Sargon II palace in Dur-Sharrukin
Temples were often the most central and important buildings in Mesopotamian city states. They were usually devoted to individual deities and could be quite elaborate if the city was rich. The largest temples were ziggurats (see Below).

Morris Jastrow said: “In like manner, the “house” motif prevails in the Babylonian and the Assyrian sanctuaries. Temple and palace adjoin one another in the great centres of the north and south. The temple is the palace of the deity, and the royal palace is the temple of the god’s representative on earth—who as king retains throughout all periods of Babylonian and Assyrian history traces of his original position as the “lieutenant,” or even the embodiment of god—a kind of alter ego of god, the god’s vicegerent on earth. The term which in Babylonian designates more specifically the palace, êkallu, i.e ., “great-house,” becomes in Hebrew, under the form hekhal, one of the designations of Jahweh’s sanctuary in Jerusalem. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“Temple and palace are almost interchangeable terms. Both are essentially houses, and every temple in Babylonia and Assyria bore a name which contained as one of its elements the word “house.” The ruler, embodying, originally, what we should designate as both civil and religious functions, was god, priest, and king in one. We have seen that the kings were in the earlier period often designated as divine beings: they regarded themselves as either directly descended from gods or as “named” by them, i.e., created by them for the office of king. To the latest days they could perform sacrifices—the distinct prerogative of the priests— and among their titles both in ancient and in later days, “priest” is frequently included. <>

“With the differentiation of functions consequent upon political growth and religious advance the service of the god was committed to a special class of persons. Priests from being the attendants of the kings, became part of the religious household of the god. The two households, the civil and the religious, supplemented each other. Over the one presided the ruler, surrounded by a large and constantly growing retinue for whom quarters and provisions had to be found in the palace; at the head of the temple organisation stood the god or goddess, whose sanctuary grew in equal proportion, to accommodate those who were chosen to be servitors. Even the little shrines scattered throughout the Islamic Orient of to-day—commonly fitted up as tombs of saints, but often replacing the site of the dwelling-place of some ancient deity—have a place set aside for the servitor of the god,—the guardian of the sanctuary,—just as a private household has its quarters for the servants. As the temple organisation became enlarged, the apartments for the priests correspondingly increased. Supplementary edifices became necessary to accommodate the stores required for the priests and the cult. The temple grew into a temple-area, which, in the large religious centres, in time assumed the dimensions of an entire sacred quarter. <>

Websites and Resources on Mesopotamia: Ancient History Encyclopedia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site; British Museum ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia ; Louvre ; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago ; Iraq Museum Database ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ABZU; Oriental Institute Virtual Museum ; Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur ; Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art

Archaeology News and Resources: : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons : online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

Mesopotamian Architecture

20120208-Assur The_U.S._Army.jpg
Because of a lack of timber and stone, most buildings in Mesopotamia were made from mud bricks held together with plaited layers of reeds. There were few trees or even big rocks in the regions settled by the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians. The most readily available materials were sand and clay and reeds from marshes. Even bricks that had been fire-baked deteriorated relatively quickly. Consequently very little of the ancient cities remain except for some foundations.

The Mesopotamians used asphalt as a building material 5000 years ago and were thus the first people to use petroleum. The Sumerians used bitumen mortar. In Ur mud bricks were bound together with asphalt-like bitumen. The sticky black substance helped preserve structures such as the ziggurat of Ur. The tar was one of the first uses of southern Iraq's oil fields.

In 1998, Dr. Elizabeth Stone from the University of New York at Stoney Brook announced that Mesopotamians in the city of Mashkan-shapir in southern Iraq used artificial stone as a building material. The basalt-like artificial rock was similar to slag produced in the production of iron and steel. It was made into slabs, some of which were 30 inches long, 2 inches thick and 16 inches wide. Scientists theorize the technology for making the artificial rocks---made by heating soils to intense heat---was pioneered by artisans who learned about the process from making metals and pottery.

Mesopotamian Gods and Temples

Morris Jastrow said: “There is still another aspect of the temples of Babylonia and Assyria. We have already taken note of the tendency to group the chief gods and goddesses and many of the minor ones also around the main deity, in a large centre. A god like Enlil at Nippur, Shamash at Sippar, Ningirsu at Lagash, Sin at Ur, and Marduk at Babylon, is not only served-by a large body of priests, but, again, as in the case of the great ruler who gathers around his court the members of his official family, smaller sanctuaries were erected within the temple area at Nippur to Ninlil, Enlil’s consort, to Ninib, Nusku, Nergal, Ea, Sin, Shamash, Marduk, and others, all in order to emphasise the dominant position of Enlil. It is safe to state that in the zenith of Nippur’s glory all the important gods of the pantheon were represented in the cult at that place. We have a list of no less than thirteen sanctuaries at Lagash, and we may feel certain that they all stood within the sacred area around E-Ninnu, “house of fifty,” which was the name given to Ningirsu’s dwelling at that place. At the close of Babylonian history we find Nebuchadnezzar II. enumerating, among his numerous inscriptions, the shrines and sanctuaries grouped around E-Sagila, “the lofty house,” as Mar-duk’s temple at Babylon was called. His consort Sar-panit, his son Nebo, his father Ea, were represented, as were Sin, Shamash, Adad, Ishtar, Ninib and his consort Gula, Nergal and his consort Laz, and so on through a long list. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

Wall relief depicting Ashur at Nimrud

“There was no attempt made to assimilate the cult of these deities to that of Marduk, despite the tendency to heap upon the latter the attributes of all the gods. The shrines of these gods, bearing the same names as those of their sanctuaries in their own centres of worship, served to maintain the identity of the gods, while as a group around Marduk they illustrated and emphasised the subsidiary position which they occupied. In a measure, this extension of the “house” of a deity into a sacred quarter with dwellings for gods whose actual seat was elsewhere, displaced the original idea connected with a sanctuary, but kings also erected palaces for themselves in various places without endangering either the prestige or the conception of a central dwelling in the capital of the kingdom. The shrines of the gods within the sacred area of E-Sagila represented temporary abodes, or “embassies” as it were, and so it happened that even Marduk had a foreign sanctuary, e.g., at Borsippa to symbolise the close relationship between him and Nebo. <>

“The rulers of Assyria vied with those of the south in beautifying and enlarging the temples of their gods, and in constantly adding new structures; or rebuilding the old which had fallen into decay. The sacred quarter in the old capital at Ashur, and in the later capital at Nineveh, was studded with edifices, and the priests have left us lists of the many gods and goddesses “whose names were invoked,” as the phrase ran, in the temples of the capital.

Mesopotamian Temple Layout

Mesopotamian temple usually contained a central shrine with a statute of the deity placed on a pedestal before an altar. The temples were watched over by priests and priestesses that lived in apartment in the temple. On the temple grounds were other quarters for officials, accountants, musicians and custodians as well as structures that held treasures, weapons and grain.

