The ziggurat is one of the most distinctive architectural creations in ancient Mesopotamia. Similarly to Egyptian pyramids, ziggurats also have four sides, rising high to reach the realm of the gods. It is possible to see the ziggurats used as temples from the Mesopotamian period within the borders of today’s Iran and Iraq. However, not all of them have been fully preserved. This text is an overview of the largest and most protected ziggurat, the Ziggurat of Ur.

An Overview of The Ziggurat of Ur - SHeet1
The Ziggurat of Ur_©Samantha Ciaramitaro

Historical Process

The Ziggurat of Ur and the temple atop it were built around 2100 B.C.E., once an administrative capital of Mesopotamia, the great city of Ur, by Ur-Nammu of the Third Dynasty of Ur for the moon god Nanna, the city state’s divine patron. The structure was built in the early Bronze Age. However, it was in ruins during the Neo-Babylonian Empire in the 6th century and was restored by King Nabonidus. This information was obtained from the remains. Sir Leonard Woolley discovered the remains in the twentieth century. Between 1920 and 1930, excavations were carried out under the leadership of Sir Leonard Woolley. With this excavation, the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia and the British Museum in London unearthed the entire monument in a joint project. Woolley’s information from this excavation was that it was a massive rectangular pyramidal structure, 210 by 150 feet, oriented north, originally built with three levels of terraces, standing between 70 and 100 feet. After Woolley unearthed the remains, in the 1980s, during Saddam Hussein’s reign, the façade and the monumental stairs were partially reconstructed to restore their former appearance.

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The Ziggurat of Ur during the excavation of Wolley_©C. Leonard Woolley from the project report
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The lower Stage of the Ziggurat of Ur after excavation_©C. Leonard Woolley from the project report
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One of the Stairways on the Ziggurat of Ur_©C. Leonard Woolley from the project report
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Partially restored The Ziggurat of Ur in 1980’s_©Jan van der Crabben

Details

After the excavation, it was seen that only the lowest part of the structure remained. The remaining base consisted of more than 720,000 meticulously stacked adobe bricks, each weighing 15 kg. Although the temple part, which is thought to be on the top terrace, has completely disappeared today, the three main stairs that provide access to the terraces and doors were reached and restored after this excavation.

With the information obtained from the excavations, it was seen that the structure had an upper terrace in its original form. Extensive research has been done to understand what the original state looks like. These studies consisted of various written sources and environmental information. And as a result of this study, images that are estimated to resemble the original were produced. In these images, it is seen that there is an ornamented temple at the top of the ziggurat, reached by massive stairs. Unfortunately, there are no remains of this floor. Today, the top of the ziggurat stands as a flat terrace.

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The estimated original version of the Ziggurat of Ur_©Dea Picture Library

It is possible to reach many details from the current state of the ziggurat. In the structure where the base remains intact, it is seen that each corner shows a definite main direction, like a compass, as a reflection of Sumerian knowledge. It is known that the main stairs reaching the terraces in the structure, where the moon and sun cycles are considered important, are also directed toward the summer solstice sunrise.

It would not be wrong to say that the three ingenious approaches of the Sumerian engineers, who played a major role in its construction, enabled us to see the present state of the ziggurat. The first of these is ventilation. It is known that the ziggurats are formed from an inner core of mud brick surrounded by sun-baked bricks, and this mud-brick core is capable of retaining moisture entering the structure. At this point, the Sumerians drilled hundreds of square holes in the exterior of the baked bricks in order to ensure rapid evaporation. It was envisaged that if this detail were not considered, the structure could swell, soften, and collapse when exposed to heavy rains. 

The second important detail is that the walls are built with a slight slope. There are two reasons for this: firstly, the sloping walls make the ziggurat look bigger than it is from afar and intimidate the enemies, and secondly, it allows the water to flow from the walls during the rain, thus preventing the accumulation of water on the terraces. This prevents the structure, which consists of adobe and baked bricks, from being damaged by water. 

The third detail is the method used for the top temple, although it has not survived. The baked bricks in this temple were combined with bitumen, which then led to the formation of natural tar. With this tar, the rainwater coming directly from the top was prevented from reaching the uncooked adobe core. In summary, water was seen as the biggest obstacle for the ziggurats, in which mud brick and fired brick were used as the basic material, and the details were developed accordingly.

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Square holes in the outer wall_©Geena Truman
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Walls built with slight slope_©Kaufingdude
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The Ziggurat of Ur_©Azhar Al-Rubaie

Current Condition

The Ziggurat, which witnessed the modern war periods after its restoration in the 1980s, is unfortunately important enough to be a pawn. During the Gulf Wars of 1991, Saddam Hussein strategically parked two warplanes near the Ziggurat. The reason for this is that because the Ziggurat is a historical and important structure, Saddam Hussein believed that the USA or other countries would not want to harm the historic site, so he could protect his planes. Although this assumption was partially correct, the Ziggurat was subjected to various damages during the war.

Iraq opened its doors to many Western countries in 2021. Thus, tourism activities began to increase. The Ziggurat of Ur is also open to visitors, and the local people in the region are also very willing to inform and assist tourists. Many visitors say it is fascinating to experience such a place.

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Iraqi citizens gather in front of the historical Ziggurat of Ur_©U.S. Army
Local guides Geena Truman in the Ziggurat of Ur_©Geena Truman

Reference List:

  1. German, Dr.S. (n.d.). Ziggurat of Ur (article) | Ancient Near East. [online] Khan Academy. Available at: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ancient-art-civilizations/ancient-near-east1/x7e914f5b:neo-sumerian-ur-iii/a/ziggurat-of-ur.
  2. Truman, G. (n.d.). Iraq’s answer to the pyramids. [online] www.bbc.com. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20220822-the-ziggurat-of-ur-iraqs-answer-to-the-pyramids.
  3. Dr. Senta German (2015). Ziggurat of Ur – Smarthistory. [online] Smarthistory.org. Available at: https://smarthistory.org/ziggurat-of-ur/.
  4. www.penn.museum. (n.d.). The Museum Journal | The Ziggurat of Ur. [online] Available at: https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/1235/.
  5. www.army.mil. (n.d.). Iraqi forces now securing historical Ziggurat at Ur. [online] Available at: https://www.army.mil/article/21291/iraqi_forces_now_securing_historical_ziggurat_at_ur [Accessed 3 Nov. 2022].
  6. World History Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Great Ziggurat of Ur. [online] Available at: https://www.worldhistory.org/image/197/great-ziggurat-of-ur/.
Author

A graduate student who sees architecture as a way to think critically. Using her architectural background, she aims to draw attention to the ways of existing with the earth, not against earth with her writings. She believes that critical thinking will open different doors to both people and the world.

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