Sumerian Architecture - Mesopotamia
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Sumerian Architecture

Warka ziggurat
The Ziggurat at Warka (reconstructed
by Saddam Hussein)

September 2016 - Sumerian architecture is probably the oldest serious architecture (not just building houses and barns) in the world. People living in the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers (modern Iraq) began to build really big, substantial buildings about 3500 BC. Because there's practically no building stone in this area, but there's lots of clay, Sumerian architects built their buildings out of mud-brick or fired brick.

This was so early that the architects didn't know how to make a big building stay up if it was hollow inside, so the first big buildings are solid - like a sand-castle - rather than really useful as buildings. They're more like artificial hills. This is the same as the Egyptian pyramids, or the Valdivia and Norte Chico pyramids in Peru, which were built just a little later and are also pretty much solid inside.

Mostly what the Sumerians built was huge staircases of mud-brick which they called ziggurats. Each little city-state would build its own ziggurat, partly to please the gods and partly to show how powerful the town was. On top of each ziggurat, there was a small temple to Ishtar or Enlil or another Mesopotamian god.

The Sumerians also built town walls around their towns, also mainly out of mud-brick. These were also solid. (Fortification walls pretty much have to be solid!).

Mari Palace
King's palace (Mari, ca. 1800 BC)

The Sumerians in each city-state built palaces for their kings, too. These palaces weren't just to live in; they were also storehouses for wheat and barley, beer and wine, cloth and all kinds of things that the kings collected as taxes or had made in his factories to sell to other countries. And of course not only the king but also his whole family and many slaves lived in these palaces. They built the palaces were out of mud-brick too.

Mud-brick buildings like these would look pretty boring if they just had straight walls, all brown. So the builders made them look more interesting by creating areas of dark and light on their walls - the walls went in and out at regular intervals, making a sort of pattern of shadows.

Sumerian reed hut
Sumerian reed hut

Ordinary people didn't live in palaces, though - they lived in simple reed huts like this one. They sat and slept on the ground, on woven reed mats, or on mud-brick platforms with woven reed mats on them. They cooked over a firepit or a brazier in the middle of their hut, or in a mud-brick oven in the courtyard outside their house.

Learn by doing: build a sandcastle
More about the Sumerians

Bibliography and further reading about Sumerian architecture:

Sumerian Art
West Asian architecture
Ancient West Asia
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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