Sumerian pilgrims visited temples honoring Anau in Uruk and Enlil in Nippur. The largest temple in Mesopotamia was a temple honoring Marduk in Babylon. Inside was golden statue of statues of Marduk that weighed perhaps 5,000 pounds and 55 shrines devoted to lower echelon gods. The 200 foot long, 70-foot high ziggurat built in Ur had three platforms, each a different color, and a silver shrine at the top. [ World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Mesopotamia temples often had off center entrances so that common people could catch a glimpse of the inner sanctuary when they looked inside. Temples in Uruk, Ashur and Babylon all have this feature.

Herodotus on the Great Temple in Babylon

Herodotus wrote in “The History of the Persian Wars” ( c. 430 B.C.): “In the one stood the palace of the kings, surrounded by a wall of great strength and size: in the other was the sacred precinct of Jupiter Belus [Bel], a square enclosure two furlongs each way, with gates of solid brass; which was also remaining in my time. In the middle of the precinct there was a tower of solid masonry, a furlong in length and breadth, upon which was raised a second tower, and on that a third, and so on up to eight. The ascent to the top is on the outside, by a path which winds round all the towers. [Source: Herodotus, “The History”, translated by George Rawlinson, (New York: Dutton & Co., 1862]


“When one is about half-way up, one finds a resting-place and seats, where persons are wont to sit some time on their way to the summit. On the topmost tower there is a spacious temple, and inside the temple stands a couch of unusual size, richly adorned, with a golden table by its side. There is no statue of any kind set up in the place, nor is the chamber occupied of nights by any one but a single native woman, who, as the Chaldaeans, the priests of this god, affirm, is chosen for himself by the deity out of all the women of the land. I.182: They also declare---but I for my part do not credit it---that the god comes down in person into this chamber, and sleeps upon the couch. This is like the story told by the Egyptians of what takes place in their city of Thebes, where a woman always passes the night in the temple of the Theban Jupiter [Amon-Ra].

“In each case the woman is said to be debarred all intercourse with men. It is also like the custom of Patara, in Lycia, where the priestess who delivers the oracles, during the time that she is so employed---for at Patara there is not always an oracle---is shut up in the temple every night.I.183: Below, in the same precinct, there is a second temple, in which is a sitting figure of Jupiter [Marduk], all of gold. Before the figure stands a large golden table, and the throne whereon it sits, and the base on which the throne is placed, are likewise of gold.

“The Chaldaeans told me that all the gold together was eight hundred talents' weight. Outside the temple are two altars, one of solid gold, on which it is only lawful to offer sucklings; the other a common altar, but of great size, on which the full-grown animals are sacrificed. It is also on the great altar that the Chaldaeans burn the frankincense, which is offered to the amount of a thousand talents' weight, every year, at the festival of the God. In the time of Cyrus there was likewise in this temple a figure of a man, twelve cubits high, entirely of solid gold. I myself did not see this figure, but I relate what the Chaldaeans report concerning it. Darius, the son of Hystaspes, plotted to carry the statue off, but had not the hardihood to lay his hands upon it. Xerxes, however, the son of Darius, killed the priest who forbade him to move the statue, and took it away. Besides the ornaments which I have mentioned, there are a large number of private offerings in this holy precinct.” I.184:

Purpose of Temples in Mesopotamia

Inanna Temple ruins
Morris Jastrow said: “The modem and occidental view of a temple as a place of worship gives only a part of the picture when we come to regard the sanctuaries of the gods in Babylonia and Assyria. Throughout antiquity, the sanctuary represents, first and foremost, the dwelling of a god. Among the Semites it grows up around the sacred stone, which, originally the god himself, becomes either, in the form of an altar, a symbol of his presence, or is given the outlines of an animal or human figure (or a combination of the two), and becomes a representative of the deity—his counterfeit. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“The charming legend of Jacob’s dream, devised to account for the sanctity of an ancient centre of worship—Luz,—illustrates this development of the temple, from an ancient and more particularly from a Semitic point of view. The “place” to which Jacob comes is a sacred enclosure formed by stones. His stone pillow is the symbol of the deity, and originally the very deity himself. The god in the stone “reveals” himself, because Jacob by direct contact with the stone becomes, as it were, one with the god, precisely as a sacred relic—an image, or any sacred symbol— communicates a degree of sanctity to him who touches it, whether by kissing it or by pressing against it. When Jacob awakes he realises that Jahweh is the god of the sacred enclosure, which he designates as “the house of the Lord” (Elohim) and “gate of heaven.” He sets up the stone as an altar, anoints it (thus doing homage to the deity represented by the stone,) precisely as one anoints a king or a priest. He changes the name of the sacred place to Bethel, i.e., “house of God,” and declares his intention on his return to his father’s house to convert the stone into a “house of the Lord.” The stone becomes the house, and the sanctuary is the home of the god represented by the stone. <>

Temples Organization in Mesopotamia

Morris Jastrow said: “With the growth of the temple organisation, its administration also assumed large proportions. The functions of the priests were differentiated, and assigned to several classes—diviners, exorcisers, astrologers, physicians, scribes, and judges of the court, to name only the more important; and as early as the days of Hammurabi, we learn of priestesses attached to the service of Shamash and of other gods. The importance of these priestesses, however, appears to have grown less, as the religion developed. An institution like that of the vestal virgins also existed at an early period, though the material at our disposal is as yet too meagre to enable us to specify the nature of the institution, or the share in the cult allotted to these virgins. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“The temple was also the centre of intellectual life. Within the sacred precinct was the temple school in which the aspirants to the priesthood were prepared for their future careers—just as to this day the instruction of the young in Islamism, as well as the discussions of the learned, takes place within the precincts of the mosques. Learning remained under the control of the priests throughout all periods of Babylonian and Assyrian history. In a certain very definite sense all learning was religious in character, or touched religion at some vital point. In the oldest legal code of the Pentateuch, the so-called “Book of the Covenant,” the term used for the exercise of legal functions is “to draw nigh to the Lord” (Elohim), i.e., to appear before God, and this admirably reflects the legal procedure in Babylonia and Assyria. The laws of the country represented the decrees of the gods. Legal decisions were accordingly given through the representatives and servitors of the gods—the kings, in the earlier ages, and later the priests. <>

“At the close of his famous code, Hammurabi, whose proudest title is that of “king of righteousness,” endowed with justice by Shamash—the paramount god of justice and righteousness,—states that one of the aims of his life was to restrain the strong from oppressing the weak, and to procure justice for the orphan and the widow. He appropriately deposits in E-Sagila, the temple of Marduk in Babylon, the stone on which he had inscribed the laws of the country “for rendering decisions, for decreeing judgments in the land, for the righting of wrongs.” The ultimate source of all law being the deity himself, the original legal tribunal was the place where the image or symbol of the god stood. A legal decision was an oracle or omen, indicative of the will of the god. The Hebrew word for law, toralfi , has its equivalent in the Babylonian ter tu, which is the common term for “omen.” This indissoluble bond between law and religion was symbolised by retaining the tribunal, at all times, within the temple area and by placing the dispensing of justice in the hands of the priests—a condition that is also characteristic of legal procedure in all the Pentateuchal codes, including the latest, the so-called Priestly Code.

