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Ziggurats and Pyramids

October 12, 2011

The ziggurats of the ancient Near East and the Egyptian pyramids at Giza may have some differences in form and function, however they’re closely related to one another. Ziggurats, a product of the Sumerian civilization, are stepped structures of large size that lead to a platform on top where spiritual/religious rituals took place. These were located within a city-state’s limits and were utilized by a special class of priests/figures. Ziggurats varied by size, from 40′ tall to 100′ tall and some bases as large as 210′ by 150′ (as is the case with the Great Ziggurat of Ur). These structures served visually to suggest the grandiosity of both the deity to whom the ziggurat was dedicated to and also indirectly to the ruler who commissioned their construction. Like the ziggurats, the size and technical aspects of the Great Pyramids suggest a level of importance on the ruler that commissioned it.

The Great Pyramids can be seen as a more refined version of the ziggurat. Maintaining the larger base and smaller top like a ziggurat, the pyramid offers a more scientific/advanced take on architecture and idealism of form. The construction of such a large scale square pyramid (Khufu’s pyramid is 13 acres at the base) required intense mathematical planning and human labor, with individual bricks weighing 2.5 tons. Here, the pyramid is more self-serving, demonstrating the state of a ruler’s civilization in regards to labor force, intellectualism, splendour, and extravagance. Whereas the ziggurat’s function was more utilitarian in its regular use for religious practices, the pyramid served as a center for a specific ruler’s religious funeral practices and tomb. So while both exhibit a metaphysical/godly air about them with their size and reserving for a special class of people, pyramids were more adorned and stylized for displays of personal accomplishments and standing.

Another interesting similarity between ziggurats and pyramids is the idea that the ruling class or high-profile religious figures felt the need to design these structures with such consideration taken to protecting either themselves or protecting a high-class practice or ritual. With the ziggurats, the platform on top served as a place that religious ceremonies could go on out of sight from the lower class civilians. The steps are also isolated and minimal, allowing few access points that needed to be guarded. There has also been speculation that the ziggurats were used by ruling class during flooding as a safe high point. In the pyramids, false tombs were created to serve as decoys for possible looters and enemies. The entrance to the tombs underneath the pyramids were accessible through an unattached temple and long, narrow corridor, with the tomb chamber being sealed off by a 50-ton stone.

Both the ziggurats of the Ancient Near East and the pyramids of Egypt are remarkable feats of human civilization. For their respective times, they embodied their civilization’s advances in architecture and science, as well as their attitudes on the importance of aesthetics. Stripped of their religious/ceremonial purposes, it is easy to see them as a sort of benchmark of the times, and then to see the parallels and evolution from one to another.

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