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Mesopotamia – A Quick Reference Guide With Its 4 Architectural Masterpieces

Mesopotamia(4500-2000 BC) is considered as one of the earliest civilizations. It refers to the geographical area occupied by present Iraq, East Syria, Parts of Iran, and Turkey. The Historians refer to Fertile Crescent as Mesopotamia from the Greek meaning “the land between two rivers.”

Two rivers refer to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. These rivers form a major river system in western Asia developing agriculture, resulting in an increase in the production of food. Also, these rivers played a major role in developing Mesopotamian civilization, settlements, and architecture. Important structures and cities were built on its fertile banks.

Factors Influencing Western Asiatic Architecture

Geographical Factors

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Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) was surrounded by – the West-Syrian Desert, the North – Mountains of Eastern Turkey, and the Zagros Mountains in western Iran.

Major cities of Western Asia were situated near the valley of twin rivers- Tigris and Euphrates. With the presence of two rivers, the plain of Mesopotamia was fertile and thus led to a high civilization. As irrigation grew with the rise in population, buildings rose with the development of palaces, villages, and cities. Thus civilization developed from the river/sea islands.

Image source: web.cocc.edu

Geological Factors

The two rivers – Tigris and Euphrates deposited alluvial soils with the absence of stone. This led to the easy way of building bricks, which became a common building material. It developed further into making “Kiln-burnt bricks” as well as glazed bricks. Mortar made of calcareous earth, was used in the latest periods.

Image source: https://education.nationalgeographic.org/

tigris river

Climatic Factors

SGY Mesopotamia Fig 4

The climate differed from the extremes of heat and cold. In particular, the summers were long and the areas near rivers were flooded during the rainy season. Vast swamps (forest wetlands) grew leading to an infestation of insects for the entire region during the summer months. Moreover, torrents(streams of water) fell during the rainy season. Because of these conditions, the construction of elevated platforms was essential.

Image source: press. rebus.community

Religious Factors

The people of Mesopotamia were worshippers of heavenly bodies (Sun, Moon) and natural powers( light, wind, thunder). – Enki( God of water), Nannar (Moon God), Enlil (God of wind), Ormuzd (the god of light and of good).

The worship and sacrifices appeared to have been done in the air and thus the wanting of religious structures arose. This led to a pathway for the construction of temples.

Image source: brewminate.com

History Ancient Mesopotamia Religion Mythology

Social and Political Factors

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The Assyrians of Mesopotamia were a strong and warlike people. They were known for being cruel in battle and would often take thousands of prisoners. These prisoners were forced to construct large mounds, such as the platform of Koyunjik. The pictures of palace walls and sculptures depict the political events, and social and military character of the period.

Image source: captchalfa.ew.r.appspot.com

History of Mesopotamia

After the end Neolithic period in 4500 BC, human civilization in the area of Euphrates Valley, began to rise for a period of 5000 years. There was a gradual development from the Stone Age to more civilized forms. Cities began to grow and cultures developed where the power of Emporers began to rule.

Map of Mesopotamia
Map of Mesopotamia (World History Encyclopedia) Image source: https://www.worldhistory.org/image/12521/map-of-the-fertile-crescent/
  • The Sumerian Period (4000 BC to 2370 BC)
    • The Sumerian Civilization focused on political, mercantile, religious, and achievements in city settlements. Due to the increasing demand and reliance on agriculture,
      • The encouragement of clay pots took place – to store surplus seeds.
      • The development of writing- Cuneiform writing was developed using a wedge-shaped stylus pressed into soft clay tablets – to record grain tallies.
    • The rich slit (deposits of two rivers) was the only available building material -clay.
    • The source of wood was available from date palm.
    • Settlements formed around the central religious shrine.
    • Temples represent the principal architectural monuments of Sumerian cities.
  • The Akkadian Period (2370 BC to 2150 BC)
    • Along with the developments during the Sumerian period, one of the most significant changes that took place was
      • The formation of a strong priestly class and
      • Rule by a single warrior King.
  • The Neo-Sumerian Period (2150 BC to 2000 BC)
    • The construction of Zigurats was expanded largely during this period.
  • The Babylonian Period (2000 BC to 1503 BC)
    • An Empire was created in the capital city of Babylonian.
  • The Hittite Period (1503 BC to 1200 BC)
    • Development of Iron weapons.
    • Construction of palaces, libraries, and also granaries to store grains.
  • The Assyrian Empire (900BC to 612 BC)
    • Emperors built Empires with strong fortified capitals.