20120208-Sargons Palace at Khorsabad.png
Sargon's Palace at Khorsabad

Temple Power in Mesopotamia

Claude Hermann and Walter Johns wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “The temple occupied a most important position. It received from its estates, from tithes and other fixed dues, as well as from the sacrifices (a customary share) and other offerings of the faithful, vast amounts of all sorts of naturalia; besides money and permanent gifts. The larger temples had many officials and servants. Originally, perhaps, each town clustered round one temple, and each head of a family had a right to minister there and share its receipts. [Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911 <^>]

“As the city grew, the right to so many days a year at one or other shrine (or its "gate") descended in certain families and became a species of property which could be pledged, rented or shared within the family, but not alienated. In spite of all these demands, however, the temples became great granaries and store-houses; as they also were the city archives. The temple held its responsibilities. If a citizen was captured by the enemy and could not ransom himself the temple of his city must do so. To the temple came the poor farmer to borrow seed corn or supplies for harvesters, etc.--advances which he repaid without interest. The king's power over the temple was not proprietary but administrative. He might borrow from it but repaid like other borrowers. The tithe seems to have been the composition for the rent due to the god for his land. It is not clear that all lands paid tithe, perhaps only such as once had a special connexion with the temple.” <^>

Morris Jastrow said: “ Even in the purely business activity of the country, the bond between culture and religion is exemplified by the large share taken by the temples in the commercial life. The temples had large holdings in land and cattle. They loaned money and engaged in mercantile pursuits of various kinds; so that a considerable portion of the business documents in both the older and the later periods deal with temple affairs, and form part of the official archives of the temples. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

Priests in Mesopotamia

Sumerian high priests were believed to be mouthpieces of the gods. They presided over rituals and often divined the future by reading the entrails of sheep or goats. Hammurabi Code of the Babylonians addresses a class of persons devoted to the service of a god, as vestals or hierodules. The vestals were vowed to chastity, lived together in a great nunnery, were forbidden to open or enter a tavern, and together with other votaries had many privileges.

Temple priests and priestess lived in apartment in the temple. The sex of the overseer was usually opposite that of the major deity in the temple. Under the main priest or priestess was of courtier of minor priests, each of whom performed a different task at the temple such as sacrificing, anointing or pouring libations. Quarters for sacred prostitutes, temple slaves and eunuchs were placed around the temple. ["World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Morris Jastrow said: “The power thus lodged in the priests of Babylonia and Assyria was enormous. They virtually held in their hands the life and death of the people, and while the respect for authority, the foundation of all government, was profoundly increased by committing the functions of the judges to the servitors of the gods, yet the theory upon which the dispensation of justice rested, though a logical outcome of the prevailing religious beliefs, was fraught with grave dangers. A single unjust decision was sufficient to shake the confidence not merely in the judge but in the god whose mouthpiece he was supposed to be. An error on the part of a judge demonstrated, at all events, that the god no longer cherished him; he had forfeited the god’s assistance. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“Accordingly, one of the first provisions in the Hammurabi code ordains that a judge who renders a false decision is to be removed from office. There was no court of appeal in those days; nor any need of one, under the prevailing acceptance of legal decisions. The existence of this provision may be taken as an indication that the incident was not infrequent. On the other hand, the thousands of legal documents that we now have from almost all periods of Babylonian-Assyrian history furnish eloquent testimony to the scrupulous care with which the priests, as judges, sifted the evidence brought before them, and rendered their decisions in accordance with this evidence.” <>

Assyrian Palace

Temples in Mesopotamia as Law and Business Centers

Morris Jastrow said: “The temples were the natural depositories of the legal archives, which in the course of centuries grew to veritably enormous proportions. Records were made of all decisions; the facts were set forth, and duly attested by witnesses. Business and marriage contracts, loans and deeds of sale were in like manner drawn up in the presence of official scribes, who were also priests. In this way all commercial transactions received the written sanction of the religious organisation. The temples themselves—at least in the large centres—entered into business relations with the populace. In order to maintain the large household represented by such an organisation as that of the temple of Enlil at Nippur, that of Ningirsu at Lagash, that of Marduk at Babylon, or that of Shamash at Sippar, large holdings of land were required which, cultivated by agents for the priests, or farmed out with stipulations for a goodly share of the produce, secured an income for the maintenance of the temple officials. The enterprise of the temples was expanded to the furnishing of loans at interest—in later periods, at 20 percent— to barter in slaves, to dealings in lands, besides engaging labour for work of all kinds directly needed for the temples. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“A large quantity of the business documents found in the temple archives are concerned with the business affairs of the temple, and we are justified in including the temples in the large centres as among the most important business institutions of the country. In financial or monetary transactions the position of the temples was not unlike that of national banks; they carried on their business with all the added weight of official authority. The legal and business functions thus attached to the temple organisations enlarged also the scope of the training given in the temple-schools. To instruction in methods of divination, in the rituals connected with exorcising demons and in other forms of incantations, in sacrificial and atonement rituals, in astrology, and in the treatment of diseases as supplementary to incantation rites, there was added training in the drawing up of legal documents, in the study of the laws, and in accounting, including calculations of interest and the like. <>

“It is to the temple-schools that we owe the intellectual activity of Babylonia and Assyria. The incentive to gather collections of omens, of incantations, and, of medical compilations, came from these schools. Though the motive was purely practical, viz., to furnish handbooks for the priests and to train young candidates for the priesthood, nevertheless the incentive was intellectual both in character and scope, and necessarily resulted in raising the standard of the priesthood and in stimulating the literary spirit. The popular myths and legends were given a literary form, and preserved in the archives of the temple- schools. An interest in fables was aroused, and the wisdom of the past preserved for future generations. Texts of various kinds were prepared for the schools. Hymns, rituals, incantations, omens, and medical treatises were edited and provided with commentaries or with glasses, and explanatory amplifications, to serve as text-books for the pupils and as guides for the teachers. For the study of the language, lists of signs with their values as phonetic symbols, and their meanings when used as ideographs were prepared. Lists of all kinds of objects were drawn up, names of countries and rivers, tables of verbal forms, with all kinds of practical exercises in combining nouns and verbs, and in forming little sentences. <>

