Sumerian-Mesopotamian Architecture – Features, Representatives

Sumerian-Mesopotamian Architecture

Mesopotamia settled as a civilization between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which today make up the Middle East. Therefore, the first concept of a city was formed by Sumerian-Mesopotamian architecture. In it, constructions were built for life, forming an essentially civic architecture. With palaces, temples, public services, walls, irrigation canals, bridges and fortresses. Likewise, the first concept of planned city is given in this period. Integrating the concept of entrance and exit door, associated with the religious concept of the sacred and the profane, the inside and outside, the triumphal entrance of the city dedicated to a God. This architecture also based its construction on sun-dried adobe bricks, but they were also decorated with colored paintings, with simple schemes of repetition and symmetry. Highlighting the combination of platabanda and lintel with the arch and the vault. Likewise, the geometric forms of the constructions in horizontal parallelepiped and pyramid shapes are highlighted, forming incoming and outgoing, prevailing the symbol of the monumental and vertical.

This architectural current, arises in the Sumerian people, settled in Mesopotamia, being today, Iraq, unfortunately destroyed by war. It is believed that this people settled in Mesopotamia from the middle of the VI millennium to the beginning of the II millennium B.C. Likewise, the Sumerian people were dedicated to construction because they considered it a divine gift granted by the gods.

In this sense, the Mesopotamian architecture arose in Sumer initially taking as a principle for the constructions the adaptation to the natural conditions, which were of scarcity of materials such as stone and wood. Therefore, alluvial mud from the plain was used, forming blocks cut into rectangles, dried in the sun and joined with adobe mortar, baked. Thus, the use of adobe allowed the construction of massive buildings, surrounded by strong sloping walls covered with bricks. It was then with the construction of Sumerian temples that the distinctive model of religious architecture in Mesopotamia was defined, known as the ziggurat or stepped tower, so called because it was raised on a platform, around the Neo-Sumerian period.

How did Sumerian-Mesopotamian architecture develop?

The most outstanding characteristic of the development of this architecture is the poverty of the materials, which led the Sumerians to build great constructions but without the monumental character that the temples of Egypt had. They were built with clay and baked bricks, which in comparison to stone and wood, were not considered as strong. That is probably why their constructions did not resist the passage of time and only vestiges of them remained for history in ruins called teln. However, it is considered that there is evolution in the architectural design of their buildings.

In this same sense, it was found that in the evolution in the use of materials, the Sumerians made the first constructions at the end of the IV millennium of reed covered with very little duration.  Subsequently, they made constructions of unshaped mud, then in adobe and finally they used brick. Thus the conformation of these bricks was elongated and narrow and by the Babylonian period they were vitrified, which allowed them to have an advance incorporating the technique of polychrome and reliefs, joined with mortar.  Likewise, the terracing sought to avoid humidity, so, the construction of the walls was in principle thick, smooth and vertical, with projections in buttresses, to reinforce and avoid the fall of rain. Even so, other supporting and ornamental elements were added both on the exterior and interior. These supports and ornaments consist of simple pillars, squares, and also columns, all built with poor materials covered with small colored stones and geometric mosaics. The same procedure is also done inside the walls. Likewise, the buildings are complemented with the arch and the vault, which will be the most used form, especially for the most noble buildings. However, linteled forms are used for houses.

Sumerian-Mesopotamian Architecture

As for Mesopotamian urbanism, the most distinctive characteristics were the small, walled cities, which at first had an irregular layout and were built around the temple. Later, however, the layout became more grid-like. Likewise, the construction of the houses was simple and essentially consisted of a courtyard around which the rooms were built. Therefore, the exterior roof was always linteled, although inside it was vaulted. Thus, the houses were very closed, partly due to the climate and also to give them a defensive and safe character.

How is Sumerian-Mesopotamian architecture classified?

This architecture is divided into six stages and the stages of architecture correspond to the 6 civilizations that occupied this territory, so also each stage has a form of construction and a specific technique and building predominates. These stages are briefly described below:

Sumerian architecture

The Ziggurat is fully developed, with the most emblematic example being the tower of Babel of which there are no remains, since it is believed that the Euphrates River occupies the place where this ancient sanctuary tower was located. According to reports, it had seven floors crowned by the temple, was one of the tallest in Mesopotamia with a height of 90 m. and decorated with multi-colored brick tiles.

