By Dr. Senta German
The Great Ziggurat of Ur has been reconstructed twice, in antiquity and in the 1980s—what’s left of the original?
The Great Ziggurat
The ziggurat is the most distinctive architectural invention of the Ancient Near East. Like an ancient Egyptian pyramid, an ancient Near Eastern ziggurat has four sides and rises up to the realm of the gods. However, unlike Egyptian pyramids, the exterior of ziggurats were not smooth but tiered to accommodate the work which took place at the structure, as well as the administrative oversight and religious rituals essential to Ancient Near Eastern cities. Ziggurats are found scattered around what is today Iraq and Iran, and stand as an imposing testament to the power and skill of the ancient culture that produced them.
One of the largest and best-preserved ziggurats of Mesopotamia is the Great Ziggurat at Ur. Small excavations occurred at the site around the turn of the twentieth century, and in the 1920s Sir Leonard Woolley, in a joint project with the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia and the British Museum in London, revealed the monument in its entirety.
What Woolley found was a massive rectangular pyramidal structure, oriented to true north, 210 x 150 feet (64 x 46 meters), constructed with three levels of terraces, standing originally between 70 x 100 feet (21 x 30 meters) high. Three monumental staircases led up to a gate at the first terrace level. Next, a single staircase rose to a second terrace which supported a platform on which a temple and the final and highest terrace stood. The core of the ziggurat is made of mud brick covered with baked bricks laid with bitumen, a naturally occurring tar. Each of the baked bricks measured about 11.5 x 11.5 x 2.75 inches (29 x 29 x 7 cm) and weighed as much as 33 pounds. The lower portion of the ziggurat, which supported the first terrace, would have used some 720,000 baked bricks. The resources needed to build the ziggurat at Ur are staggering.
Moon goddess Nanna
The ziggurat at Ur and the temple on its top were built around 2100 B.C.E. by the king Ur-Nammu of the Third Dynasty of Ur for the moon goddess Nanna, the divine patron of the city state. The structure would have been the highest point in the city by far and, like the spire of a medieval cathedral, would have been visible for miles around, a focal point for travelers and the pious alike. 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.
Clearly the most important part of the ziggurat at Ur was the Nanna temple at its top, but this, unfortunately, has not survived. Some blue glazed bricks have been found which archaeologists suspect might have been part of the temple decoration. The lower parts of the ziggurat, which do survive, include amazing details of engineering and design. For instance, because the unbaked mud brick core of the temple would, according to the season, be alternatively more or less damp, the architects included holes through the baked exterior layer of the temple allowing water to evaporate from its core. Additionally, drains were built into the ziggurat’s terraces to carry away the winter rains.
The ziggurat at Ur has been restored twice. The first restoration was in antiquity. The last Neo-Babylonian king, Nabodinus, apparently replaced the two upper terraces of the structure in the 6th century B.C.E. Some 2,400 years later in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein restored the façade of the massive lower foundation of the ziggurat, including the three monumental staircases leading up to the gate at the first terrace. Since this most recent restoration, however, the ziggurat at Ur has experienced some damage. During the recent war led by American and coalition forces, Saddam Hussein parked his MiG fighter jets next to the ziggurat, believing that the bombers would spare them for fear of destroying the ancient site. Hussein’s assumptions proved only partially true as the ziggurat sustained some damage from American and coalition bombardment.
Read a Reframing Art History textbook chapter about rethinking approaches to the art of the Ancient Near East.
Essay by Dr. Senta German
Want to join the conversation?
- We read that Saddam Hussein used the (restored) Ziggurat as a form of "shield" from enemy bombardment, but that this plan ultimately failed. I wonder how many other times priceless works of art or architecture are used for protection to hide behind in the hope that your enemy will suddenly love the art more than they hate you...
Are there other examples of this sort of thing that anyone can think of?(62 votes)
- I personally spent a lot of time in Al Hillah, Iraq and got to see Babylon up close and personal. It was absolutely amazing but the palace was mostly reconstructed and sadly it kills me to think they just demolished the original structures. Luckily, the surrounding town only appears to be partially unearthed hopefully it stays that way until responsible archaeologists get the opportunity to further excavate it and enrich the world with this lost knowledge.(7 votes)
- Why did Saddam Hussein want to use an ancient, religious ziggurat for a war base.(7 votes)
- It would help to put a date on the article. I am wondering if any of these ziggurats have sustained additional damage due to the ISIS destruction of religious artifacts?(9 votes)
- How did the archaeologists know that it was a temple built specifically for the city's patron God at the top of the ziggurat?(5 votes)
- what is the main part of ziggurat?(2 votes)
- According to one of my textbooks, Sumerians believed that the patron god of their city state lived in the top level of the ziggurat.(4 votes)
- Why are there US soldiers going down the Ziggurat of Ur in your picture of US soldiers decend the Ziggurat of Ur, Tell el-Mukayyar, Iraq(4 votes)
- How did the top get destoyed(2 votes)
- I'm con fused In an earlier article Nanna was a God, now it is a goddess which is it?(3 votes)
- "ess" is a suffix meaning 'female'. That being the case... and if 'god' without the "--ess" means "male", then not all gods can rise to the status of being goddesses. Too bad for them.(3 votes)
- This article stated that the structure was oriented to true north, how would this civilization found true north?(0 votes)
- They could have simply oriented it so that the sun set on the left and rose on the right, or it could be pure coincidence. Then again, compasses have been around a very long time...(3 votes)
- What is the reason why the Ziggurat is placed in the place it is?(1 vote)