The Purpose of Towers and Temples in The Ancient Near East


The biblical narrative about the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) has been the source of many interpretations and even more questions. Why did God destroy the tower? Why did the people build it? What did it mean when the people wanted to “make a name” for themselves? Did the tower have any connections with other similar structures in its time period?

The bulk of Christian teaching on the tower narrative has tended to focus on the offense towards God that was caused by the tower and its builders. I have previously written my own take on the tower narrative, from an unapologetically ancient near eastern (ANE) point of view. I highly recommend reading the post titled “Why The Tower of Babel Was Problematic for The Gods“, as a warm-up for this post. For those with a short attention span and are willing to accept my previous premises, I have provided a short list of points from the Babel story below.

  1. The ancient towers/ziggurats were designed with the idea that they could act as a bridge between the heavens and the earth.
  2. The ziggurat was modeled around the cosmic mountain design. Ancients believed that deities both lived on mountains (because the peak was in the heavens) and used the mountains to descend to earth when needed. (Some deities are even described as being born on the mountains, such as Nisaba (COS 1.163).
  3. Some people groups had the notion that one could climb a mountain or a tall-enough tower and elevate themselves to the heavens…. and even possibly become a god or achieve immortality. This is best seen in a quote from the famous story known as the Epic of Gilgamesh.
    1. “Who can climb to the heavens and become immortal? Only a member of the Divine Assembly live forever.” (Gilgamesh Tablet III)
    2. This is further demonstrated by the exclamation by God when seeing the tower.
      1. But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” (Genesis 11:5-6)
      2. God did not literally mean that they would be able to do anything but they could accomplish the task of climbing to the heavens and destroying the separation between heaven and earth, thereby obtaining immortality. This is alluded to also in the garden narrative when God says “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever“. That a mortal could live forever was not an outlandish idea to the ancients, as long as you knew how to do it.

There is a lot more detail in the previous post but the points above will be a good enough primer for this post. In the biblical tower narrative it appears that people are going to storm the heavens, however, the primary purpose of the ancient towers was actually the opposite. The ancient ziggurats were designed to entice a deity to descend from heaven to earth. This feature of the ziggurat is seen quite clearly in the ANE literature. A few of the notable temple features are listed below.

  • They were designed with a resting room on top usually.
  • Rooms were kept immaculately clean. Attendants would wash hands before entering and touching anything.
  • Gardens of greenery to mimic the garden of the deities (think Eden).
  • The rooms were furnished with things a deity might find pleasing, including cedar furniture, incense, and food.
  • The base of the tower was often accompanied by a temple next-door where the deity could receive worship and communion.
  • Some temples also had nuptial chambers where the king could consummate with the female deities.

In one interesting passage from an ancient hymn, Inanna (Ishtar) is said to have taken over the temple of An, in Erech (or Uruk). The reasoning for the takeover given in the hymn is that the temple was too alluring and that Inanna wanted to upstage An. The general principle behind the construction of the temples and ziggurats was that they should be enticing to the gods. Later in the hymn the author describes how they prepared the temple for Inanna’s visitation.

She (Inanna) has changed altogether the rites of holy An,
Has seized the Eanna from An,
Feared not the great An,
That house (the Eanna) whose charm was irresistible, whose allure was unending….


I have erected your daises,
Have heaped up the coals, have conducted the rites,
Have set up the nuptial chamber for you, may your heart be soothed for me,
Enough, more than enough innovations, great queen, have I made for you.
What I have recited to you in the deep night,
The gala-singer will repeat for you in midday.

James Bennett Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament , 3rd ed. with Supplement. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 581-582.

Another inscription from Tiglath Pileser I, brags about building a temple for Assur “like the interior of the heavens” and its walls “as splendid as the brilliance of rising stars”.1 Thus, they were adorned to be like the perceived home of their deity.

Why Put Up A Tower?

Below we will explore the main purposes of the tower/temple complex. It’s also important to understand that the types of towers differed from region to region and from one historical age to another. The development of temples within the Levant, during the time period that Israel occupied it, followed a normal and predictable pattern. A small diagram is given below to explain the classical shift from nomadism to settlements and how it affects temple building and religion. A small temple during the late patriarch period will differ from one during the united monarchy. However, most of Israel’s neighbors already had elaborate temples and systems of worship, as those lands were settled much earlier in history.