Akkadian Architecture

It was the Akkadians who founded the city of Akkad. Little is known about it, only that they developed palaces and temples and were concerned with the restoration of Sumerian buildings. Thus, the building that illustrates this Akkadian architecture is located in Tell-Brak (Syria), from the time of Naramsin, which is a warehouse of goods located in an ancient residential area. Therefore, it is characterized by its originality for being structured in a logical way, for having been planned before its construction, not being common in Mesopotamian art, in which the rooms follow one after another without setting up a logical order.

Neo-Sumerian Architecture (2230-1800 B.C.)

The renaissance of the Sumerian culture takes place after the invasion of the Guthites in Mesopotamia, which leads to the independence of the cities and with it the renaissance of the culture. This encouraged the great constructive activity observed in the characteristic remains of temples with ziggurats.  Of the same, there is evidence at least until the 1991 Gulf War in which Saddam Hussein destroyed them.  Thus, the one that is known is the Ziggurat of Nanna or Hanna, located in the city of Ur, in Iraq, which dates from the XXI-XX century B.C. with a brick structure. Cto. with a structure of baked brick and access by stairs instead of ramps.

Paleo-Babylonian Architecture (1800-1550 B.C.)

The buildings of the time of King Zimrilin stand out, with the main city in the form of a royal palace, the Royal Palace of Mari. What gives the characteristic to this architecture is that the structure does not show regularity, it is an irregular structure, which stands out as a typical detail of the Sumerians.

Assyrian Architecture (1550-626 B.C.)

Very little is known of this architecture, only that those who developed it were the Assyrians who dominated from the XVI century B.C., not being an important empire. It is known that they settled in the city of Azur. Likewise, the building that is known as a representation of its architecture is the Acropolis of Assur, fortified and on one side of the Tigris River, with a large moat on the other side.

Neo-Babylonian Architecture

The Neo-Babylonian architecture could be said to be the most splendid architecture of these stages of Sumerian-Mesopotamian Architecture. For being of the time of greatness of Babylon under the reign of Nebuchadnezzar.

In this sense, the city of Nebuchadnezzar occupied 800 hectares, between what was the city as such and the spaces for crops and fruit trees. What is most striking about this architecture are the defensive systems of the buildings, containing several walled spaces. The first with three separate walls: an interior one, of adobe, seven meters wide; another intermediate one, after 12 meters, of brick and a third one adhered to the second one, 3 meters thick, forming the slope of a wide moat. The towers were erected every 52 meters, and the space between the walls was filled with rubble, to allow the passage of horse-drawn carts. Other internal fortifications were also added, made of adobe, an inner one of 6.5 meters thick and an outer one of 4 meters.

On the other hand, in this architecture the planning of the cities is evident, divided into neighborhoods, crossed by orthogonal streets. Near the river, in the northern corner of the outer wall, was the summer palace. Thus, the city, divided into palaces, had a southern palace with large courtyards, rooms and warehouses where the administrative texts were kept. The north palace was possibly the king’s palace, separated from the south by the walls. However, it is considered that the greatest wonder of Babylon were possibly the hanging gardens, built in ascending steps, with a base of stone waterproofed with bitumen on which was placed a layer of earth that allowed trees to grow up to 15 meters high and 4 meters wide, also known as the hanging gardens of Babylon.

What is the legacy of Sumerian-Mesopotamian Architecture?

The legacy of the Sumerian-Mesopotamian civilization, from architecture, was its great walled cities. These were brought to light at the end of the 19th century, as were the cities of Eridu, Uruk or Nippur, which showed their extraordinary urbanism. The most remarkable in this sense, is the discovery of Ur in 1922 by Charles Leonard Woolley, which put in evidence the great wealth, technical, cultural and spiritual of the Sumerians, with the discovery of the great royal tombs of Ur, the largest, most luxurious and complex found in all Mesopotamia. Thus, there are two theories of the origin of this prodigious Sumerian civilization, on the one hand, that its appearance with the first cities was in 5000 B.C. until 2000 B.C. of autochthonous origin. However, there is another position that proposes a rather allochthonous or external origin of the civilization.  Hence, both theories agree that they were not a unique race, since the Sumerians shared the south of Mesopotamia with other inhabitants and foreign or Semitic peoples. For a better understanding of this civilization and its great architectural richness, a brief description of the structure of the buildings is presented:

legacy of Sumerian-Mesopotamian Architecture

The Palace

With a multiplication of courtyards and rooms, similar to houses, these buildings became more like palace-cities, because they were inhabited by the king as well as by the nobility and those in charge of the administration. These palaces were very influential in the Persian and Islamic world. They were located next to the temple and walled, with battlements and towers.

