The ziggurat is arguably the most distinct architectural feature of the Mesopotamian civilization. Nevertheless, some of these structures have been found to exist outside the area once occupied by this ancient civilization. One of these ziggurats is located in Chogha Zanbil (meaning ‘basket mound’), near Susa in the Khuzestan province of modern day Iran.
Chogha Zanbil is an ancient Elamite complex in the Khuzestan province of Iran. It is one of the few extant ziggurats outside of Mesopotamia. It lies approximately 25 kilometeres west of Dezfoul, 45 kilometres south of Susa and 230 kilometres north of Abadan by way of Ahvaz, which is 120 kilometers away. It measures 105×105 meters and was probably 52 meters high. It was to be the center of a new town, which was to become the king’s residence, but was never quite finished. The town measured about one square kilometer and was surrounded by a four kilometer wall.
It was built about 1,250 BC by the king Untash-Napirisha, mainly to honor the great god Inshushinak. Its original name was Dur Untash, which means ‘town of Untash’, but it is unlikely that many people, besides priests and servants, ever lived there. The complex is protected by three concentric walls which define the main areas of the ‘town’. The inner area is wholly taken up with a great ziggurat dedicated to the main god, which was built over an earlier square temple with storage rooms also built by Untash-Napirisha. The middle area holds eleven temples for lesser gods. It is believed that twenty-two temples were originally planned, but the king died before they could be finished, and his successors discontinued the building work. In the outer area are royal palaces, a funerary palace containing five subterranean royal tombs.
In the eastern part of the city, close to the city wall, was a palace, which seems to have consisted of three large houses, a spacious court, and a big gate. The palace was, therefore, of the normal Near Eastern type: many rooms surrounding big courts, built inside a city, against the wall. A temple, dedicated to the Babylonian god Nusku, completed this section of the city. As was customary in the Near East, the tombs of the kings were underneath the palace. Although one skeleton was found, most people had been cremated; so far, this is the only place in Elam where the dead bodies were burnt.
Ziggurats were built not as temples in the traditional sense, in that they weren’t meant for priests to reside in or perform rituals in. Instead, a ziggurat was viewed as a resting place for the gods. By building a ziggurat near a major city, the rulers could ensure that the gods stayed near, offering their aid in battle and keeping the crops growing.
The building materials in Chogha Zanbil are mainly mud bricks and occasionally baked bricks. The monuments were well built and beautifully decorated with glazed baked bricks, gypsum, ornaments of faience and glass. Thousands of baked bricks bearing inscriptions with Elamite cuneiform characters were all inscribed by hand, ornamenting the most important buildings. Glazed terracotta statues such as bulls and winged griffins guarded the entrances to the ziggurat. Near some of the temples, kilns were found that probably were used for the production of baked bricks and decoration materials.
Although construction in the city abruptly ended after Untash-Napirisha’s death, the site was not abandoned, but continued to be occupied until it was destroyed by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in 640 BC. Some scholars speculate, based on the large number of temples and sanctuaries at Chogha Zanbil, that Untash-Napirisha attempted to create a new religious center (possibly intended to replace Susa) which would unite the gods of both highland and lowland Elam at one site.
The monument for which Chogha Zanbil is famous, its temple tower (or ziggurat), is not an Iranian architectural form either: it was developed in southern Mesopotamia. The most famous ziggurat was in the city of Babylon itself, and was called Etemenanki. It was dedicated to the god Marduk and its builders, king Nabopolassar and king Nebuchadnezzar, claimed that it reached into heaven. This boast is repeated in the famous Biblical story of the “tower of Babel”, which is simply the story of a ziggurat. And that is exactly what the monument in Chogha Zanbil was: a stairway to heaven.
The ziggurat was built within a sacred precinct, which was, again, surrounded by a wall (“the outer temenos wall”), almost rectangular in shape of 400 x 500 meter, its corners facing the north, east, south, and west. The eastern corner was occupied by several minor sanctuaries. In the center of this rectangular zone was a second wall (“the inner temenos wall”) of irregular shape. It was very close to the ziggurat: in the winter, the temple tower’s shadow must have covered it. This court-within-a-court can also been found in other sanctuaries in the Semitic world: the most famous example is, of course, the temple in Jerusalem, which was surrounded by a Court of the Gentiles and a Court of the Women. In the northwestern part of the inner court were temples, but everything was eclipsed by the ziggurat itself.
Chogha Zanbil was built on high ground, more than fifty meter above the nearby river Dez River, which made it difficult to bring water to the city. The solution Untash-Napirisha found, betrays his ambitions: he ordered his people to build a canal to Susa, where fresh water was diverted from the Choaspes river (Karkheh). It passed along Haft Tepe, was diverted into nine branches, and finally reached the town.
Unfortunately, the water of the Karkheh is full of mud and, because it was downstream from Susa, not very healthy. So it was necessary to clean it before it could be used in Dur Untash. Therefore, refineries were built in which the water was conducted through several basins. Even by today’s standards, this is a remarkable piece of engineering. The refinery that has been excavated, and is the oldest one known monument of this type in the world.
Archaeological excavations undertaken between 1951 and 1962 revealed the site again, and the ziggurat is considered to be the best preserved example in the world. In 1979, Chogha Zanbil became the first Iranian site to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.