Israel From Polytheism to Monotheism

With that out of the way, let us examine some of the ancient near eastern texts related to temples and their various purposes. The main purposes are listed below but is certainly not exhaustive. The abbreviation (COS) used in many textual references stands for “Context of Scripture”. This is a popular reference series to the many writings found in the ancient near east.

  1. A place for rest
  2. A place to be fed
  3. A place for worship
  4. A place for dwelling
  5. A place for divination


The very first ziggurats were simple. They were square or rectangular structures with a staircase around the outside of the front walls that led up to the peak. At the peak was a single room. That room was a place where a deity could come and rest. It was a temporary lodging. The room contained a bed and other bedroom furniture. It often contained refreshments and food for the visiting guest.

In a text dating to about 1600 BCE, the goddess Nintura is devising a plan to have humanity build cities and temples that she might take shade by them. She is not happy that the people have spread out over the earth which reduces city life and temple construction.

let me lead the people back from their trails.”
“May they come and build cities and cult places (temples),
that I may cool myself in their shade;
may they lay the bricks for the cult cities
in pure spots, and
may they found places for divination
in pure spots!”
(The Song of The Hoe (1.157))

Many ancient texts provide instructions for building these structures. The most well-known texts to modern culture are the Hebrew scriptures which detail the building of the Tabernacle in the desert and the Temple in Jerusalem. Most of the ancients built similar structures with similar features. A new Hittite temple for the goddess of the night has building instructions that were preserved until today. The instructions include a ritual that is to entice the goddess to “divide” herself between her old temples and the new temple once it’s consecrated.

§21 When those <perform> the tuḫalzi ritual in the temple of the old deity, they pour fine oil into the tallai–container and he speaks thus to the deity: “You, honored goddess, protect your person/body, divide your divinity, come to these new temples, take an honored place.” When she goes and take<s> the aforementioned place, then they pull the deity out from the wall with red wool seven times and he sets the uliḫi in the tallai–container of fine oil.

The specific amenities are as follows.

§5 One bull’s horn (full of) fine oil, one set of cups either of boxwood or of ivory. One set of combs either of boxwood or ivory. Two wooden stands, two wooden tables, two wooden potstands. One set of kišḫita–chairs, six šekan in height — they are doubly pazzanān–ed. One set of kišḫita–chairs for sitting. One footstool, one set of wooden tarmalla.

§6 They take red wool, blue wool, black wool, green wool and white wool and they make two pair of āzzalli–. They again take blue wool, red wool, black wool, green wool and white wool and they make a šuturiya.9 They nail two bronze pegs into the entryway of the courtyard of the (new) temple — one on one side and one on the other side. The šuturiya (is made to) hang down (from them). One basket (?) either of wicker or of tamalata.10 One (bolt of[?]) ḫūpara–fabric, one red scarf, two bowls (?) of wine.

§7 These NÍG.BA–dU dispatched: One door, one […, two …] — one for setting down and one for carr[ying] forth […] — one set of small bed(s) of boxwood […], one bronze cutting implement, one bronze–handled pitcher for viewing, one bronze […]–vessel, one small copper cauldron, seven TAKITTUM of bronze, one small bronze wash basin of one mina weight for the washing of the deity.

Furthermore, the Hittite text explains that it was expected that the deity would be washed (their feet usually) by male or female priests who wore special garments, not all that different than those described for the priests of Aaron in the Bible.

§8 One gathered garment,11 one trimmed tunic, one hood, one cap, one kaluppa–garment, one set of belted tunics, one set of silver broaches — these are (the garments) of a woman. One garment, one set of tunics, one set of Hurrian tunics, one trimmed (and) ornamented cloth belt, one trimmed tunic, one set of robes, one set of ŠATURRATU–garments, one set of belted tunics, one bow, one quiver, one axe and one knife — these are (the garments) of a man. When they complete the making (of) the deity (’s image), all this they arrange in (its) place. The officiant who is settling the goddess separately, the priest and the katra-priestesses wash on the following day. (Thus) that (first) day passes
(Establishing a New Temple for the Goddess of the Night (COS 1.70))