“The practical purpose served by many of these exercises is shown by the character of the words and phrases chosen—they are such as occur in legal documents, or in omens, or in other species of religious texts used in the cult. Many of these school texts, including the collections of omens and incantations as well as hymns and rituals, were originally written in a “Sumerian” version, though emanating from priests who spoke Babylonian. It was found necessary to translate, or to “transliterate,” them into the Semitic Babylonian. We thus obtain many bilingual texts furnishing both the Semitic and the Sumerian versions. A large proportion of the literary texts in Ashurbana-pal’s library thus turn out to be school texts, and since we know that the scribes of Ashurbanapal prepared their copies from originals produced in Babylonia,—though Assyria also contributed her share towards literary productions,—the conclusion seems justified that it was through the temple-schools and for the temple-schools that the literature, which is almost wholly religious in character, or touches religion at some point, was produced. <>

“It will be apparent, therefore, that the temples of Babylonia and Assyria served a variety of purposes, besides being merely places of worship. They formed —to emphasise the point once more—the large religious households of the country, harbouring large bodies of priests for whose sustenance provision had to be made, superintending all the details of the administration of large holdings, exercising the functions of legal courts, acting as the depositories of official records—legal and historical,—besides engaging in the activities of business corporations and of training institutions in all the branches of intellectual activity that centred around the religious beliefs and the cult. It was through the temples, in short, that the bond between culture and religion, which was set forth in a previous lecture, was maintained during all periods of Babylonian and Assyrian history.

Temple Architecture in Mesopotamia

Layout of the Temple of Nippur

Morris Jastrow said: “The present ruined condition of the temples of Babylonia and Assyria makes it difficult to obtain an accurate idea of their construction; and a note of warning must be sounded against reconstructions, made on the basis of earlier excavations, which are, in almost all respects, purely fanciful. Thanks, however, to the careful work done by the German expedition at Ashur—the old capital of Assyria—our knowledge of details has been considerably extended; and since the religious architecture of Assyria by the force of tradition follows Babylonian models, except in the more liberal use of stone instead of bricks, the results of the excavations and investigations of the temple constructions of Ashur may be regarded as typical for Babylonian edifices as well. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“The “house” motif , which, we have seen, dominated the construction of temples, led to the setting apart of a special room to receive the image of the deity for whom the edifice was erected as a dwelling-place. The private quarters of the deity constituted the “holy of holies,” and this was naturally placed in the remotest part of the edifice. To this room, known as “the sacred chamber,” only the priests and kings had access; they alone might venture into the presence of the deity. It was separated from the rest of the building by an enclosure which marked the boundary between the “holy of holies” and the long hall or court where the worshippers assembled. Outside of this court there was a second one, in which, presumably, the business affairs of the temple were conducted. Grouped around these two courts were the apartments of the priests, the school, and the archive rooms, as well as the quarters for the temple stores. In the case of the larger centres, we must furthermore suppose many special buildings for the various needs of the religious household, stalls for the animals, workshops and booths for the manufacture of temple utensils, fabrics, and votive offerings, quarters for the tribunals, offices of the notaries, and the like.” <>

On the Stage Tower at Samarra, Jastrow said: “Dating from the 9th century A.D. and built of hard stone; it is still standing at Samarra, a settlement on the Tigris, and used as a minaret in connection with an adjoining mosque. The shape is directly derived from the old Babylonian (or Sumerian) Zikkurats and may be regarded as typical of these constructions. In most mosques, the minaret is directly attached to the main building like the tower or steeple of a church, but there are some which still illustrate the originally independent character of the tower.” <>

The Temple of Enlil at Nippur is regarded as typical for sacred edifices in Babylonia. The outer court and inner court are essentially parallel in size and shape. “The Zikkurat or stage tower is at the back of the inner court. The narrower section- represents the sacred chamber (or the approach to it) in which the image of Enlil stood. In the outer court, Bi represents one of the smaller shrines of which there were many within the sacred area to the gods and goddesses associated with the cult of Enlil and Ninlil. “ <>

The Temple of Anu and Adad at Ashur “was originally built in honour of Anu, the solar deity (who is replaced by Ashur) but at a very early date, Adad (or Ramman) was associated with him. The two temples, consistently referred to in the Assyrian inscriptions as the “Temple of Anu and Adad,” have a large entrance court in common. Behind this court lie the two temples proper, each having (a) a broad outer court, (b) an oblong inner court, leading (c) to the sacred chamber where the images of Anu-Ashur and Adad, respectively, stood. This deviation from the Babylonian model, ' a broad outer and an oblong inner court instead of two practically parallel courts, is typical of Assyrian scared architecture. Each temple has its Zikkurat immediately adjoining it.” <>


Sumerian Ziggurat
The largest Sumerian and Mesopotamian structures were ziggurats---somewhat tower-like stepped pyramids made from mud brick and topped by temples to gods and goddess. They first appeared around 3500 B.C. In ancient times, every major Mesopotamian city had at least one.

In the forth century an Egyptian claimed that ziggurats "had been built by giants who wished to climb up to heaven. For this impious folly some were struck by thunderbolts; others, at God's command, were afterwards unable to recognize each other; all the rest fell headlong into the island of Crete, whither God in His wrath had hurled them."

Ziggurat means both the summit of a mountain and man-made tower. The Babylonians described them as a "Link Between Heaven and Earth." There are no mountains in Mesopotamia. Scholars believe ziggurats were built as artificial mountains to help man reach the gods and the gods reach man.

The remains of 33 ziggurats have survived until the 21st century. Since ziggurats were made of mud bricks they held up less against the ravages of time than the Pyramids of Egypt, which were built of stone. The Ziggurat of Choga Zambil (19 miles from Haft Tepe, Iran) is the world's largest ziggurat. Its outer base is 244-x-344 feet and the "fifth box"---164 feet above the base--- measures 92-x-92-feet. One of the most famous ziggurats---the one in Samarra, Iraq--- is not a ziggurat at all but the minaret of an A.D. 8th century mosque.

The oldest structure in reasonably good condition left from ancient Mesopotamia is the 4500 year-old Ziggurat of King Urnammu in Ur. It originally consisted of three levels, of which only the third remains. It looks sort of like a 50-foot wall castle wall filled in with dirt and ascended by a staircase. The main ziggurat of Ur was dedicated to the moon god Nanna. It rises 65 feet from a 135-by-200-foot base and is 4,100 year old. After the invasion of Iraq by the United States it was inclosed within a U.S. military base.