Mesopotamian Civilization Methods

  • The earliest civilizations refer to the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (modern-day Iraq).
  • Archeologists have found large collections of clay tablets. Found the remains of chariots, harps, and jewelry.
  • Important development from the prehistoric period was writing things down, recording history, and keeping track of laws.
  • Materials used – stone, brick, clay
  • Inventions during this period – the wheel, the development of the cursive script, mathematics, astronomy, and agriculture.
  • First permanent structures built.
  • Building materials – mortarless masonry, masonry with bitumen, sunbaked bricks, glazing
    • Façade – colored stone, Terracotta panels, clay nails, adobe brick
  • The use of brick led to the development of pilasters and columns including tiles.
  • Decoration – Sculptured stones, three-dimensional figures, embroideries, and rugs.
  • Years ago, our ancestors learned to control fire, build social links with each other, attach to the remains of the dead, and worship symbolic images and objects.

Characteristics, Elements, and Construction Techniques

In Mesopotamia, the rivers of Tigris and Euphrates present the alluvial plains with an abundance of clay. With its huge availability, clay was used in major constructions. It was pressed in flat clay molds and dried in the Sun. Huge platforms with temples and palaces were built. However, due to its fragile nature, it was further developed into kiln-burnt bricks. The stone slabs from the surrounding mountains were also used during the Assyrian Period.

Building Materials and Design features include:

  • Tripartite design, meaning plans organized around three rooms.
  • Stone was used abundantly in the rocky country of Persia.
  • Arches were for important openings. Some arches were true arches that rested on solid walls, while some of them were formed by corbelling or projecting horizontal courses.
  • Colored stone, terracotta panels, and clay nails were driven in the facade for a protective sheath and were also used in the later stages of Mesopotamia slowing the decay of civil buildings.
  • The temples were supported by buttresses.
  • The use of brick led to the early development of the pilaster and column and of frescoes and enameled tiles.
  • Courtyards
  • Reed roofs

Architectural and Building Types in Mesopotamia

The earliest architecture (during the Sumerian Period) was constructed of clay or mud. It was dried for several weeks and then laid with mud mortar. Due to its fragile nature, this mud brick architecture has eroded after a few years. These are the main architectural accomplishments of Mesopotamia –

  • Ziggurats and temples
  • Courtyard houses
  • Urban Planning

Ziggurats and Temples


The Ziggurats – one of the important structures preserved in Mesopotamia.

The ziggurats were surrounded by other public buildings, with all enclosed by a double wall. They were considered as a link between heaven and earth. These enormous structures were built by using millions of mud bricks. Built by Sumerian farmers, each Ziggurat complex was part of a temple complex that included other buildings.

Image source – DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / Getty Images

Urban Planning

Urban Planning in Mesopotamia was characterized by well-planned grid pattern streets, defensive city walls, palaces, temples, and proper zoning. Zoning included residential zones, commercial zones, and areas for religious and governmental structures. Cities were built near rivers with efficient water management systems, and canals were constructed for irrigation and domestic use.

Image source: pinterest.com

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Prominent Examples of Mesopotamia Architecture

Ziggurat of Ur

The Ziggurat of Ur is one of the most well-known examples of Mesopotamian architecture and a prominent structure in the ancient Sumerian period. Located near the Euphrates River, it is considered to be associated with the moon God, Nanna. The ziggurat of Ur is a massive stepped pyramid made of mud bricks. It consists of a series of terraces or levels, decreasing in size as they ascend. A temple dedicated to Nanna was located on the topmost terrace.