The culture probably most closely related to that of early Israel is probably northern Canaanite culture. We have tablets from a city named Ugarit, in north Canaan that depicts temple ritual in the early phases. At the temple animals are sacrificed to gods and goddeses that would be familiar to the biblical audience. There were multiple temples and multiple deities but somewhat of a standard offering practice. Among the deities we see Il(El/Elohim), Ba’al, Anat, Yamm, and others. We also see familiar sacrificial terms like “burnt offering” and bathing requirements. This should not come a surprise as Israel and Ugarit were essentially neighbors. The following snippets are from the festival and rites of the fall which is when the grapes were harvested. This period was accompanied by many offerings but none more than that of the livestock. Hundreds of livestock would be sacrificed during this period. So many are listed in this text that they will not be quoted below. Almost every deity in the Ugaritic pantheon received burnt offerings. Primary among the deities are Ba’al and Il(El/Elohim).

On the New Moon — cutting of the grape cluster.
To Il(El) — šlmm offerings.
On the thirteenth — The pure king bathes himself.


The king is seated, the pure one.
And he clapped [his hands],
And proclaimed the day.
Then [the king] enters [the tem]ple
[with] a present of [a cu]p and a chal[ice].
2 small females and a domestic pigeon he prepares for Anat,
and 1 large male, small male for Il(El).
And at the aperture: [a libation] he pours.


And at midday, inside the convening room of the gods and the lords
goblets and cups, thirty, fil[led].
And the entrance offering that he brings to the royal chapel
a sacred meal l of myrrh oil, of blended oil; a gift of bee-honey,
a domestic pigeon and two cages.
And at the ledge (?)
fourteen jugs of wine, ½ measure of flour.


On the fifth, chapel of Il(El):
A shekel of silver, the kubādu ceremony, and a sacred meal.
[x] for Athirat,
birds for the staff of the gods.
At the [pedestal] of the Baal altar:
1 large female for Baal,
1 small female for Ṣaphan,
And 1 small female for Baal of Ugarit, twenty-two times.
Elš, the favored — 1 small female
ŠMN, the favored, — 1 large female
And the pure king responds with a recitation.
(Ugaritic Rites for the Vintage (COS 1.95))

In what is probably the most known mythological text of Ugarit, the Kirta Epic, Kirta inquires of Il(El) as to what he must do in order to be granted an heir. His previous children have died and his wife left him. He is left without an heir. There is more instructions for Kirta but the instructions for the sacrifices are listed below. The text dates from around 1400 BCE and it’s full of features that would look familiar to biblical readers, such as people living in tents, El represented as a bull, deities dwelling in the skies, etc.

The Bull, his father ʾIlu(El), [answered]
[ (with) goodly (words)] as Kirta wept,
as the goodly lad of ʾIlu(El) shed tears:

Wash and rouge yourself,
wash your hands to the elbow,
your fingers to the shoulder.
Enter [the shade of (your) tent],
take a lamb [in your hand],
a sacrificial lamb [in] (your) right hand,
a kid in both hands,
all your best food.
Take a fowl, a sacrificial bird,
pour wine into a silver cup
honey into a golden bowl.

Climb to the summit of the tower,
yes, climb to the summit of the tower,
mount the top of the wall.
Raise your hands heavenward,
sacrifice to the Bull, your father ʾIlu(El).
Bring down Baʿlu(Ba’al) with your sacrifice,
the Son of Dagan with your game.
(The Kirta Epic (COS 1.102))

Just like in the Bible, the Ugaritic deities favored wine and BBQ. Wine to make the heart glad and BBQ, the pleasing aroma. Both the biblical and the Canaanite deities differed from Mesopotamia in that they were thought to have only consumed the aroma of the animal. The gods were not like mortal in that they needed to physically eat the sacrifices. Most of the Levant and Mesopotamia followed similar patterns, except Mesopotamians tended to have a larger variety of items to give to their deities. They had many grain types, legumes, breads, cakes, beers, and also livestock. They were also thought to have actually consumed the meals.