Ziggurat Features

Morris Jastrow said: “A feature of the temple area in the large centres was a brick tower, formed by from two to seven superimposed stages, which stood near the temple proper. These towers were known as zikkurats —a term that has the sense of “high” places. Elaborate remains of the zikkurats at Nippur and at Ashur have been unearthed, and these together with the famous one at Borsippa, still towering above the mounds at that place, and currently believed among the natives to be the traditional tower of Babel, enable us to form a tolerably accurate idea of their construction. Huge and ungainly quadrangular masses of bricks, placed one above the other in stories diminishing in the square mass as they proceed upwards, these towers attained the height of about one hundred feet and at times more. The character of such a sacred edifice differs so entirely from the Babylonian temple proper, that, in order to account for its presence in Nippur, Lagash,Ur, Sippar, Larsa, Babylon, Borsippa, Ashur, Nineveh, and other places, we must perforce assume a second motif by the side of the “house” scheme of a temple. The height of these towers, as well as the diminishing mass of the stones, with a winding balustrade, or a direct ascent from one stage to the other up to the top, at once recalls the picture of a mountain. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“The semblance suggests that the motif must have originated with a people dwelling in a mountainous country, who placed the seats of their gods on the mountain-tops, as was so generally done by ancient peoples. The gods who are thus localised, however, are generally storm gods like Jahweh, who dwells on the top of Mt. Sinai—or according to another view on Mt. Seir,—or like Zeus on Mt. Olympus. The gods whose manifestations appear in the heavens—in the storm, in the thunder, and in the lightning—would naturally have their seats on high mountains whose tops, so frequently enveloped in clouds, would be regarded as forming a part of heaven. If this supposition be correct, we should furthermore be obliged to assume that the “mountain” motif was brought to the mountainless region of the Euphrates by a people entering the valley from some mountainous district. <>

“Since the zikkurats can be traced back to the Sumerian period (we find them in Gudea’s times and during the Sumerian dynasties of Ur), their introduction must be credited to the Sumerians, or to an equally ancient section of the population. We have seen that it is not possible to affirm positively that non-Semitic settlers were the earliest inhabitants of the Euphrates Valley; but the circumstance that where we find zikkurats in Semitic settlements (such as the minarets attached to the Mohammedan mosques), they can be traced back, as we shall presently see, to Babylonian prototypes, furnishes a strong presumption in favour of ascribing the “mountain” motif to Sumerian influence.” <>

Ziggurat of Ur

On the two ziggurats of the Anu-Adad Temple at Ashur, Jastrow said: “The temple being a double construction, one zikkurat or stage tower belongs to the Anu sanctuary, the other to the sanctuary of Adad. The construction of this stage tower may be traced back to the reign of Ashurreshishi I. (c. 1150 B.C.). It was rebuilt by Shalmaneser III. (858-824 b.c).

Purpose of Ziggurats

Morris Jastrow said: ““It is not without significance that the temple at Nippur, which is certainly a Sumerian settlement, and one of the oldest, bore the name E-Kur, “mountain-house,” and that Enlil, the chief deity of Nippur, bears the indications of a storm-god, whose dwelling should, probably, therefore, be on a mountain. Herodotus is authority for the statement that there was a small shrine at the top of the zikkurat , in which there was a statue of the god in whose honour the tower was built. This shrine, therefore, represented the dwelling of the god, and corresponded to the sacred chamber in the temple proper. To ascend the zikkurat would thus be equivalent to paying a visit to the god; and we have every reason to believe that the ascent of the zikkurat formed a part of the ceremonies connected with the cult, just as the Jewish pilgrims ascended Mt. Zion at Jerusalem to pay their homage to Jahweh, who was there enshrined after the people had moved away from Mt. Sinai and Mt. Seir. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“There is no reason to assume that these towers were ever used for astronomical purposes, as has been frequently asserted. Had this been the case, we should long ere this have found reference to the fact in some inscription. References to an observatory for the study of the heavens, known as the bit tamarti, i.e., “house of observation,” are not infrequent, blit nowhere is there any indication that the zikkurats were used for that purpose. They must have been regarded as too sacred to be frequently visited, even by the priests. Access to them was rather complicated, and for observations needed for astrological divination a high eminence was not required. Still more groundless, and hardly worthy of serious consideration is the supposition that it was customary to bury the dead at the base of the zikkurat , which in this case would be a Babylonian equivalent of the Egyptian pyramid, namely, as the tomb of monarchs and of grand personages. <>

“On the other hand, the imitation of a mountain suggested a further symbolism in the zikkurats, which reveals itself in the names given to some of them. While no special stress seems, at any time, to have been laid on the number of stories or stages of which a zikkurat consisted, the chief aim of the builders being the construction of a high mass, seven stages seems to have become the normal number, after a certain period. There seems to be no reason to doubt that this number was chosen to correspond to the moon, sun, and five planets, which we have seen were the controlling factors in the Babylonian-Assyrian astrology. Gudea describes the zikkurat at Lagash known as E-Pa as the “house of the seven divisions”; and from the still fuller designation of the tower at Borsippa as the “seven divisions of heaven and earth,” it would appear that in both cases there is a symbolical reference to the “seven planets,” as the moon, sun, and five planets were termed by the Babylonians themselves. <>

“Less probable is the interpretation of the name of the tower at Uruk as the “seven enclosures” (or possibly “groves”) as applying likewise to the seven planets, though to speak of the moon, sun, and five planets as “enclosures” would be a perfectly intelligible metaphor. That the symbolism of the zikkurats was carried any further, however, and each stage identified with one of the planets, may well be doubted, nor is it at all likely that the bricks of each stage had a different colour, corresponding to colours symbolically associated with the planets. Even if seven different colours were used in the construction, there is no evidence thus far that these colours were connected with the planets. Moreover, a valuable hint of one of the fundamental ideas associated with the zikkurat is to be found in the name given to the one at Larsa: “the house of the link of heaven and earth.” <>

“Attention has already been called to the fact that the heavens, according to the prevailing view of antiquity, were not elevated very far above the earth. The tops of the mountains were regarded as reaching into heaven,—in fact as belonging to the heavens. The zikkurat , therefore, as the imitation of the mountain, might well be called the “link” uniting earth to heaven. The name is of interest because of the light which it throws on the famous tale in Genesis (chap. xi.) of the building of the tower. To the Hebrew writers, particularly those who wrote under the influence of the religious ideals of the prophets, the ambitious aims of the great powers of antiquity—conquest, riches, large armies, brilliant courts, the pomp of royalty, and indulgence in luxury—were exceedingly distasteful. Their ideal was the agricultural life in small communities governed by a group of elders, and with the populace engaged in tilling the soil and in raising flocks,— living peacefully under the shade of the fig tree. In the view of these writers, even such a work as the temple of Solomon, built by foreign hands, in imitation of the grand structures of other nations, was not pleasing in the eyes of Jahweh, whose preference was for a simple tabernacle, built of wood without the use of hewn stones and iron,—both of which represented innovations. These writers were what we should call “old-fashioned,”—advocates of the simple life. They abominated, therefore, the large religious households of the Babylonians and Assyrians and particularly the high towers which were the “skyscrapers” of antiquity.” <>

Ziggurat of Ur

Describing the well-preserved ziggurat in Ur, Michael Taylor wrote in Archaeological magazine, “The classic step-pyramid temple consists of two tiers stacked one atop the other, with three converging staircases in front. It is six stories tall and its footprint would fill more than half a football field. In an otherwise barren landscape, it exerts an almost gravitational pull, drawing visitors up the steep yellow steps. It is a great artificial mountain of brick, and long ago it gave the Mesopotamians a brush with their gods.

