Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 101

1. Zikkurats of the Anu-Adad at Ashur.
2. Stage-tower at Samarra.
From Religions Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria, by Professor Morris Jastrow By permission of Messrs G.P. Putnam's Sons.

The Temples of Babylonia and Assyria

The temple-building phase is characteristic of Babylonian religion from an early stage. More than 3000 years before the final extinction of the cult we find places of worship being raised in the Euphrates Valley. Even in later times these Babylonian structures would appear to have been built for practical rather than √¶sthetic purposes, and in the early part of the temple-building epoch they were of the crudest description, mere rude structures of brick, without an attempt at architectural elaboration. An early ideal was to reproduce in miniature the 'mountain of all lands'—Khursag-kurkura, the birthplace of the gods—and to this end the temple was erected on a mountain-like heap of earth. To the primitive one-storied building other stories came to be added, till in pursuit of a general ideal of height they came to be veritable Towers of Babel, aspiring to reach to heaven. These zikkurats, or staged towers, as they have been called, were built of brick, and were quadrangular in form, their four sides facing north, south, east, and west respectively. Their sombre and unlovely appearance was relieved to some extent by the use of brilliant colourings, but in neither form nor colour need we look for any particular artistic interest, nor any especial religious or other symbolism, though attempts have been made both in later Babylonian and in our own times to find astrological interpretations of these. By and by the zikkurat came to be more of a 'high-place' than a temple, the altars and sanctuary proper being disposed about its base.

[Pg 243]

With this development of the temple area a new phase was inaugurated. Huge courts were built, supported by brick columns, and enclosing all the various buildings connected with the cult of the deity to whom the temple was dedicated. These courts, which were for the most part open to the sky, covered a large area—as much, perhaps, as ten or twelve acres in some cases. Brick was still the material employed in their structure, though wood was used for gateways and for roofs for the smaller temples. As time went on they became more richly decorated, precious metals and woods were imported for their adornment, and draperies and coloured bricks were employed with more or less √¶sthetic intent. In some Assyrian temples stone columns were employed. The interior of the temple proper consisted of a central hall, a 'holy of holies,' wherein was set the statue of the god in whose honour the sanctuary was built, and an assembly-room where the gods of the pantheon met.

The temples of Babylonia resemble very closely those of ancient Mexico and Central America, for just as the Chaldean temple was evolved from the idea of the 'holy hill,' so was the Mexican teocalli, or 'house of God.' Originating probably in a rude mound of earth, the temple in both countries came through the march of civilization under the influence of architecture proper. In America there are still extant many links in the chain of evolution between the rude earth-mound and the carven teocalli, but in the case of Babylonia we have only inference to support the theory of such a development. This inference is, however, of a very powerful character. Commencing probably with a one-story structure, we find both the Mexican and Babylonian 'high places' developing a second, then a third, fourth,[Pg 244] fifth, and even sixth stage in the case of Babylonia, and sometimes a fourth in the case of Mexico.

A sharp distinction must be drawn between the Egyptian pyramid and the temples of Babylonia and Assyria. The pyramid of the Nile country was undoubtedly developed from the grave-mound, the cairn. It is the burial-place of a monarch, and has nothing whatever to do with religious worship. The zikkurats of Babylonia and the teocallis of Mexico, as their names imply, were unquestionably religious in origin, and had nothing whatsoever to do with burial.

But one essential difference there was between them, and that is, that whereas in Mexico the teocallis seldom possessed interiors, this was very frequently the case with the temples of Babylonia. It is true that the Mexican temples had attached to them buildings called teopan, but these appear to have been dwelling-places for the various grades of priests. In Babylonia, on the other hand, another description of residence arose. This was the temple proper, apart from the zikkurat or tower. Most Babylonian cities had a definite religious quarter, and excavations have made us familiar to some extent with the plan and appearance of these. Perhaps the best known example is that at Nippur, the extent of which appears to have been about sixteen acres. A large court was lined with brick columns, and when excavated was found to have supported a wooden roof. Close to this was the building in which the temple records were kept. The people gathered for worship in a second court of sixty wooden columns with supports and capitals of metal, and there, in a basin specially built for the purpose, they made their ablutions before offering up sacrifice. At the eastern end of this courtyard was placed a[Pg 245] tent containing the ark. This kind of courtyard may be said to be characteristic of the Semitic worship, as there was undoubtedly such a structure in most Hebrew temples. This court of columns was surrounded by chambers which probably served the purpose of administrative offices and perhaps dwellings for the priests and attendants, or booths for the sale of sacrificial offerings. The training college for the younger priests was also within the temple area, as were the astronomical observatories, and around these gathered the learned of the district, just as they did in the temple at Jerusalem to dispute concerning religious matters and to split theological hairs. The Babylonian priests were also the lawyers of their period, and the courts of justice were probably hard by the temple.

Many of these religious areas, as, for example, those at Babylon, Nippur, Sippar, and Ur, must have been so extensive as to have constituted what were in reality sacred cities. The whole was enclosed by a containing wall, and even the several divisions of the temple buildings were also surrounded by lesser walls. The material of which these edifices were built was the universal one of brick. In early days sun-dried brick was employed, but as its use resulted in the crumbling and speedy destruction of most of the edifices composed of it, kiln-dried bricks were substituted for it, and as these were often glazed their durability was much enhanced. The cement used to hold these together was common bitumen, found in great quantities in Babylonia, and the roof was usually built of wood, cedars from Lebanon being a favourite material for carpentering.