Every day, Etana prayed repeatedly to Shamash,

“O Shamash, you have enjoyed the best cuts of my sheep,
Earth has drunk the blood of my lambs,
I have honored the gods and respected the spirits of the dead.
The dream-interpreters have made full use of my incense.
The gods have made full use of my lambs at the slaughter.
(ETANA (1.131))

O Shamash, I hold up to you seven and seven sweet loaves,

The rows of which are ranged before you.
O Shamash, lord of judgment, O Adad, lord of divination,
Seated on thrones of [gold], dining from a tray of lapis,
Come [down to me] that you may eat,
That you may sit on the throne and render judgment.
In the ritual I perform, in the extispicy I perform, place the truth!
(Diurnal Prayer of Diviners (COS 1.116))

In one of the most famous myths, that of the great flood, the deities grow hungry because humans were wiped out and no longer offering sacrifices. This portion of the tablet is badly broken and thus, won’t be quoted here. However, the Mesopotamian myths view the gods as somewhat dependent on the humans who were created to ease the life styles of the deities. Humans were supposed to do the drudgery of the gods. Quotation not included due to it’s fragmentary nature but can be located at the following references. (COS 1.130, 1.143)

Some ancient texts describe the service vessels to be used in the temple. This is quite reminiscent of the vessels described in Exodus and other passages talking about the temple. The documents recovered from various regions are not as detailed as the biblical account but it can be assumed that the service utensils and vessels were of an ornate design.

26 And thou shalt make for it four rings of gold, and put the rings in the four corners that are on the four feet thereof.
27 Over against the border shall the rings be for places of the staves to bear the table.
28 And thou shalt make the staves of shittim wood, and overlay them with gold, that the table may be borne with them.
29 And thou shalt make the dishes thereof, and spoons thereof, and covers thereof, and bowls thereof, to cover withal: of pure gold shalt thou make them.
30 And thou shalt set upon the table shewbread before me alway.
31 And thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work shall the candlestick be made: his shaft, and his branches, his bowls, his knops, and his flowers, shall be of the same.
32 And six branches shall come out of the sides of it; three branches of the candlestick out of the one side, and three branches of the candlestick out of the other side:
33 Three bowls made like unto almonds, with a knop and a flower in one branch; and Three bowls made like almonds in the other branch, with a knop and a flower: so in the six branches that come out of the candlestick.
34 And in the candlestick shall be four bowls made like unto almonds, with their knops and their flowers.
(Exodus 25:26-34)

And Solomon made all the furnishings that were in the House of the LORD: the altar, of gold; the table for the bread of display, of gold; the lampstands — five on the right side and five on the left — in front of the Shrine, of solid gold; and the petals, lamps, and tongs, of gold; the basins, snuffers, sprinkling bowls, ladles, and fire pans, of solid gold; and the hinge sockets for the doors of the innermost part of the House, the Holy of Holies, and for the doors of the Great Hall of the House, of gold.
(1 Kings 7:48-50)

In the making of the temple for the goddess of the night, some of the utensils needed for the temple are listed.

The priest assigns these to the smiths as their task.
One (vessel) for “carrying forth” (made) of stone inlaid (?)
with silver, gold, lapis, carnelian, Babylon stone, quartz (?), NÍR-stone, (and) alabaster.
Two knives of bronze, two pairs of bronze GÌR.GÁN-vessels.
two bowls (?) of wine.
(Establishing a New Temple for the Goddess of the Night (COS 1.70))


While it seems counterintuitive that a deity would need to be worshipped, in the ancient world deities were fighting for rank and also for status on the earth. Large central temple for a deity were thought to demonstrate the strength of their deity.

In the myth of Etana an eagle appeals to Shamash to save him from a pit. In return it would make the name of Shamash famous upon the earth.

Every day it prayed repeatedly to Shamash,
“Am I to die in the pit?
Who realizes that it is your punishment I bear?
Save my life for me, the eagle,
So that I may broadcast your fame for eternity!”
(Etana (COS 1.131))

In the Hittite temple for the god of the night, they included the following musical instruments.

one set of bronze cymbals (?),8 one set of tambourines (?) either of boxwood or of ivory, one drum.
(Establishing a New Temple for the Goddess of the Night (COS 1.70))

It is important to remember that the idols made by the hands of the priests were not though to be the gods/goddesses themselves but rather objects that the deity could incarnate into. In other words, the spirit of the deity would essentially fill the object; an idea similar to that of the Ark of the Covenant where the presence of God would come and rest upon.