The brickwork of the ziggurat attests to the kings' desire to create a lasting monument to their empire. The bitumen mortar---one of the first uses of southern Iraq's vast oil fields---is still visible between the burnt bricks. The sticky black substance, today a source of the region's instability and violence, once literally bound this civilization together. The use of bitumen as mortar and pavement has helped waterproof the otherwise fragile Sumerian mud-bricks, ensuring that the structures endured for millennia.

The ziggurat has always been an important symbol for this region, and two later rulers attempted to adopt it as their own through reconstruction projects. The first was Nabonidus, the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (the second was Saddam Hussein). A pious ruler, Nabonidus restored a number of ancient temples in his realm during the sixth century B.C. The exact details of his reconstruction are unclear, but it seems that he built some enormous structure on top of the massive burnt-brick base left by Ur-Nammu, replacing what had been a modest shrine. But where 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. Nabonidus was not rewarded for his piety---he was deposed by invading Persians in 539 B.C. Over the next 2,500 years, Nabonidus' contribution fell to ruin, while Ur-Nammu's original held up.

Tower of Babel

The most famous example of ziggurat is the biblical Tower of Babel, which, according to the Old Testament and ancient Jewish and Christian scholars was an effort by mankind to reach the heavens with a ladder-like structure and enter the kingdom of God without God's approval. Sometimes it is linked with Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, who "dreamed, and behold a ladder set up to the earth, and the top it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending it."

The phrase "the Tower of Babel" does not actually appear in the Bible; it is always, "the city and its tower." Several generations after the Great Flood of Noah’s time humanity came together, Genesis 11:1-9 reads: “And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children built. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”

Tower of Babel, a Ziggurat?

There is no proof or archaeological evidence that the Tower of Babel really existed. Describing a ziggurat he saw in Babylon, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote in 460 B.C., "In the topmost tower there is a great temple, and in the temple is a great bed richly appointed, and beside it a golden table. No idol stands there. No one spends the night there save a woman of that country, designated by the god himself, so I was told by the Chaldeans, who are priests of that divinity."

Herodotus described the Etemenanki ziggurat, dedicated to Marduk in the city and famously rebuilt by the 6th century B.C. by the Neo-Babylonians under Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar II. Many modern scholars believe the biblical story of the Tower of Babel was likely influenced by Etemenanki during the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews.

Tower of Babel

Nebuchadnezzar wrote that the original tower had been built in antiquity: "A former king built the Temple of the Seven Lights of the Earth, but he did not complete its head. Since a remote time, people had abandoned it, without order expressing their words. Since that time earthquakes and lightning had dispersed its sun-dried clay; the bricks of the casing had split, and the earth of the interior had been scattered in heaps."

For a long time a pyramid-shaped pile of rubble in Babylon, 295 feet square and 295 feet high, was thought to be the Tower of Babel. The pile or rubble turned out not even to be a ziggurat but a pile of solid towers.

Morris Jastrow said: “The narrative of the tower of Babel is told as a protest against such ambitious efforts, but the interesting feature of the narrative for us is, that it correctly interprets the purpose of these towers as aiming to reach up to heaven. The name of the zikkurat of Larsa well illustrates this aim—to serve as a “link,” uniting heaven and earth. To the pious Hebrew writer such an undertaking seemed ungodly. He does not regard the task as impossible, but impious,—a wanton insult to Providence. He, therefore, represents Jahweh as intervening to prevent the plan from being carried out. The simple-hearted story, in picturing Jahweh as coming down to see what his creatures were doing, reveals its origin as a genuine folk-tale, and probably an old one, which a later writer, in sympathy with the opposition of primitive folk to the bolder ambitions of an advanced culture, adopts to emphasise the ungodliness of Babylonia, which represented just the things which the prophets opposed with such vehemence. The “ladder” which Jacob saw in his dream reaching from earth to heaven was likewise suggested by the zikkurat. The “ladder” is pictured as a link uniting earth to heaven, and the term used in the narrative might just as well be rendered “tower.”

Muslim Minerets and Babylonian-Assyrian Ziggurats

Morris Jastrow said: “Tower and temple remain, through all periods of Babylonian-Assyrian history, the types of religious architecture and survive the fall of both countries. The survival of religious traditions, despite radical changes in outward forms, is illustrated by the adoption of the zikkurat by Islamism. At Samarra, about sixty miles above Bagdad, there survives to this day an almost perfect type of a Babylonian zikkurat, as a part of a Muslim mosque. Built about the middle of the ninth century of our era, and rising to a height of about one hundred and seventy feet, it has a winding ascent to the top, where in place of the sacred shrine for the god is the platform from which the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. The god has been replaced by his servitor, and instead of the address belu rabu (“great lord”) with which it was customary to approach the deities of old, Allah akbar (“Allah is great”) is heard from the minarets —which, as will have become evident, are merely modified zikkurats. Arabic writers themselves trace the custom of building a minaret at the side of a mosque, or as an integral part of the sacred structure, to the zikkurat at Samarra; and the chain of evidence has recently been completed to show that the steeples of our modern churches are a further step in the evolution of the zikkurat, [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“In Babylonia and Assyria, temple and tower, once entirely distinct, show a tendency to unite. In the city of Ashur, the oldest temple, or rather double temple, dedicated to Anu and Adad, has a zikkurat on either side, each being directly attached to the respective temple or “house” of the deity. Elsewhere—as at Nippur—the zikkurat is close behind the temple, but even when adjacent the zikkurat remains an independent structure, and it is interesting to note that in the traditional forms of Christian architecture, the church tower retains this independent character. In Catholic countries where traditions are closely followed, it is provided that though the tower should be a part of the church, there must be no direct access from the one to the other. <>

“The opposition of the Hebrews to the allurements of Babylonian-Assyrian civilisation was strong enough to check the introduction of zikkurats into Palestine, but it could not prevent the imitation of the Assyrian temple in the days of Solomon. The type of religious edifice erected by this grand monarque of the Hebrews followed even in details the Assyrian model with its threefold division, the broad outer court, the oblong narrow inner court, and the “holy of holies,” where in place of the statue of the deity was the sacred box (or “Ark”) with the Cherubim over it as the symbol of Jahweh.” <>

