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The Mesopotamian ziggurats were not places for public worship or ceremonies. They were believed to be dwelling places for the gods. Through the ziggurat the gods could be close to mankind and each city had its own patron god. Only priests were permitted inside the ziggurat and it was their responsibility to care for the gods and attend to their needs. As a result the priests were very powerful members of Sumerian society.
There are 32 ziggurats known at, and near Mesopotamia. Four of them are in Iran, and the rest are mostly in Iraq. The most recent to be discovered was Sialk, in central Iran.
One of the best preserved ziggurats is Choqa Zanbil in western Iran, which has survived despite the devastating eight year Iran-Iraq war of the 1980's in which many archeological sites were destroyed. The Sialk, in Kashan, Iran, is the oldest known zigurrat, dating to the early 3rd millennium BCE. Ziggurat designs ranged from simple bases upon which a temple sat, to marvels of mathematics and construction which spanned several terraced stories and were topped with a temple.
Interpretation and significance
It has been suggested that the ziggurat was a symbolic representation of the primeval mound upon which the universe was thought to have been created. The ziggurat may have been built as a bridge between heaven and earth. The temples of the Sumerians were believed to be a cosmic axis, a vertical bond between heaven and earth, and the earth and the underworld, and a horizontal bond between the lands. Built on seven levels the ziggurat represented seven heavens and planes of existence, the seven planets and the seven metals associated with them and their corresponding colors.
Joseph Campbell in his Masks of God books says that there is archaelogical evidence supporting a direct link between Mesopotamian ziggurats and the pyramids of Egypt. Campbell also states that from Egypt, the Mesopotamian culture was passed on almost simultaneously on two separate fronts to Crete and India. From India, he continues, it reached China and from there it crossed the ocean to the pre-columbian societies of Central and South America, which could explain the similarities between ziggurats and Mayan pyramids.
The Biblical account of the Tower of Babel may be based on Mesopotamian ziggurats.