 There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites. (Exodus 25:22)

When Moses entered the tent of meeting to speak with the Lord, he heard the voice speaking to him from between the two cherubim above the atonement cover on the ark of the covenant law. In this way the Lord spoke to him. (Numbers 7:89)

These idols were not just offered and prayed to but they were also treated like actual being and placed sometimes in clothing. Only the finest clothing, however.

She in her great princely role has verily cleansed (her) body,
Has verily put the holy priestly garment on (her) torso.
(The Blessing of Nisaba by Enki (COS 1.163))

The deities often desired to be worshipped and sometimes to also be appeased in certain ways. If the deity was pressured to be upset it was not abnormal for priests or kings to show up at the temple and offer terms of appeasement.

So as to appease [X], to appease End[agara],
To appease merciful Kusu and Ezina,6
(25) She will appoint a great high-priest, will appoint a festival,
Will appoint a great high-priest of the nation.
Oh virgin Nisaba, he blesses you in prayer.
(The Blessing of Nisaba by Enki (COS 1.163))

A Dwelling

The idea that a deity might live in a temple rather than visit is a late idea in antiquity. Most ancient cultures transitioned slowly from worshiping remote deities to local ones as they moved from nomadism to city-states. We see this transition partly in the scripture with the worship of El and/or YHWH on the mountain slowing moving towards a localized temple in united monarchy period. Once a deity became localized their presence is thought to always be in the temple. Here the deity would be provided all the things they needed in a suitable dwelling. Many of the Psalms refer to YHWH’s dwelling.

O Lord, I love the house in which you dwell,
and the place where your glory abides.
(Psalm 26:8)

One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
and to inquire in his temple.
(Psalm 27:4)

Hammurabi reigned over Babylon from 1792-1750 BCE. He is most famous for the laws codified in stone which he claims were given to him by the deity Marduk. In the prolog to Hammurabi’s laws, Hammurabi tells of his selection by the gods. His selection and rise to greatness is, of course, attributed to his care for the deities and their temples. Concerning the temple of the goddess Aja he states that he was the one who

drapes the sacred building of the goddess Aja with greenery, who made famous the temple of Ebabbar which is akin to the abode of heaven
(Hidden riches : a sourcebook for the comparative study of the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near East, 122)

It was important to Hammurabi that the temples were not just cared for but that they were fit for a deity to dwell in. It should be dressed as the garden of the gods was. There should be not doubt that the garden of Eden in Genesis 1-3 was not a home for Adam and Eve but for El/Elohim/YHWH. God did not walk in Adam’s garden, Adam walked in God’s garden. It was only natural to ancient thinkers that the gods lived in lush gardens and had the best of everything.

The epitome of this theme is found in the mythology surrounding the cedar forests in Lebanon and norther Canaan. Because the abode of the gods was usually garden-like, the temples and ziggurats were adorned with hanging gardens and even the area surrounding the temples would be filled with plant-life and precious stones. From ancient records depicting dedication and purification rites for new carved idols, we know that the Sumerians had a complex where the idols were carved, dedicated, purified, and then ceremonially placed in the temples. These locations were strategically placed along rivers or aquifers were dug to sustain the gardens and plants. The new idols would go from the workshop, to the river, through the gardens, and then the temple where they could be fed and venerated. However, the earliest ziggurats did not contain such idols.

For temples that are designed to be used as a dwelling place for a particular deity, cleanliness was a major factor. Instructions on making the temple and it’s workers pure enough for use varied from location to location, however, nearly all required washing. These temples also required full time attendants to serve the deity.

Further: Let those who make the daily breada be clean. Let them be washed and trimmed. Let (their) hair (?) and finger[nails] be trimmed.1 Let them be clothed in clean garments I[f] (they are) [not], let them not prepare (them). Let those who normally [propit]iate the spirit and body of the gods prepare them. The baker’s house in which they bake them must be swept and sprinkled down. Further, neither pig nor dog may come through the doors into the place where the bread is broken. (Are) the mind of man and god somehow different? No! In this which (is concerned)? No! The mind (is) one and the same. When the servant stands before his master, he (is) washed. He has clothed (himself) in clean (clothes).