Blue mosque in Istanbul

Temple Construction and Babylonian-Assyrian Rulers

Morris Jastrow said: “The history of the Babylonian and Assyrian temples and their zikkarats furnishes an index to the religious fervour of the rulers. The records left by rulers of the oldest period are in the main votive inscriptions, indicative of their activity in building or rebuilding religious edifices. Conquerors, like Sargon and Ham-murapi, are proud of the title of “builder” of this or that temple; and their example is followed by the war-lords of Assyria, who interrupt the narration of their military exploits by detailed accounts of their pious labours in connection with the great sanctuaries of the country. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“Taking the temples at Nippur, Sip-par, Babylon, and Ashur as typical examples, we find a long chain of rulers leaving records of their building activities in these centres. Kings of Kish, Uruk, Ur, and Agade vie with the rulers of Babylon and Nineveh in paying homage to the “mountain house” at Nippur, repairing the decayed portions, extending its dimensions, and adding to the mass of its zikkurat. They dedicate the spoils of war to Enlil and deposit votive offerings in his shrine. From Sargon of Agade to Ashurbanapal of Nineveh, E-Kur continued to be a place of pilgrimage whither the rulers went to acknowledge the authority of Enlil, and of his consort Ninlil. Long indeed after the tutelary deity of the city had been forgotten, the city retained its odour of sanctity, and the temple area became a burial-place for Jews and Christians, who bear witness to the persistence of time-worn beliefs by inscribing in Aramaic dialects on clay bowls incantations against the demons of ancient Babylonia, belief in whose power to inflict injury on the dead had not yet evaporated in the sixth and seventh centuries of our era. <>

“The last king of Babylonia, Nabonnedos (555-539 B.C.), who aroused the hostility of Marduk and the priests of Esagila by his preference for the sun-god, gives us, in connection with his restoration of the temple of Shamash at Sippar, the history of that time-honoured sanctuary. As an act of piety to the memory of past builders, it became an established duty in Babylonia to unearth the old foundation stone of a temple before the work of restoration could be begun. On that stone the name of the builder was inscribed, generally with a curse on him who removed it or substituted his name for the one there written. After many efforts the workmen of Na-bonnedos succeeded in finding the stone, and the king tells us how he trembled with excitement and awe when he read on it the name of Naram-Sin. Incidentally, he gives us the date of Naram-Sin, who, he says, ruled 3200 years before him. It is one of the many great triumphs of modern investigation that we can actually correct the scribes of Naram-Sin, who made a mistake of over 1000 years. <>

“Nabonnedos mentions also the names of Hammurabi and Burna-buriash as among those who, many centuries before him, repaired this ancient edifice, after, it had fallen into decay through lapse of ages. Toward the end of the Kassite dynasty (ca . 1200 B.C.) nomadic hordes devastated the country, and the cult suffered a long interruption, but E-Barra was restored to much of its former grandeur by Nebopaliddin in the ninth century, and from this time down to the time of Nabonnedos, it continued to be an object of great care on the part of both Assyrian and Babylonian kings. Esarhaddon, Ashurbanapal, Nabopolassar, and Nebuchadnezzar are among those who during this later period left records of their activity at E-Barra, the “house of splendour” at Sippar.” <>

Temple Cults in Mesopotamia

Morris Jastrow said: “It is now incumbent on us to turn to the cult fostered at these sanctuaries in the south and the north. At the outset of this discussion it must be acknowledged that many of the details are still lost. We have, to be sure, in the library of Ashurbanapal the material for a reconstruction of the cult at the great centres, through the collection which this king made of hymns and incantations, omens and rituals, that formed part of the temple archives and of the equipment of the temple-schools at Nippur, Ur, Sippar, Babylon, Borsippa, Cuthah, Uruk, and no doubt, at many other places, though the bulk of the material appears to have come from two temples, E-Sagila at Babylon and E-Zida in Borsippa. This material is, however, in an almost bewildering state of confusion, and many investigations of special features will have to be made before it can be arranged in such a manner as to give a connected picture of the general cult. Fortunately, we have also, as supplementary to this material, original texts, belonging to the oldest period,—chiefly hymns, litanies, and lamentations,— which written in Sumerian, have recently been carefully studied and are now pretty well understood. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“The omen texts, including the omens of liver divinations, the astrological collections, and the miscellaneous classes of omens, may be excluded from the cult proper. Interpretations of omens, at all events, do not form an integral part of the official cult at the temples, despite the fact that they are concerned chiefly with public affairs or with those of the royal households, which, as repeatedly emphasised, have an official or semi-official rather than a personal character. They might be designated as religious rites, subsidiary to the official cult. In connection with the inspection of the liver of the sacrificial animal there was an invocation to Shamash, or to Shamash and Adad, combined; we have specimens of such appeals, dating from Assyrian days, in which the sun-god is invoked to answer questions through the medium of trustworthy omens, and implored to prevent any error in the rites about to be performed which would naturally vitiate them. There were, however, no fixed occasions for the consultations of livers. Whenever any necessity arose, as before a battle or previous to some important public undertaking, or in case of illness or some accident to the king or to a member of his immediate household, hepatoscopy was employed to determine the attitude of the gods toward the land or toward the royal household. Similarly, as we have seen, the observation of the heavenly bodies formed the perpetual concern of the bdru priests. Astrological reports were frequently sent to the rulers, always at new-moon and full-moon, and in the case of eclipse or obscurations of the moon’s or sun’s surface from any cause whatsoever. <>

“In cases where the signs of the heavens portended evil, expiatory rites were prescribed, and these being conducted in the temples, no doubt formed part of the official expiatory ritual. The ritual on these occasions is, however, independent of the observation of the heavenly bodies, and follows as an attachment to the omens derived from the observation. Finally, the miscellaneous collections of omens, are merely to be regarded as handbooks to guide the bdru priests in answering questions that might be put to them concerning any unusual or striking appearance among men or animals, or in nature in general. Every unusual happening being regarded as a sign from some god or goddess, it became the priest’s business to determine its import. Although he did this in his official capacity, the act of securing and furnishing the interpretation formed no part of the ritual; and the omens, even in these instances, frequently bore on the public welfare rather than on the fate or fortune of the individual. Such interpellations and decisions might be compared to the inquiries regarding ritualistic observances put to the Jewish Rabbis from Talmudic times down to our days in orthodox circles, which gave rise to an extensive branch of Rabbinical literature technically known as “Questions and Answers.” <>

“An intermediate position between the official and the extra-official cult is held by the incantation formulas, and the observances connected therewith. In this branch of religious literature the layman received a large share of attention—larger even than in the case of the miscellaneous omens dealing with occurrences in daily life. In so far as the incantations represent the practices supplementary to medicinal treatment to release individuals from the tortures of the demons, or from the control of the sorcerers, they partake of the nature of private rites, which, although observed under the guidance and superintendence of priests, can be regarded only in a limited sense as forming part of the official cult.

