Most religions have attempted to build their sanctuaries on prominent heights to be visible to all the faithful. Since no such natural heights were available in the flat flood plains of ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), ancient priests and kings determined to build ziggurats (Akkadian “ziqqurratu”), artificial square or rectangular stepped temple platforms.
Functionally, temples were placed on raised platforms to give them prominence over other buildings in a city and to allow more people to watch the services performed at the temple. Symbolically, however, the ziggurat represents the cosmic mountain on which God or the gods dwell. The priest’s ascent up the stairway to the temple at the top of the ziggurat represents the ascent to heaven. The great ziggurat at Khorsabad, for example, had seven different stages, each painted a different color, representing the heavenly spheres of the five known planets and the moon and sun.
Although the specific architectural details of ziggurats differ, they all exhibit a similar overall structure. A courtyard surrounded by a sacred enclosure wall — as large as 500 yards square — generally encompassed the ziggurat, creating a ritual plaza for religious ceremonies. Ziggurat complexes often included storehouses, residences for priests and kings, and altars for sacrifice.