The Great Ziggurat of Ur is a massive mud-brick stepped temple located in Iraq, which aligns to the summer solstice sunrise.1
The structure has been rebuilt and modified repeatedly over the millennia. The earliest parts of the current monument date back at least 4,000 years,2 and archaeological digs have discovered it rests upon successive layers of even earlier structures.3
The earliest known culture associated with the site is that of the ancient Sumerians, but the city has also been ruled by others, such as the Akkadian and the Babylonian empires, until it was ultimately abandoned in the 4th century BC, apparently due to changing environmental conditions.4
The Ziggurat in its present form is 205 by 142 feet (63 by 43 m) at its base,5 making it similar in size to the stepped pyramid known as the Temple of Kukulcan in Chitchen Itza, Mexico. The ziggurat’s stepped design is also reminiscent of the great mounds of North America, such as Monk’s Mound at Cahokia.6
Site Alignments and Geometry
Professor Bryan Penprase describes some of the important geometrical properties and solar alignments that were incorporated into the Ziggurat’s design:
[The levels have] dimensions that follow numerical ratios important to Sumerians. The proportion of the width and length for the ground level are very close to an exact ratio of 3:2 […] while the second level maintains a dimension of 4:3 […]. Access to the upper levels was from a celestially aligned northeastern face oriented towards the summer solstice sunrise, with a grand staircase facing the first rays of the summer Sun.7
Archaeoastronomer James Q. Jacobs also notes some precise relationships between the latitude of Ur and several other ancient sites including Gobekli Tepe—a remarkable discovery considering that Gobekli Tepe is accepted to be at least 12,000 years old, whereas Ur is generally assumed to be much younger.8 This apparent relationship between Ur and Gobekli Tepe suggests Ur may have a prehistoric past much more ancient than what is currently recognized.
“Ziggurat” is a term used to describe a type of structure found throughout Mesopotamia and Iran. They are formed of stacked layers with successively smaller footprints to create a stepped structure. Researchers believe the earliest ziggurats appeared approximately 5,000 years ago9 but have suggested that they may be a later development of an earlier type of structure consisting of temples on raised platforms, which have been dated as far back as the Ubaid period (9,500 to 6,800 years before present).10
The purpose of these structures is debated by scholars, but most agree that they had a ritual, ceremonial, and spiritual purpose; the Greek historian Herodotus, who was an eye witness to the ziggurat at Babylon as it existed in his day (5th century BC), described a shrine where important ceremonies were conducted.11
The most significant excavations of Ur and the Great Ziggurat were conducted over a 12-year period beginning in 1922 by archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley. The ziggurat first revealed by these excavations was not the same structure we see today, as much of the monument now has elements of modern reconstruction based on how scholars believe it once looked.12
The Great Ziggurat in a form that we might recognize today dates back to the time of King Ur-Nammu of the Third Dynasty (approximately 4100 years before present).13 While only two layers are visible today, it is thought the structure built by Ur-Nammu had three layers with a shrine atop it and walls that were angled to create the perception of being straight.14 Woolley dug deep underneath and discovered that the present structure sits atop an older temple from the Early Dynastic period (2900 – 2350 BC) which itself rests upon even more archaic remains.15
The City of Ur: Capital of a Sumerian Kingdom
Today the ancient city of Ur is located within the perimeter of a US Air Force base in Iraq. The location is desolate, encircled by a “wasteland at the edge of a war zone.”16 Temperatures in the harsh desert climate can soar upwards of 120°F (49°C), and the monument sees few tourists aside from occasional groups of soldiers.17
Thousands of years ago, however, Ur was a flourishing urban center in a fertile area and the capital of a Sumerian kingdom that ruled over much of the region known historically as Mesopotamia,18 a Greek word meaning “the land between two rivers” (referring to the Tigris and Euphrates). In ancient times, the Euphrates had a different course that ran closer to Ur, making it a port city with easy access to the Persian Gulf for trade and also enabling abundant agriculture based on the river, likely similar to the irrigation agriculture practiced in ancient Egypt.19
The origins of Sumerian culture reach back far into pre-history. Researchers have suggested that Sumer may have been initiated by a seafaring civilization that had its origins elsewhere,20 and Sumerian texts also speak of a series of divine kings that ruled in times before a catastrophic flood devastated the land—a parallel with other ancient cultures that descended from the civilization of the sun.21
“Ur,” The Oxford Companion to Archaeology (2 ed.), June 10, 2014, accessed August 19, 2017, http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199735785.001.0001/acref-9780199735785-e-0468.
The Sumerian King List (translation found here) describes eight antediluvian kings who ruled for almost 400,000 years in five sacred cities before “the flood swept over.” This parallels myths recorded in ancient Egypt and in Hindu tradition.