Notable ziggurats include the Great Ziggurat of Ur near Nasiriyah, Iraq; the Ziggurat of Aqar Quf near Baghdad, Iraq; Chogha Zanbil in Khūzestān, Iran; and Sialk near Kashan, Iran.
One of the best-preserved ziggurats is Chogha Zanbil in western Iran. The Sialk ziggurat, in Kashan, Iran, is the oldest known ziggurat, dating to the early 3rd millennium BC. Ziggurat designs ranged from simple bases upon which a temple sat, to marvels of mathematics and construction which spanned several terraced stories and were topped with a temple.
An example of a simple ziggurat is the White Temple of Uruk, in ancient Sumer. The ziggurat itself is the base on which the White Temple is set. Its purpose is to get the temple closer to the heavens, and provide access from the ground to it via steps. The Mesopotamians believed that these pyramid temples connected heaven and earth. In fact, the ziggurat at Babylon was known as Etemenankia or “House of the Platform between Heaven and Earth”.
An example of an extensive and massive ziggurat is the Marduk ziggurat, or Etemenanki, of ancient Babylon. Unfortunately, not much of even the base is left of this massive structure, yet archeological findings and historical accounts put this tower at seven multicolored tiers, topped with a temple of exquisite proportions. The temple is thought to have been painted and maintained an indigo color, matching the tops of the tiers. It is known that there were three staircases leading to the temple, two of which (side flanked) were thought to have only ascended half the ziggurat’s height.
Etemenanki, the name for the structure, is Sumerian and means “temple of the foundation of heaven and earth”. The date of its original construction is unknown, with suggested dates ranging from the fourteenth to the ninth century BC, with textual evidence suggesting it existed in the second millennium.
Interpretation and significance
According to Herodotus, at the top of each ziggurat was a shrine, although none of these shrines have survived. One practical function of the ziggurats was a high place on which the priests could escape rising water that annually inundated lowlands and occasionally flooded for hundreds of miles, as for example the 1967 flood.
Another practical function of the ziggurat was for security. Since the shrine was accessible only by way of three stairways, a small number of guards could prevent non-priests from spying on the rituals at the shrine on top of the ziggurat, such as cooking of sacrificial food and burning of carcasses of sacrificial animals. Each ziggurat was part of a temple complex that included a courtyard, storage rooms, bathrooms, and living quarters, around which a city was built.