Part of the Inanna Temple at Uruk

Temple Hymn

One temple hymn reads: “1-7 O E-unir (House which is a ziqqurat), grown together with heaven and earth, foundation of heaven and earth, great banqueting hall of Eridu! Abzu, shrine erected for its prince, E-dul-kug (House which is the holy mound) where pure food is eaten, watered by the prince's pure canal, mountain, pure place cleansed with the potash plant, abzu, your tigi drums belong to the divine powers.[Source: J.A. Black, G. Cunningham, E. Robson, and G. Zlyomi 1998, 1999, 2000, Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Oxford University, Babylonia Index,]

“8-15 Your great ...... wall is in good repair. Light does not enter your meeting-place where the god dwells, the great assembly-room, the assembly-room, the beautiful place. Your tightly constructed house is sacred and has no equal. Your prince, the great prince, has fixed firmly a holy crown for you in your precinct – O Eridu with a crown placed on your head, bringing forth thriving thornbushes, pure thornbushes for the susbu priests , O Ec-abzu (Shrine which is the abzu), your place, your great place!

“16-23 At your place of calling upon Utu, at your oven bringing bread to eat, on your ziqqurat (Tower of Babel), a magnificent shrine stretching toward heaven, at your great oven rivalling the great banqueting hall, your prince, the prince of heaven and earth ...... can never be changed, the ......, the creator, the ......, the wise one, the ......, lord Nudimmud, has erected a house in your precinct, O E-engura (House of the subterranean waters), and taken his seat upon your dais.

24 (23 lines: the house of Enki in Eridu.) -37 O ......, shrine where destiny is determined, ......, foundation, raised with a ziqqurat, ......, settlement of Enlil, your ......,your right and your left are Sumer and Akkad. House of Enlil, your interior is cool, your exterior determines destiny. Your door-jambs and architrave are a high mountain, your projecting pilasters a dignified mountain. Your peak is a ...... peak of your princely platform. Your base serves heaven and earth. Your prince, the great prince Enlil, the good lord, the lord of the limits of heaven, the lord who determines destiny, the Great Mountain Enlil, has erected a house in your precinct, O shrine Nibru, and taken his seat upon your dais.

“39-46 O Tummal, exceedingly worthy of the princely divine powers, inspiring awe and dread! Foundation, your pure lustration extends over the abzu. Primeval city, reed-bed green with old reeds and new shoots, your interior is a mountain of abundance built in plenitude. At your feast held in the month of the New Year, you are wondrously adorned as the great lady of Ki-ur rivals Enlil. Your princess, mother Ninlil, the beloved wife of Nunamnir, has erected a house in your precinct, O E-Tummal (Tummal House), and taken a place upon your dais.

“48-56 O E-melem-huc (House of terrifying radiance) exuding great awesomeness, Ec-mah (Magnificent shrine), to which princely divine powers were sent from heaven, storehouse of Enlil founded for the primeval divine powers, worthy of nobility, lifting your head in princeship, counsellor of E-kur, pillar of the surroundings, your house ...... the platform with heaven. The decisions at its place of reaching the great judgment -- the river of the ordeal -- let the just live and consign to darkness the hearts that are evil. In your great place fit for pure lustration and the rites of icib priests, you dine with lord Nunamnir...

Enki Builds the Temple of the God Ea in Eridu.

“Enki Builds the E-engurra, the Temple of the God Ea in Eridu,” is a myth that tells how Enki built a house (temple) for himself in Eridu, the oldest city in Sumer according to tradition, the first of five cities founded before the Great Flood. The temple, decorated with silver, lapis lazuli, carnelian and gold, was established on the bank of a river, where its foundations reached deep into the underground sweet, fertilising waters, called the apsu. The temple had magical qualities: the brickwork gave Enki advice, while the surrounding reed fences roared like a bull. The roof-beam was shaped like the bull of heaven, and a kion gripping a man formed the gateway. The overall effect was described as a lusty bull. The bustle of activity there was compared to the drama of a river rising during a flood. [Source: Kramer, Samuel Noah “Sumerian Mythology,” University of Pennsylvania Press, West Port, Connecticut, 1988 Babylonia Index,]

“Enki Builds the E-engurra” goes: “ Enki filled the building with lyres, drums and every other kind of musical instruments. Surrounding the temple was a delightful garden full of fruit trees, with birds singing all around and frolicking carp playing among the reeds in the streams. After finishing the construction of the E-engurra, the temple, Enki called up the beat of the ala and the uh drums and set out by barge to Nippur, in order to receive the other godsy blessings. The fish danced before him on the way to Nippur, and Enki slaughtered several oxen and sheep for the feast to come.

Nippur Temple

“Once in Nippur, Enki started preparing the feast. Paying attention to protocol, Anu was at the head of the group, with Enlil beside him and the goddess Nintu in a seat of honour nearby. In the happy cellebration that followed, all the great gods pronounced blessings on Enki's new home, and Anu stated:" My son Enki has made his temple.... grow from the ground like a mountain". After the water of creation had ben decreed, After the name hegal (abundance) born in heaven, Like plant and herb had clothed the land, The lord of the abyss, the king Enki,

“Enki the Lord who decrees the fates, Built his house of silver and lapis lazuli; Its silver and lapis lazuli, like sparkling light, The father fashioned fittingly in the abyss. The creatures of bright countenances and wise, coming forth from the abyss, Stood all about the lord Nudimmud; The pure house he built He ornamented it greatly with gold, In Eridu he built the house of water-bank, Its brickwork, word-uttering, advice-giving, Its... like an ox roaring, The house of Enki, the oracles uttering. [Follows a long passage in which Isimud, Enki's counsellor/prime minister, sings the praises of the sea-house.]

“Then Enki raises the city of Eridu from the abyss and makes it float over the water like a lofty mountain. Its green fruit-bearing gardens he fills with birds; fishes too he makes abundant. Enki is now ready to proceed by boat to Nippur, where he will obtain Enlil's blessings for his newly built city and temple. He therefore rises from the abyss:) When Enki rises, the fish.... rise, The abyss stands in wonder, In the sea joy enters, Fear comes over the deep, Terror holds the exalted river, The Euphrates, the South Wind lifts it in waves.

Enki seats himself in his boat and first arrives in Eridu itself. In Eridu, he slaughters many oxen and sheep before proceeding to Nippur. Upon his arrival, a feast is prepared for all gods and Enlil in special: Enki in the shrine Nippur, Gives his brother Enlil bread to eat, In the first place he seated Anu (the Skyfather), Next to Anu he seated Enlil, Nintu he seated at the big side, The Anunnaki seated themselves one after the other. Enlil says to the Anunnaki: " Ye great gods who are standing about, My brother has built a house, the king Enki; Eridu, like a mountain, he has raised up from the earth, In a good place he has built it. Eridu, the clean place, where none may enter, The house built of silver, adorned with lapis lazuli, The house directed by the seven lyre-songs given over to incantation, With pure songs.... The abyss, the shrine of the goodness of Enki, befitting the divine decrees, Eridu, the pure house having been built, O Enki, praise!"”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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