02. Ancient Mediterranean, Art & Humanities

#12. White Temple and its ziggurat. Uruk (modern Warka, Iraq). Sumerian. c. 3500–3000 BCE. Mud brick.

#12. White Temple and its ziggurat. Uruk (modern Warka, Iraq). Sumerian. c. 3500–3000 BCE. Mud brick.

Sooooo the city the White Temple is located in, Uruk, was just made into UNESCO Site this past summer as part of The Ahwar of Southern Iraq: Refuge of Biodiversity and the Relict Landscape of the Mesopotamian Cities. That was such a cool thing to share with my students, it really demonstrated that “old” things continue to connect to our lives today. It also goes perfectly well with my Art History professor’s mantra: Art is an endangered species! You have to actively protect it to keep it around.

Art Historical Background

This is the first piece of the AP Art History 250 in “history,” aka when we have writing. And it is quite interesting to note a shift here in world culture. We must first define the ideas of civilization and the changes that occurred from prehistory to “history.” With writing, the first being cuneiform in Mesopotamia, we see a number societal changes such as highly a structured government administration, organized labor and societal pyramid, literature (The Epic of Gilgamesh to name one), and an urban boom. Not to say that any of these things could not have happened without writing, for indeed we see “cities” of 5-8 thousand people before writing, but writing begins a slow and monumental change to global culture. Specifically for art history, writing gives us a fantastic boost because the creators of art can tell us what they meant by creating their pieces.


A ziggurat and its temple neatly symbolizes these many changes from prehistory to history. First off, it is a monumental structure, much more so than the biggest structure from Content Area #1 Global Prehistory: Stonehenge. Its scale alone indicates a highly structured society perhaps with forced labor. Additionally, it is clearly religious ceremonial site with a function that we can almost fully understand. Although there still are a lot of holes in our understanding of the ancient Sumerian religion we at least know their basic pantheon and structure.

Another item I would like to point out about how a ziggurat is indicative of civilization is its location. The ziggurat is in the center of the world’s first “real” city. This is a city of thousands with organized streets and a grid-like pattern. The ziggurats sheer size and location certainly indicates its importance in the daily life of all who could see it.

obviously an artistic reconstruction but it helps

The ziggurat is actually the largest structure in any Sumerian city. The ziggurat itself is actually the platform on which sits a small temple. The ziggurat is made of mud-brick, not really fantastic for longevity which explains their current state of decay as seen in the photos above. They are multi-storied platformed levels accessed via ramps or staircases. And although they are more or less pyramid-shaped (sloping sides that get smaller as they move up) the comparisons between ziggurats and pyramids pretty much stops there.

The ziggurats and temples were used by the living, not the dead. The form of the ziggurat, with its high platformed based with many stairs, lends itself to be restricted and indeed it was. The priests, who served as an intermediary to the god specifically worshiped in the ziggurat, performed secret ceremonies there. Unlike a Christian church or Islamic mosque, ziggurat temples were absolutely not meant for any kind of group worship. It was a site to perform specific rituals to please the god(s).
The ziggurat at Uruk, for example, was specifically dedicated to Anu, one of the principal Mesopotamian deities of the sky. We do not have much information of the type of rituals and ceremonies that occurred here but the size of the temple clearly indicates that is was a private event, perhaps only open to the priest(s) and royalty.


Next time: #13. Palette of King Narmer. Predynastic Egypt. c. 3000-2920 BCE. Greywacke.


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