Sumerian architecture

Sumerian architecture

The Sumerians were a people who lived in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) from the 4th millennium BC to the 3rd millennium BC. Their accomplishments include, the invention of urban planning, the courtyard house, and the Ziggurats (high adobe-brick buildings). No architectural profession existed in Sumer; however, scribes drafted and managed construction for the government, nobility, or royalty. The Sumerians were aware of 'the craft of building' as a divine gift taught to men by the gods as listed in "me" 28. Sumerian Architecture is the foundation of later Hebrew, Phoenician, Anatolian, Hittite, Hurrian, Ugaritic, Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian, Islamic, and to a certain extent Grecoroman and therefore Western Architectures.


The story of Sumerian architecture is overwhelmingly one of clay masonry and of increasingly complex forms of stacked bricks. Because these brick were unbaked Sumerian buildings eventually deteriorated. They were periodically destroyed, leveled, and rebuilt on the same spot. This planned structural lifecycle gradually raised the level of cities, so that they came to be elevated above the surrounding plain. The resulting hills are known as tells, and are found throughout the ancient Near East. Civic buildings slowed decay by using cones of colored stone, terracotta panels, and clay nails driven into the adobe-brick to create a protective sheath that decorated the facade.

Masonary materials

Sumer lacking both forests and quarries, used adobe-brick (also called mud-brick) as the primary material. Adobe-brick was preferred over vitrious brick because of its superior thermal properties and lower manufacturing costs. Vitrious brick was used in small applications involving water, decoration, and monumental construction. A late innovation was glazed vitrious brick. Sumerian masonary was usually mortarless although bitumen was sometimes used. Brick styles, which varied greatly over time, are categorized by period: [Harmansah]
*Patzen 80×40×15 cm: Late Uruk period (3600–3200 BCE)
*Riemchen 16×16 cm: Late Uruk period (3600–3200 BCE)
*Plano-Convex 10x19x34 cm: Early Dynastic Period (3100–2300 BCE) As bricks being rounded are somewhat unstable. Sumerian bricklayers would lay a row of bricks perpendicular to the rest every few rows. The advantages to Plano-Convex bricks were the speed of manufacture as well as the irregular surface which held the finishing plaster coat better than a smooth surface from other brick types.

Other materials

Building materials other than brick were used for sheathing, flooring, roofing, doors, and special applications. These materials include:
*Earth plaster used to seal and finish exterior and interior spaces of common residences
*Lime plaster used to seal and finish exterior and interior spaces of wealthy residences, places, and temples
*a type of terrazzo used as flooring
*The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) used for ceiling lintels
*The giant reed (Fragmites communis) used for roofing and rammed earth foundations
*Terracotta panels used for decoration
*Bitumen used to seal plumbing

Espcecially prized were imported building materials such as cedar from Lebanon, diorite from Arabia, and lapis lazuli from India

Urban Design

The Sumerians were the first society to create the city itself as a built form. They were proud of this achievement as attested in the Epic of Gilgamesh which opens with a description of Uruk its walls, streets, markets, temples, and gardens. Uruk itself is signifigant as the center of an urban culture which both colonized and urbanized western asia.

The construction of cities was the end product of trends which began in the Neolithic Revolution. The growth of the city was partly planned and partly organic. Planning is evident in the walls, high temple district, main canal with har bor, and main street. The finer structure of residential and commercial spaces is the reaction of economic forces to the spatial limits imposed by the planned areas resulting in an irregular design with regular features.

The typical city divided space into residential, mixed use, commercial, and civic spaces. The residential areas were grouped by profession. [Crawford 2004, p.77] At the core of the city was a high temple complex always sited slightly off of the geographical center. This high temple usually predated the founding of the city and was the nucleus around which the urban form grew.

The city always included a belt of irrigated agricultural land including small hamlets. A network of roads and canals connected the city to this land.

Residential Architecutre

Residential design was a direct development from Ubaid houses. Although Sumerian cylinder seals depict reed houses, the courtyard house was the predominant typology, which has been used in Mesopotamia to the present day. This house called "e" (Cuneiform: E2 cuneiform|𒂍, Sumerian: e2; Akkadian: "bītu") faced inward toward an open courtyard which provided a cooling effect by creating convection currents. The external walls were featureless with only a single opening connecting the house to the street. Movement between the house and street required a 90° turn through a small antechamber. From the street only the rear wall of the antechamber would be visible through an open door, likewise there was no view of the street from the courtyard. The Sumerians had a strict division of public and private spaces. The house was organized by rooms opening onto the courtyard.

Civic Architecture

Temples often predated the creation of the urban settlement and grew from small one room structures to elaborate multiacre complexes across the 2,500 years of Sumerian history. Sumerian temples, fortifications, and palaces made use of more advanced materials and techniques, such as buttresses, , and half columns.

Chronologically, Sumerian temples evolved from earlier Ubaid temples. As the temple decayed it was ritually destroyed and an new temple built on its foundations. The successor temple was larger and more articulated than its predasessor temple. The evolution of the E2.abzu temple at Eridu is a frequently cited case-study. During the Uruk period temple design split into two functional groups, the high temple and the city temple. [Harmansah 2007] Many temples had inscriptions engraved into them, such as the one at Uqair. Palaces and city walls came much later after temples in the Early Dynastic Period.


Classical Temples of the Uruk Period were rectangular with the corners oriented to the cardinal directions. The division of this rectangular plan was generally tripartite, T-shaped, or combined. The tripartite plan inherited from the Ubaid had a large central hall with two smaller flanking halls on either side. The entry was along the short axis and the shrine was at the end of the long axis. Thus, similar to a Sumerian house, the entry faced a blank wall and a 90° turn was required to access the interior. Usually a hearth was in the center of the main hall. The T-shaped plan, also from the Ubaid period, was identical to the tripartite plan except for a hall at one end of the rectangle perpendicular to the main hall.

There was an explosion of diversity in temple design during the following Early Dynastic Period. The temples still retained features such as cardinal orientation, rectangular plans, and buttresses. Now however they took on a variety new configurations including courtyards, walls, basins, and barraks.

The high temple was the home of the patron god of the city. Functionally, it served as a storage and distribution center as well as housing the priesthood. The White Temple of Anu in Uruk is typical of a high temple which was built very high on a platform of adobe-brick. In the Early Dynastic period high temples began to include a ziggurat, a series of platforms creating a stepped pyrimid. Such ziggurats may have been the inspiration for the Biblical Tower of Babel. Classical ziggurats emerged in the Neo-Sumerian Period with articulated buttresses, vitrious brick sheathing, and entasis in the elevation. The Ziggurat of Ur is the best example of this style.

The Sin Temple in Khafajah is typical of a city temple. The city temple was designed around a series of courtyards leading to a cella.


there were many people in the palace


Commercial Architecture

Landscape Architecture

The Sumerian irrigation agriculture created some of the first garden forms in history. The garden (sar) was 144 square cubits with a perimeter canal. [Wikipedia, Sumer] This form of the enclosed quadrangle was the basis for the later paradise gardens of Persia .

ee also

*Art and architecture of Babylonia and Assyria
*Ancient Mesopotamian units of measurement
*Cities of the ancient Near East
*Geography of Sumer



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publisher = Cambridge University Press
date = 2004
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isbn = 0521533384

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*cite book
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Further Reading

External Links

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