medieval cathedrals, Mesopotamian ziggurats served as the visual foci of Mesopotamian cities, providing a symbol of the power of the city and its god visible for miles around. A true ziggurat is a stepped pyramid, square or rectangular in plan, with a temple on top, but this form was not arrived at immediately: the earliest Mesopotamian shrines were built flush with the ground. The sacredness of the shrine structure led to new temples being built on platforms, within which earlier versions were entombed. This development is seen especially clearly at Eridu, where a very small early Ubaid shrine developed over time, first into a standard Mesopotamian temple built on a platform and eventually into a true ziggurat. [See Eridu.] Moreover, from a very early period, as with the so-called Anu Ziggurat that supported the fourth-millennium White Temple at Uruk, attempts were made to raise major religious buildings above the rest of the city. [See Uruk-Warka.]

Temple platforms of varying degrees of complexity were built throughout the third millennium, but true ziggurats are not clearly attested until the Third Dynasty of Ur. [See Ur.] Both archaeological data and textual sources indicate that from the late third millennium onward, virtually all major cities had ziggurats. The existence of some ziggurats, notably those at Susa and Nineveh, however, is known from textual evidence only. [See Susa; Nineveh.] Although the distribution of well-understood ziggurats over time and space is very uneven, they appear to have come in two varieties: the generally earlier and Babylonian one had a rectangular base with stairs providing access to the top; the later one, more often found in Assyria, is square in plan and had more variable access, sometimes including a ramp that spirals up the building.

The archaeological evidence is much better for the Babylonian ziggurats than for the Assyrian variety. Excavations have been carried out on the former at Eridu, Ur, Uruk, Nippur, Sippar, and ῾Aqar Quf; the ziggurats at Kish, Borsippa, and perhaps even Babylon and Larsa probably also fall into this category. [See Nippur; Sippar; ῾Aqar Quf; Kish; Babylon; Larsa.] All these buildings have their corners oriented to the cardinal points and were generally located, together with a lower temple, within a courtyard with a separate forecourt. The shrine at the top was reached by means of staircases often with a triple stair—one perpendicular to the wall face and the other two running along the wall from the two corners—leading up to the first stage of the ziggurat and meeting at a gateway. Only at Ur is the second stage sufficiently preserved for it to be clear that only a single stair provided access to its top.

These ziggurats all had a core of mud bricks, within which earlier buildings were often encompassed. The exterior was generally of baked brick, often several meters thick and sometimes mortared with bitumen. These outer walls were decorated with buttresses, some of which were quite complex. Most of these ziggurats included some form of drainage—either in the form of reed mats interlayered with the mud brick, of reed ropes running from one side of the structure to the other, or of holes, sometimes filled with broken potsherds, also running from one side of the ziggurat to the other.


ZIGGURAT. Figure 1. Reconstructed drawing, temple and ziggurat at Tell er-Rimah. Perhaps built c. 1800 BCE, around the time of Shamshi-Adad I. The ziggurat was part of the temple building and the upper shrine was probably reached from the roof of the courtyard temple. (Courtesy Andromeda Oxford, Ltd.)

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The later and northern ziggurats are typified by those at Khorsabad, Aššur, Nimrud, Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta, and Tell er-Rimah (see figure 1); some scholars argue that the ziggurat at Larsa resembled them. [See Khorsabad; Aššur; Nimrud; Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta; Rimah; Tell er-.] The Khorsabad example preserves clear evidence of a ramp, which spiraled up its height, and of some of the different colors with which the different stages were painted: from bottom to top, black, white, orange, blue, red, silver, and gold—each color representing one of the planets or, in the case of silver and gold, the moon and the sun. Seven stages, reflecting these astronomical associations, seems to have been quite typical of later ziggurats, whether found in Assyria or Babylonia.

The siting of the Assyrian ziggurats was also different. All were built into temple complexes, and at Aššur, Kar-Tu-kulti-Ninurta, and Tell er-Rimah, they represented no more than the highest of three platforms: the first acted as a forecourt, the second bore the temple, and the third consisted of the ziggurat or, in the case of Aššur, ziggurats. In general, these Assyrian ziggurats were more variable in their orientation, in the type of access—by stair, ramp, or even bridge—and in the degree to which they were incorporated into larger building complexes than their Babylonian forebears; however, they were quite consistent in their square form and perhaps in the number of stages.

In spite of the variability both within and between types, the function of Mesopotamian ziggurats—to support the temple of the city god—remained constant. Ziggurats represent an enduring monument to the important role of religion in defining the political importance of Mesopotamian cities. It was the ziggurat at Babylon, for example, dedicated to Marduk and known as Entemenanki (“the temple of the foundation of heaven and earth”) that inspired the later biblical legend of the Tower of Babel (Gn. 1:4–9).

[See also Assyrians; Babylonians; and Mesopotamia, article on Ancient Mesopotamia.]


  • Lenzen, Heinrich J. Die Entwicklung der Zikurrat von ihren Anfangen bis zur Zeit der III. Dynastie vcn Ur. Ausgrabungen der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft in Uruk-Warka, 4. Leipzig, 1942.
  • Parrot, André. Ziggurats et Tour de Babil. Paris, 1949.
  • Roaf, Michael. Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East. New York, 1990.
    Includes a map showing the distribution of different types of ziggurats

Elizabeth C. Stone