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The ziggurat at Warka (reconstructed by Saddam Hussein): Sumerian architecture

Sumerian architecture: the ziggurat at Warka (reconstructed by Saddam Hussein)

Mud-brick and brick

Like other people around the world, the Sumerians started to build big temples on artificial platforms around 3500 BC. They were living in the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. in what is now Iraq.

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.

(More about mud-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.

(More about the Egyptian pyramids)

Sumerian ziggurats and town walls

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!)

(More about ziggurats)

King's palace (Mari, ca. 1800 BC)- Sumerian architecture

Sumerian architecture: King’s palace (Mari, ca. 1800 BC)

Sumerian palaces

The Sumerians in each city-state built palaces for their kings, too. They built the palaces were out of mud-brick too.

Not only the king but also his whole family and many slaves lived in these palaces.

But these palaces weren’t just to live in.They were the center of government, so a lot of the rooms were for courtrooms, meeting rooms, keeping government records in, and storing weapons for war.

Sumerian palaces were also storehouses for wheat and barleybeer and wine, and cloth. The warehouses held all kinds of things that the kings collected as taxes. And they held all kinds of things the king had gotten enslaved people to make in his factories to sell to other countries.

(More about the Sumerian economy)

Sumerian reed hut

Sumerian reed hut

Patterns of light and dark

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

Sumerian houses – reed huts

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.

(More about braziers)

Sumerian houses – mud-brick apartment buildings

A model of a house (Egypt, ca. 1500 BC)

Other Sumerians lived in mud-brick apartment houses built inside a courtyard. We don’t have any models of them from Sumeria, but this is an example from ancient Egypt.

Usually each family had one room. All of the families did their cooking and washing in the courtyard together. Sometimes people kept donkeys or sheep in one of the rooms, too. Or one of the rooms might be a store-room for equipment.

(More about Egyptian houses)

Did you find out what you wanted to know about Sumerian architecture? Still have questions? Let us know in the comments!

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 home