Ziggurats: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

Ancient Mesopotamian cultures built huge temples out of stone called ziggurats. These could be the largest buildings in an entire area, and some of the largest on all of Earth at the time. Learn about ziggurats and their importance in this lesson.

Going Up

Imagine that you're walking through the desert, or riding on a camel if you prefer, when you see a huge structure rising from the ground into the sky. You'd probably think you're in Egypt and it's a pyramid, but Egyptian pyramids aren't the only huge building that ancient peoples build in the middle of a desert.

Map of ancient Middle East: the yellow area in the middle is Mesopotamia
Map of Mesopotamia

In Mesopotamia, a region that today includes parts of Syria, Iraq, and Iran, ancient civilizations built huge temples called ziggurats, meaning a structure that rises above the earth. They're so big and so well-made that, just like the pyramids, many of them survive today, thousands of years later.

Starting Off

The first ziggurats were built about five thousand years ago, a period of time so far back in the past that it's hard to imagine - they were built so long ago that people in the Roman Empire lived closer in time to us than to these Mesopotamians. The oldest ones are about the same age as the oldest pyramids of Egypt. Since most buildings back then were very small by comparison (most Mesopotamians likely lived in simple mud huts), only the richest and most powerful rulers of these ancient peoples could build a ziggurat.

Since only kings could build ziggurats, there aren't too many of them: just nineteen that have survived the centuries, and we have records of ten others that have not survived. By comparison, there are about eighty surviving pyramids in Egypt.

The famous ziggurat of Ur
Photo of ziggurat

Building Up

Why would a king build such a huge building? Ziggurats weren't palaces where kings would live, but rather monuments to the worship of the gods. Mesopotamians believed that their gods lived in the nearby mountains, so a big ziggurat was meant to be an imitation of their high homes. An ancient king named Ur-Nammu, who ruled the Mesopotamian city of Ur about 4,000 years ago, was particularly famous for building ziggurats.

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