The Ziggurats

One of the most important aspects of Babylonian religion and tradition, and probably the best known, is the ziggurat.

Ziggurats were huge "stepped" structures with, on their summit, far above the ground, a temple. This Temple would have been to the city god. The city ziggurat would easily be the most conspicuous building in the city, towering above any visitors coming to their city. Therefore the ziggurat was not just a religious center but also a center of civic pride. Any visitor could not but see the ziggurat. The ziggurats were built on an immense scale: in the time of Hammurapi they would sometimes reach the height of 150 feet. Around the base there might be more temples or in some case accommodation for priests.

Some of the earliest proper ziggurats were built by Ur-Nammu (2112-2095), a late Sumerian king of Ur. These were with three "steps" but later Ziggurats had as many as seven "steps".

Similar structures to ziggurats have been discovered at the other side of the world, in Central America. The Aztecs and other people inhabiting the area built huge "stepped" structures for worshipping their gods. These however were some 3000 years after the early Mesopotamian ziggurats.

What part did Ziggurats play in Religion?

Ziggurats were built to reach nearer the heavens. This was so the gods could be contacted and worshipped. Obviously the same can be done on ground level but on top of the ziggurat they would be "nearer the god".

The Babylonians, and others of their religion, gave rich offerings to the gods and built splendid temples. Similarly they built ziggurats. The size and splendor of a ziggurat would show the city and king’s devotion to the particular city god being worshipped. They might have temples to other gods but they would only have a ziggurat to the city god.

The Building of the Tower of Babel,
by Abel Grimmer (1570-1619)

The Tower of Babel

Of the ziggurat built in Babylon at the time of Hammurapi we know little but there is a large amount of documentation of the ziggurat that existed in the time of Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 BC) who deported the Jews.

This was a ziggurat already old by the time of his reign and could have been the same as the ziggurat that existed in the reign of Hammurapi. Its Babylonian name was "Etemenanki" (see below) which means in English "House of the platform of Heaven and Earth".

This temple is often associated with the famous Tower of Babel which men built to rival God. Indeed so it must have seemed to an Israelite observer whose cities were often no more than the size of our villages. They would be confronted first with the size of the city, which encompassed, at that time, both sides of the Euphrates. Babylon in the time of Nebuchadnezzar II was large even by our standards. In the city they would see the ziggurat, which would seem to them, usually living in single story houses, to reach almost to heaven. Many Jews would have seen it with their own eyes when they were deported to Babylon in about 600 BC. This would have no doubt reminded them of the events at the Tower of Babel.

The Bible reveals very little about the ziggurat. There are other sources outside of the Bible that reveal what a Ziggurat is. We have a Babylonian tablet that gives us the dimensions of the ziggurat at the time of Nebuchadnezzar II. The ziggurat’s condition declined and it was in ruins when Alexander arrived in 331 BC.

The restored remains of the great ziggurat
of ancient Ur, in southern Iraq. It was built
with similar characteristics as the Tower of
Babel mention in the Bible (see Gen 10).


(House of the platform of Heaven and Earth)

Thanks to a tablet that has been found we are in the possession of most of the dimensions of the ziggurat:

  1. st step 300ft by 300ft 110ft high
    2nd step 260ft by 260ft 60ft high
    3rd step 200ft by 200ft 20ft high
    4th step 170ft by 170ft 20ft high
    5th step 140ft by 140ft 20ft high
    6th step ? 20ft high?
    7th step 70ft by 80ft 50ft high

Dimensions of the Babylonian Ziggurat

The scribe omitted the dimensions of the sixth step but its height was probably twenty feet.

This means that the temple situated on the very top of the ziggurat was three hundred feet high.

The main structure of the ziggurat was trodden clay but there was a layer of bricks on the outside. The top of the ziggurat was reached by a broad stairway going up the side. This stairway was said to be thirty feet wide. Around the base of the ziggurat was a line of buildings. These were storerooms, accommodation for priests and others connected with the temple.

Babylon in the time of Nebuchadnezzar II.
At its heart was Esagila, a huge sanctuary
complex which contained the temple of Marduk,
and E-Temen-an-ki, the great ziggurat of Babylon,
probably the prototype of the Tower of Babel.