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Near Eastern architecture

Limitations -- Financial constraints, lack of reed structures

A composite image must be drawn for primitive architecture, such that one source's strength may compensate another's deficiency. Valuable data for private dwellings may be drawn from ethnographic and environmental evidence, archaeology of private houses and archaeology of shrines, temples and palaces. Financial constraints mean that It is near impossible to excavate all sites, let alone excavate them fully. Private dwellings have been particularly neglected due to their paucity of treasures. Furthermore, many private dwellings have left no trace at all. Nomads, poor villagers and the earliest Sumerians come to mind. The deep south of Sumer was likely comparable to the environment of the modern Marsh Arabs of العراق Iraq, and it comes as no surprise that the earliest depictions of architecture on Sumerian cylinder-seals and reliefs depict reed structures that resemble in every detail the mudhifs (guest houses) of modern marshland villages. (Woolley p 4) Unfortunately, such architectural materials last little more than a few decades. Indeed, the earliest structures excavated have invariably been of mud brick, though at Eridu there were found traces of a humble reed-built outbuilding.

Regardless, this limited find compels one evermore to rely on ethnographic evidence, venturing via book or transit to the modern marshes, to get a useful idea of these first buildings. Ethnographic evidence is telling for later periods as well, as the limitations and exigencies of Near Eastern architecture have changed little when one visits modern rural villages whether in the marshes, plains or mountains. Frankfort compared ecology of early dynastic towns of Khafaje and Tell Asmar to the present city Erbil (more accurately ھەولێر Hawler, as it is known by its predominantly Kurdish inhabitants), even matching specific architectural details like window grilles found in both Khafaje and Hawler. Environmental evidence is yet another powerful tool for extrapolation. Limited evidence from structures can be connected with what is known to have been available, and drawing conclusions based on how traits of architecture could have been shaped by clear limitations. For example, the typically long and rectangular shape of rooms is no surprise when one realizes how short were the branches and trunks available to the Sumerians for their roofing.

The text of a Sumerian inscription tells us that Shulgi, a king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, 'cared greatly for the city of Eridu, which was on the shore of the sea'. This description need not be taken too literally. It might, as we have already shown, be concluded that the city was merely connected to the sea by a system of tidal lagoons, and that these fromed part of a marshy areas, similar to that which today separates the alluvial plain from the head of the Arabian Gulf. In any case, it seems certain that the first inhabitants of Eridu and some other Sumerian sites were themselves marsh-dwellers, living in an environemnt comparable to that of the modern Marsh Arabs of Iraq. It is not therefore surprising that the earliest (symbolical) representations of architecture on Sumerian cylinder-seals and releifs depict reed-built structures, resembling in their details the ingeniously designed mudhifs or guest-houses to be seen in the marshland villages today. This being so, it is a little disconcerting to find that the earliest identifiable religious bildings, found in level XVI of the temple sounding at Eridu and elsewhere, were already constructed of sun-dried bricks. Admittedly, in another sounding at Eridu, unmistakable remanants were found of a modest reed structure; but this later proved to have been mo more than an outbuilding of a nomral mud-brick house. Woolley, p 4

Architectural foundations

Foundations were built by digging a trench where the walls would go, then filling it with clay tauf or stones and leveling it off with some soil. Sometimes the foundations rose above the ground, or were wider than the walls (though never narrower of course). The use of stone was limited by its unavailability. A few Sumerian sites such as Eridu, Ur and Mari had locally available stone, and it was used in foundations.

The north had more stone and it was thus more pervasively used there, as exemplified in private dwellings at Tell Taya. The more stone that was available, the more it was used; its durability and inability to soak up water made it ideal for laying foundations. In fact, the buildings in stone-rich Anatolia are much like their Mesopotamian and Sumerian counterparts except in their use of large rocks and shaped boulders.

Flooring and pavement

If not simply of compact earth, flooring could easily be installed by laying down a course of bricks and plastering them. Lavish materials like baked brick and bitumen were used when necessary, such as areas where water was dealt with (ie, drains) or where there was excessive traffic (ie, at a doorway). Stone Neo-Assyrian doorway sills have been found with carvings imitating textiles; also, modern Iraqi homes cover their floors (and walls and furniture!) with rugs.

Ancient (like their modern counterparts) near easterners likely used textiles for their comfort and attractiveness to enhance and make comfortable paved and unpaved floors.


Roofing universally was built by placing tree trunks or branches across the top of the completed wall, securing them with bricks in between, then piling up layers of reed mats and mud. Usually palm tree trunks were used, though also what trees were around could be used for their branches. In fact, it was these very materials that mandated rooms were rectangular, and not too wide, since the palm trunks and tree branches were not very long. Upon these rafters was placed a layer of reeds, and over this was poured mud. A heavy cylindrical stone was rolled back and forth, with the downward force packing together the mud and reeds for a watertight finish.