Further: You who are temple officials, be very careful in the matter of the watch.g At nightfall go quickly down and eat and drink. And if anyone has thoughts of a woman, he may sleep with a woman. As soon as the s[un (is) up], let him [immediately bathe]. Let him come up pr[omp]tly into the temple to sleep. Whoever is a temple official — all [high] priests, lesser priests, anointing priests — whoever regularly crosses the threshhold of the gods: let each not neglect to sleep up in the temple. Further, let sentries be posted11 at night, and let them continue to make the rounds all night. Outside, let the guards keep their watch. But inside the temples let the temple officials make the rounds all night. Let there be no sleep for them. Each night one high priest is to be in charge of the sentries. And further, of those who are priests, someone shall be (assigned) to the temple gate and shall guard the temple.
(Instructions To Priests and Temple Officials (COS 1.83))


The relationship between the god of the ANE and fertility is hard to overstate. For females of the time fertility was everything. This is one reason why Inanna/Ishtar and the fertility cult was so popular. In the temples erected for Inanna/Ishtar some were prepared with the intent that the goddess would make love to Damuzi and in return would bring fertility to the land. This theory is part of the “on earth as it is in heaven” theology. Ancients believed that what happened on the earth mirrored when happened in the heavens and in mythology. Thus, when the storm god was upset it stormed. When the tempest was angry, the waters raged. When the goddess of fertility was making love the lands and the people were fertile.

One inscription from Sumer describes a temple prepared the setup for Inanna to make love to her lover.

Of the house of Eridu—its guidance,
Of the house of Sin—its radiance,
Of the Eanna—its habitation;
The house—it has been presented (to you).
(In) my enduring house which floats like a cloud,
(Whose) name in truth, is a goodly vision,
(Where) a fruitful bed, lapis-bedecked,
Gibil had purified for you in the great shrine,
He who is well-suited for ‘queenship,’ (10)
The lord has erected his altar,
In his reed-filled house which he has purified for you, he performs your rites.

The sun has gone to sleep, the day has passed,
As in bed you gaze (lovingly) upon him,
As you caress the lord,
Give life unto the lord,
Give the staff and crook unto the lord.”

She craves it, she craves it, she craves the bed,
She craves the bed of the rejoicing heart, she craves the bed,
She craves the bed of the sweet lap, she craves the bed, (20)
She craves the bed of kingship, she craves the bed,
She craves the bed of queenship, she craves the bed.

By his sweet, by his sweet, by his sweet bed,
By his sweet bed of the rejoicing heart, by his sweet bed,
By his sweet bed of the sweet lap, by his sweet bed,
By his sweet bed of kingship, by his sweet bed,
By his sweet bed of queenship, by his sweet bed,
He covers [the bed] … for her, covers the bed for her,
He covers [the bed] … for her, covers the bed for her. (30–31)

[To] the k[ing] …,
The beloved speaks on his sweet bed,
Speaks to him words of life, words of “long days.”
Ninshubur, the trustworthy vizier of the Eanna,
Took him by his right forearm,
Brought him blissfully to the lap of Inanna:

“May the lord whom you have called to (your) heart,
The king, your beloved husband, enjoy long days at your holy lap, the sweet,

Give him a reign favorable (and) glorious,
Give him the throne of kingship on its enduring foundation,
Give him the people-directing scepter, the staff (and) the crook,
Give him an enduring crown, a diadem which ennobles the head,

From (where) the sun rises, to (where) the sun sets,
From south to north,
From the Upper Sea to the Lower Sea,
From (where grows) the halub-tree to (where grows) the cedar, (this is probably from the lower water [Persian Gulf] to the upper water [Mediterranean Sea]. The Cedar tree was native to Lebanon and Phonicia and the haul tree in Sumer.)

