Most religions have attempted to build their sanctuaries on prominent heights to be visible to all the faithful. Since no such natural heights were available in the flat flood plains of ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), ancient priests and kings determined to build ziggurats (Akkadian “ziqqurratu”), artificial square or rectangular stepped temple platforms.
Functionally, temples were placed on raised platforms to give them prominence over other buildings in a city and to allow more people to watch the services performed at the temple. Symbolically, however, the ziggurat represents the cosmic mountain on which God or the gods dwell. The priest’s ascent up the stairway to the temple at the top of the ziggurat represents the ascent to heaven. The great ziggurat at Khorsabad, for example, had seven different stages, each painted a different color, representing the heavenly spheres of the five known planets and the moon and sun.
Although the specific architectural details of ziggurats differ, they all exhibit a similar overall structure. A courtyard surrounded by a sacred enclosure wall — as large as 500 yards square — generally encompassed the ziggurat, creating a ritual plaza for religious ceremonies. Ziggurat complexes often included storehouses, residences for priests and kings, and altars for sacrifice.
The huge temple — often as long as a football field and generally oriented to the cardinal directions — occupied a prominent place in the courtyard. Ascent of the platforms was commonly restricted to the priests and was achieved by climbing vast stairways, some stretching out perpendicular to the platform, with others attached to the walls or spiraling around the platform.
The top of the ziggurat was crowned by a temple containing the statue of the god. Ziggurats thus provided the link between heaven and earth, allowing humans to ritually ascend into the presence of God. (In this regard, Jacob’s vision of the “ladder” (Hebrew “sullam”) or, better, “stairway” into heaven (Genesis 28:10-22) matches the symbolism of the ziggurat.)
In Babylon, the largest ziggurat was the Marduk temple Etemenanki (“the house that is the foundation of heaven and earth”), with a square base almost 100 yards long. Priests and artisans of Mesopotamia adorned their temple and ziggurat complexes with fantastic ornamentation. Twenty-two tons of gold are said to have been used in the ornamentation of the temple of Marduk alone.
Although the building of ziggurats declined following the Greek conquest of Mesopotamia in the fourth century B.C., the significance of these temple complexes lived on in the religious imagination for the next 2,000 years.
Berossus, a Babylonian scholar of the third century B.C., described the Hanging Gardens of Babylon as one of the wonders of the world. He said the Hanging Gardens were a type of pleasure palace and garden built by King Nebuchadnezzar for his wife Amuita; the gardens were probably part of a ziggurat complex, intended to represent the celestial garden of the gods that surrounds the mountain on which the gods dwell.
Building temples on raised platforms is a widespread phenomenon in world religious architecture, notably in China. Functionally and architecturally, however, the closest parallels to the Mesopotamian ziggurat come from the stepped temple mounds of pre-Columbian America. In Mesoamerica, these are most strikingly preserved at the temples of the Mayans and Aztecs, to which millions of tourists flock each year. But the phenomenon dates back at least to the late second millennium B.C., as found in Olmec examples at La Venta and San Lorenzo.
When the Arabs conquered Mesopotamia in the seventh century A.D., the crumbling and abandoned ruins of ziggurats may have been the architectural inspiration for the building of the great minaret of Samarra (near Baghdad) in the ninth century. This huge tapering tower is surrounded by an outside spiral corkscrew staircase to the top.
Seeing this minaret, medieval Europeans mistook it for the biblical Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9), and, as such, it lent its form to medieval and Renaissance representations of the tower, as in the famous “Tower of Babel” by Bruegel (1563).
And, indirectly, they may not have been entirely mistaken. Many scholars believe that the story of the Tower of Babel in fact describes the building of a ziggurat, a tower that doesn’t literally ascend into the physical sky but, rather, ritually allows the priests to ascend into the presence of the heavenly gods by climbing to the temple at the top of the holy mountain.
William Hamblin and Daniel Peterson teach, respectively, history and Arabic/Islamic studies at BYU. Peterson founded the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative; Hamblin co-authored "Solomon's Temple: Myth and History." They don't speak for BYU.