In the north of Mesopotamia and in Anatolia where it is rainier and there is more timber, it is very likely that pitched roofs were built, easily achieved by making two opposite walls taller, and to a point, then proceeding normally. The only differences seen in roofing was the use of imported timber in monumental architecture. Royal inscriptions state that timbers from Lebanon and Elam were imported for the roofing of major buildings, with the cedars of Lebanon being most prized. Ur-Nanshe of lagash in the Early Dynastic IIIa era boasted that he imported wood from Dilmun (modern Bahrain) by boat for this use, and Gudea used woods from Magan and Meluhha (location unknown).

Though not attested archaeologically, it is possible that the finest structures had their ceilings plastered, perhaps decorating the plaster with fresco, leafing and/or inlay for a mesmerizing effect.

Strabo XV, 3, 10 [Strabonis Geographica] tells us that the Babylonians covered their roofs with a layer of earth two cubits deep as protection against the incredible summer heat and adds that owing to this great weight they were forced to build long but narrow living rooms in the houses, a statement which has been confirmed by excavations in Mesopotamia. Pallis 1956, p 639

Roofing from the indoor a house at the citadel in هه ولير Hawler in كوردستان Kurdistan العراق Iraq. Image © L M Clancy, 2010.

Roofing from the indoor a house at the citadel in هه ولير Hawler in كوردستان Kurdistan العراق Iraq. Image © L M Clancy, 2010.

Roofing from the إيوان‎ iwan brimming the courtyard of a house at the citadel in هه ولير Hawler in كوردستان Kurdistan العراق Iraq. Image © L M Clancy, 2010.

View of a pitched roof from a street at Bogazkale in Turkey. Image © L M Clancy, 2009.

Closeup of roofing from the citadel in هه ولير Hawler in كوردستان Kurdistan العراق Iraq. Image © L M Clancy, 2010.

Mortar and reinforcement

The mortar used was usually of the same mud used for the bricks, though sometimes enhanced with manure or clay. It was applied with the hands, not with any special king of tool, for it is always very compact with no crevices nor fissures. Bitumen was also used as mortar, its waterproof nature ideal for cisterns, drains, wells and the occasional baked brick pavement. It was used more liberally in the south of Sumer where it was more abundant, even for wainscoting.

Ur-Nammu and his Ur III successors built monuments whose size and use of expensive materials was unprecedented; an example is the Ur ziggurat's 2.4 meter thick skin of baked brick set into bitumen. Indeed, it was so air- and water-tight that it had to have weeper holes at regular intervals.

With its paucity of timber, the south addressed structural reinforcement with reeds. Mud brickwork tended to settle unevenly over time, so at intervals reed mats were layered between horizontal courses of bricks. In massive structures such as ziggurats, uneven drying could cause catastrophic shrinkage in monumental architecture. Thus, heavy bands of reeds ran through the core of the structure in alternating directions, effectively tying together the brickwork.

Of note, the north and Anatolia had the curse of earthquakes but the blessing of timber. Wooden beams were placed horizontally and at angles to reinforce the walls in the event of a tremor; also, the better availability of stone allowed high stone foundations to be built with less mud brick superstructure.

Stone foundation, mud brick wall and timber reinforcement at a modern house in Bogazkale, the site of the Hittite capital Hattusha, in Turkey. Image © L M Clancy, 2009.

Stone foundation, mud brick wall and timber reinforcement at a modern house in Bogazkale, the site of the Hittite capital Hattusha, in Turkey. Image © L M Clancy, 2009.


It was utterly important to protect outside walls from rain, lest the homeowner wind up with a tell of his own after a few rainy seasons. Inexpensive mud or lime plaster usually achieved this, with mud plaster being rough and grayish-brown appearance while lime plaster could be smoothed and polished for a high-quality finish. Mud plaster was usually made with the same mixture as the bricks, though sometimes chaff was substituted for straw to give it a smoother finish.

Interior walls were normally also plastered, and ethnographic evidence reveals that a pleasant decorative accent can be achieved by pressing a pattern into the plaster around a room or over a doorway. For more prestigious buildings, a gypsum plaster was used, made by firing gypsum so it turns to powder and mixing the powder with water.

Building tools

Little is known about the building implements used by Sumerians. Their surveying instruments were likely limited to sighting rods and measuring lines, while construction tools were likely basic mattocks, spades, trowels, simple lifting gear and the heavy weights used for compacting their roofing. However, with these and some knowledge and intuition of mathematics, they were able to make large-scale buildings with accuracy, providing right angles for corners and orienting the corners to the cardinal points as tradition demanded. The could also enact dazzling decorations which remain visible today at some sites.

From a street at the citadel in هه ولير Hawler in كوردستان Kurdistan العراق Iraq, the rolling tool used to compact the roofing. Note subterranean drain, exposed by neglect and rain. Image © L M Clancy, 2010.