The Temple

The temple was considered one of the most outstanding constructions. The purpose of the temple was initially the veneration of the gods inside. However, on the outside, prayer, administrative and commercial activities, among others, were allowed. A prominent part of the temple is identified as the ziggurat or ziqqurratu.  Likewise, the temple was placed in sacred and close terrain, with a large number of horizontal rooms interrupted by the ziggurat that was built vertically. Likewise, the temple had three elements considered indispensable in any building consecrated to the cult, the location of the throne of the god, where the statue of worship was located, the place of presentation of the offerings, and the area where food was prepared and the sacrifice of animals was carried out.

The Ziggurat

It was considered the small temple from which the god made contact with humans. The ziggurat also called high house or shining mountain, symbolizes the mythical mountain of the world. It is made up of superimposed platforms that have a smaller size as one ascends, reaching great height. Curiously, the number of platforms was odd up to 7, identified in the “Tower of Babel” in the Bible. In the same way, the access to the top of the platforms was built with stairs or ramps.

The Tombs

In this civilization, tombs were not very important. They were built next to or near the city, in a simple way and with only excavated pits. Therefore, the corpse was placed inside and was given special treatment if it was noble, being buried with some of its goods and attributes. The kings, being more important, had a corridor that led to one or more vaulted chambers.

Types of Sumerian-Mesopotamian Architecture and most representative examples

Sumerian-Mesopotamian architecture is the starting point of later architectures such as Hebrew, Phoenician, Anatolian, Hittite, Hurrian, Ugaritic, Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian, Islamic and, to a certain extent, also of Greco-Roman and, therefore, of Western architecture. In the Sumerian-Mesopotamian type of architecture, one of the most emblematic buildings were the temples, because this civilization worshiped hundreds of gods who reigned over the cities of ancient Mesopotamia, and each one was served and worshiped by the priests who brought them food, dressed them and took them out in procession.

The following is a brief description of some of them.

Sumerian Temple of Enki

This temple is considered the first built by the Sumerians located in Eridu on the edge of the Persian Gulf. It was built to pay tribute to the god of subway waters, Enki. Likewise, the temple served as a guide for the construction of other similar temples, since they housed individually, different gods designed to guide and govern the city-state they represented. Thus, the Sumerian temple of Enki was always maintained in good condition, to avoid the unhappiness of the god that inhabited it, thus falling into bad luck, also, the god was attracted back to the temple, with elaborate rituals.

Ziggurat Platform Temples

The layered platform Ziggurat temples of the Sumerians were considered the largest and most impressive structures of that time. The layered platforms served to support and sustain the temple construction, rising above all other structures. There is a theory that this Sumerian temple is considered the base of the Tower of Babel described in the book of Genesis.

Sumerian Dome Temples

The Sumerians are credited with the development of the architectural arch, which gave rise to the domed structure. Advanced architectural strategies were employed in the construction of these Sumerian dome temples, including buttresses, columns, half niches and clay nails. Each city-state was identified by its own temples, priests and kings, who often competed to see who created the most impressive temples.

Sumerian Trade Temples

Sumerian temples not only served as a center for worship of the gods, but were also built for trade, of artisans and merchants exchanging and selling their wares. Later, these temples evolved to become centers of political activity, medical care, learning and education.

Sumerian Towers

The earliest Sumerian temples were small, one-room buildings, but later temples built during the early dynastic period would have several rooms for housing priests, conducting ceremonies and sacrifices, and performing administrative tasks. The towers, often were stepped pyramids, developed for use in worship ceremonies. These towers were a symbol of growing tall, uniting heaven and earth.

Who are the most important artists and/or representatives?

The Sumerian civilization are the key artists and representatives of this architecture. It was they with their great gifts as builders, dedicated due to the belief that it was a divine gift, who developed with great prodigy and a wide legacy, this architecture. Even when it is affirmed that this civilization did not plan, there have been found, therefore, clay tablets dried in the sun in which appear plans, plans, elevations and details about the construction with systems of representation that at the present time, are still the same, such as the orthogonal projections, dimensioned, even when the scale was not indicated. We have also found projects of cities, roads and canals, public and private buildings, and even plans of modest dwellings.  In the same way, the lines were drawn with an awl on a wet clay surface, with the help of a ruler and a bevel. The shapes and location of elements, such as walls, were indicated by tracing the contours.