Ziggurats, Bible Archaeology in Babylon


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Jewish elder

Abraham saw the ziggurats





Bible Study Resource

Babylon and Ziggurats

What a city!  What money and power!  The empire of Nebuchadrezzar II saw Babylon transformed into a vast, sophisticated metropolis.  Although no major works of art have survived, the buildings are enough to show that Babylon was a continuation of the ancient southern Mesopotamian traditions which had fallen into decay but were now revived. 

Babylon was a show-place, so the architects of the time adorned the facades of their buildings with painted glazed bricks, with the most grandiose effects on the magnificent constructions lining the wide Procession Street, in the Ishtar Gate itself, and the palace of Nebuchadrezzar (see the pictures below).

Artist's impression of the ancient city of Babylon, with its mud brick walls and houses and the central temple of the main ziggurat 

Reconstruction of the ancient city of Babylon, with its mud brick walls and houses 
and the fabulous Ziggurat that was its central temple

Artist's impression of the Ishtar Gate in ancient Babylon

The grandiose entrance to this fabulous city: the Ishtar Gate, covered in deep blue tiles


Photograph of the Ishtar Gate and entry into the city of Babylon

The Ishtar Gate, from a 1963 photograph


The Ziggurats and the 'Tower of Babel' 

Procession Street led from the Ishtar Gate, through the centre of Babylon to the main temple enclosure, Etemenanki, the "Building of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth", where stood
Marduk's "ziggurat", or "the House that lifts up its Head". 

This ziggurat, popularly known as "the Tower of Babel", in fact has no real relation to the Bible story. The only connection is that the Babylon ziggurat is a late imitation of the very early staged temple towers built in most of the Mesopotamian dynastic cities. 

ZIGGURATS: BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY: Model of an ancient ziggurat

Model of an ancient ziggurat.
It is believed that light, shining at a particular angle on a particular day through the doors of the top unit of the ziggurat, was the signal for the beginning of the agricultural year 
on which the whole country depended. 
The Canaanite tribes in the land that became Israel did not need ziggurats, since there were mountains. Instead, they set up 'high places' which probably served the same function as the ziggurat.


The Ziggurat of Ur as it appears today

The reconstructed facade which now covers the excavated remains of the Ziggurat at Ur
This is more or less how Abraham and Sarah saw it, though it lacks the summit temple 
which was the focus of worship.
See BIBLE PEOPLE: ABRAHAM for the story of Abraham's travels


The reconstructed main stairway of the Ziggurat of Ur, with American soldiers viewing it

Reconstructed stairway of the Ziggurat at Ur


An aerial view of the Ziggurat of Ur, with mounds of weather-worn mud bricks showing where buildings once stood

Aerial view of the Ziggurat at Ur, with reconstructed facade and stairway. 
Bumps on surrounding land are remains of an ancient temple complex surrounding the ziggurat.

Built with two or three terraces, faced with kiln baked bricks, their colossal facades panelled and recessed, these huge structures dominated the Mesopotamian scene centuries before the neo-Babylonian kings instituted a great building programme to restore them to their former glory. 

Ur itself and the great cities of Eridu, Kish, Uruk, Nippur and, later, during the Cassite period, Dur Kurigalzu (Aqarqaf) all had ziggurats, the ruins of some of them standing to this day. The ziggurat of Ur-Nammu can be reconstructed from the remains of the building of the neo-Babylonian kings, as shown above.

It is possible that the ziggurat was intended as a "stairway to heaven" and that the worshippers believed the gods descended from heaven to this "halfway house" meeting place. 

Genesis (11:1-9) used the form (and makes the first biblical mention of the name of Babylon or Babel) in a vivid story designed to prove that at some point in human history, mankind had been scattered over many lands and thereafter spoke in many languages, forming a veritable "babble of tongues."

ZIGGURATS: BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY: An American air base is situated near the Ziggurat at Ur

An American air base situated near the Ziggurat at Ur


A Google Earth image of the ziggurat of Ur, with outlines of decayed buildings that were once a part of the temple complex

Google Earth image of the Ziggurat at Ur


ZIGGURATS: BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY: Model based on the Ziggurat of Ur

Model based on the Ziggurat of Ur

Where, when, what

Ziggurats were stepped temple towers, built as religious structures. About 25 ziggurats are known. Ziggurats are found in the major cities of what was Mesopotamia and is now modern Iran, spread throughout the ancient lands of Sumeria, Babylonia and Assyria. They were built from circa 2200-500BC. 

The Tower of Babel is associated with the ziggurat of the great temple of Marduk in Babylon. 

The ziggurats were simulated mountains, and many people in the ancient Near East continued to worship in 'high places'. In Israel, these 'high places' were on top of mountains - see Bible Archaeology: Ancient religions

The Anu Ziggurat, showing an unreconstructed ziggurat worn away by the ravages of time

The Anu Ziggurat at Uruk, now reduced by time and erosion to a formless mound.
 Anu was the god/power that ruled the sky. The stairway ramp is at right center.
See Ancient Religions

View of the Ziggurat of Ur from the royal tombs nearby

The Ziggurat at Ur, looking across the excavated remains of the royal tombs; for photographs of some of the jewelry found in these tombs, see Ancient Jewels


A ziggurat had a core of mud brick and an exterior of baked brick. It had no internal chambers (though is was sometimes built over other, more ancient structures) and was usually square or rectangular. An exterior triple stairway or a spiral ramp led to the top of the ziggurat. The terraces were often adorned with trees and shrubs, and this is probably the origin of the idea of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Most ziggurats were about 170ft. square, or 125x170ft. (40x50metres) at the base.

View of the Ziggurat at Uruk, Mesopotamia; the erosion of many centuries has taken its toll, and only the main stairway has been reconstructed

The unreconstructed Ziggurat of the sky god/power Anu, at Uruk, Mesopotamia


Links with the Bible

  • Sarah and Abraham came from Ur, and since they lived in the centuries after the Ziggurat of Ur was built, they must have looked on it when it was still in all its glory. 

  • The priests of Jahweh condemned worship in the 'high places', since it was based on veneration of the gods of sky, weather and fertile agriculture.

See other fascinating links between 
Archaeology and the Bible


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Copyright 2006 Elizabeth Fletcher