Great Ziggurat of Ur
Great Ziggurat of Ur; Image source: ancient-origins.net

The walls of the massive structure were inward-sloping with a series of platform steps. They used sun-dried bricks that were very strong but also porous. Another set of bricks was added for water-proofing that were fired in a kiln and then stacked on them, which also served as a protective layer. The buildings were raised to give protection from floods. The shape of the ziggurats was similar to mountains.

Chogha Zanbil Ziggurat 

1280px Dur Untash Chgoha Zanbil چغازنبیل Shush Susa Khuzesten Iran 2011
Chogha Zanbil Ziggurat; Image source: Wikipedia

UNESCO considers the Chogha Zanbil Ziggurat to be one of the best-preserved ziggurats near Mesopotamia, believed to have been constructed in 1250 BC. It was built in the center of the city over there was a temple and storage rooms existed previously. Built and dedicated to the main God, there are also another eleven temples for other Gods.

The ziggurat was a large structure made of mud brick. It was originally 105.2 m on each side and about 53 m tall. The ziggurat had five levels and a temple on top. The outside of the ziggurat was covered with baked bricks that had writing in the Elamite and Akkadian languages. The ziggurat is now only 24.75 m tall, but it is very well preserved. The archaeological site of Tchogha Zanbil, where the ziggurat is located, also has other temples, residences, tomb palaces, and water reservoirs. Studies of this site have taught us a lot about the architecture of this time period.

City of Babylon; Urban Planning

Ishtar Gate: Image source worldhistory.org

One of the ancient Mesopotamian cities was the city of Babylon, which was planned thoughtfully. The city was protected by a wall that circled the entire perimeter. A typical city divided space into residential, mixed-use, commercial, and civic spaces. 

The city planning includes walls, high temples, and canals, The center core and nucleus include a high temple complex. The city included planning of roads and canals while the canals served as a means of goods transportation.

Architectural structures :

  • The palace
  • Tower of Babel

Ishtar Gate of Babylon

Ishtar Gate of Babylon is a thirty-eight-foot tall gate at the entrance of the city with a vast anti-chamber on the southern side which represented the power of the city. Two enormous towers flank the main entry gate, embellished with decorations and complex patterns that represent Babylon’s cultural and religious values. They are adorned with glazed blue bricks bearing yellow and white motifs of animals such as lions, bulls, dragons, and aurochs that symbolize the authority of Babylon rulers. Glazed blue bricks present the structure with a more vibrant and striking facade. The processional way is a brick paved corridor way, which was a half mile long with high walls on each side.

Babylon temples

The temples and palaces used more advanced materials and techniques, such as buttresses, recesses, and half columns. The walls of Babylon temples were colored and sometimes plated with zinc, or old. Painted terracotta cones were embedded in the plaster. The walls of palaces were sculptured on colored slabs of stone.

Many temples had inscriptions engraved into them. The plan of the temple was rectangular, with the corners pointing in cardinal directions to symbolize the four rivers that flow from the mountain to the four world regions.

The temple was built on a low terrace with rammed earth and the plans were of T-shaped, tripartite, or combined plans.

  • Tripartite plan – large central hall with two smaller flanking halls on either side.
  • T-shaped plan – hall at one end of the rectangle perpendicular to the main hall.

Courtyard Houses

The materials used to construct houses were stone, wood, ashlar, mud brick, mud plaster, reeds, and wooden doors.

Most of the houses were built with mud brick, mud plaster, and poplar. The houses could be Tripartite design, meaning plans organized around three rooms, round or rectangular with great variations for each house. Courtyards with central hallways were the major feature of Mesopotamian architecture. All the other rooms were opened into courtyards. Thick-walled halls surrounded these courtyards.

  • Features – Courtyards, central hallways, stories.
  • Divisions of public and private spaces.
  • Few houses included shops, workshops, and storage rooms
  • Construction features
    • Bundles of reed were tied together and inserted into the ground.
    • Stone foundations
    • Mud bricks made from clay and chopped straw and sun-dried.
    • Planks of palm tree wood covered with reeds were used as roofs.
    • Doors were made of wood.

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