The Great Ziggurat of Ur

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In the middle of the third millennium BCE, the ancient Mesopotamians began building huge stepped platforms out of fired bricks called ziggurats. Their significance and purpose are not clear but they are believed to have held shrines, although the only evidence for this comes from Herodotus, and no shrines have ever been found on any of the dozens of ziggurats that lie scattered in the deserts of Iran and Iraq. The shrines were believed to be the dwelling places for the gods and each city had its own patron god. Only priests, who were very powerful members of Sumerian society, 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.

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Photo credit: Aladdin Hussam/Panoramio

One of the largest and best-preserved ziggurats of Mesopotamia is the great Ziggurat at Ur, near Nasiriyah, in present-day Dhi Qar Province, Iraq. This massive rectangular structure measures 64 meters by 45 meters and has three levels of terraces, standing originally between 20 and 30 meters high, with grand staircases leading to each level. At its highest level supposedly stood the temple of the moon god Nanna, the patron deity of Ur. Unfortunately, the temple has not survived. Some blue glazed bricks have been found which archaeologists suspect might have been part of the temple decoration.

The ziggurat was built by King Ur-Nammu, but he died before his greatest work could be finished, and the project was completed by his son Shulgi in the 21st century BCE. By the 6th century BCE, the Ziggurat had already crumbled to ruins. Unlike the ancient Egyptian pyramids, ziggurats were built of mud bricks set together with bitumen or more mud. The bricks got damp in the rain and cracked in the summer heat.

In the great Ziggurat at Ur, holes were found through the baked exterior layer of the temple, presumably to allow water to evaporate from its core. Additionally, drains were built into the ziggurat’s terraces to carry away the winter rains.

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A computer generated 3D model of the Ziggurat as it would have appeared when it was completed 4,000 years ago. Photo credit: wikiwikiyarou/Wikimedia

The Ziggurat was restored twice, once by the last Neo-Babylonian king, Nabodinus, in the 6th century B.C.E. who built some structure on top of the massive base replacing the modest shrine. But while Ur-Nammu used durable bitumen mortar, Nabonidus' builders used ordinary cement. Wind and rain have since reduced his later structure to the heap of rubble that now sits atop the ziggurat.

The next repair took place 2,500 years later, in the 1980s, undertaken by the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. He restored the façade and staircases by laying a layer of modern bricks to protect the original ones. But when Iraq plunged into the Gulf War in the 90s, Hussein cunningly incorporated the Ziggurat into his military base. Saddam Hussein knew that if he parked his MiG fighter jets close to the Ziggurat, US bombers would spare them for fear of destroying the ancient site. His tactics worked to some extent, and the ziggurat suffered only some minor damage by small arms fire. The walls of the Ziggurat are still marked with hundreds of bullet and shrapnel holes.

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Photo credit: Jim Gordon/Wikimedia

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Photo credit: Kaufingdude/Wikimedia

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Photo credit: Adullynew/Panoramio

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Photo credit: jrmfewing/Panoramio

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Photo credit: The U.S. Army/Flickr

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Photo credit: The U.S. Army/Flickr

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Photo credit: The U.S. Army/Flickr

Sources: Wikipedia / Khan Academy / Archaeology.org

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