Over all Sumer and Akkad give him the staff (and) the crook,
May he exercise the shepherdship of the blackheads (wherever) they dwell,
May he make productive the fields like the farmer,
May he multiply the sheepfolds like a trustworthy shepherd.
Under his reign may there be plants, may there be grain,
At the river, may there be overflow,
In the field may there be late-grain,
In the marshland may the fish (and) birds make much chatter,
In the canebrake may the ‘old’ reeds, the young reeds grow high,
In the steppe may the mashgur-trees grow high,
In the forests may the deer and the wild goats multiply,
May the watered garden produce honey (and) wine,
In the trenches may the lettuce and cress grow high,
In the palace may there be long life,

Into the Tigris and Euphrates may flood water be brought,
On their banks may the grass grow high, may the meadows be covered,
May the holy queen of vegetation pile high the grain heaps and mounds,
Oh my queen, queen of the universe, the queen who encompasses the universe,
May he enjoy long days [at your holy] lap.”
The king goes with lifted head [to the holy lap],
He goes with lifted head to [the holy] lap [of Inanna],
The king going with [lifted head],
Going to my queen with lifted head, (10)

From …,

Embraces the hierodule.… (hierodule is usually seen as a temple servant or a temple prostitute)
(James Bennett Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament , 3rd ed. with Supplement. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 640–641.)

Another similar text offers a prayer to Inanna offering supplications for fertility. In it, it appears that it was the job of the priests to prepare the lodges for the deities. This is seen in the phrase “linen-wearers”.

In Eanna the “linen-wearers” prepared an altar for him,
Water was placed (there) for the lord, they speak to him,
Bread was placed (there), they speak to him,
He was refreshed in the palace, they speak to him:
(James Bennett Pritchard, 642.)


When one thinks of the tower of Babel or some of the ziggurats, they think of a single tower, however, these towers were abundant. Nearly every city-state in the ancient near east had a center of worship. The size of the tower is determined by the size of the city and the rank of the deity. These were regular features of the landscape. Due to their abundance and the fact that they were so associated with cities, cities and towers were somewhat considered to be features found together. The temple/tower built for YHWH in the OT would have been a familiar feature of bronze age religion in the Levant and Mesopotamia. The need for such structures flowed naturally out of the need for centralized worship.

Biblical View of Towers

The negative story of the tower of Babel is largely seen as a polemic against the Assyrian and Babylonian cities. Warnings against city-building are abundant in the OT as the semi-nomadic life was seen as a simpler romanticized way of living, as seen with the patriarchs and the decentralized way of worship. The temples of Israel’s neighbors were seen as a symbol of all that came with city-life. Such a warning can be heard in the words of Samuel when he warned Israel to not appoint a king over them like the nations around them. The OT is filled with warnings against moving from the simple nomadic life to the complicated and often disastrous life of kingdom building. Nevertheless, the Israelites became just like the nations around them and they would build their own temple, selected a king, built a kingdom all the Samuel said would happen, happened.

1 Samuel 8:10-22
So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. 12 And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

19 But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” 21 And when Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22 And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey their voice and make them a king.” Samuel then said to the men of Israel, “Go every man to his city.”

  1. Hundley, Michael B., Gods in Dwellings: Temples and Divine Presence in the Ancient Near East, Society of Biblical Literature, 2013, p 64.

3 thoughts on “The Purpose of Towers and Temples in The Ancient Near East”

  1. during the sixth millennium BCE. The ziggurats began as a platforms (usually oval, rectangular or square). The ziggurat was a mastaba -like structure with a flat top. The sun-baked bricks made up the core of the ziggurat with facings of fired bricks on the outside. Each step was slightly smaller than the step below it. The facings were often glazed in different colors and may have had astrological significance. Kings sometimes had their names engraved on these glazed bricks. The number of floors ranged from two to seven.

  2. Access to the shrine would have been by a series of ramps on one side of the ziggurat or by a spiral ramp from base to summit. The Mesopotamian ziggurats were not places for public worship or ceremonies. They were believed to be dwelling places for the gods and each city had its own patron god. Only priests were permitted on the ziggurat or in the rooms at its base, and it was their responsibility to care for the gods and attend to their needs. The priests were very powerful members of Sumerian and Assyro-Babylonian society. The Sialk ziggurat, in Kashan, Iran, is one of the oldest known ziggurats, dating to the early d millennium BCE.

    • After re-reading my post it is clear that I did not do a good job of differentiating between temples and ziggurats. You are correct though. The ziggurat was NOT a place to worship. However, most late period ziggurats were accompanied by shrines and temples and made up a complex of buildings.


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