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Near Eastern private dwellings

Before addressing the details of floor plans, it is imperative to understand the concept of a Mesopotamian home. For this, it is best to consult ethnographic evidence; and for this, Krunie (1962) has written an unparalleled vivid dissection of العراق Iraq architectural tradition.

The most fundamental separation was between the outside streets and the inside home; and what windows are attested were small and high. Within the home were three categories of subdivision: indoor areas versus the equally private courtyard; the حرم harem for family life versus the سير الملوك selamluk for receiving and entertaining guests; and the dynamic use of rooms based on their relative comfort at different seasons and times of day.

Amidst the vast flat desert expanses characteristic of Mesopotamia, it is no surprise that homes were oriented inwards (unlike the outwards homes of Europe).

The courtyard was not a space exterior to the home, but rather it was an outside space firmly within the inside of the home; the expression for "building" in the Middle East contains also the open spaces of the courtyard. Indeed, it is functionally and architecturally part of the house structure. Even the least wealthy rural homes in العراق Iraq still include a courtyard, and this was likely the case with urban homes as well, though poor families would be forced to live together and/or live outside the costliest parts of the city (as evidenced by the homes sometimes attested just outside city walls).

Though rooftops were certainly used for certain functions, particularly sleeping in the summer, the courtyard was a fundamental enough concept and the weather was sweltering enough (with ovens just compounding the heat) that a family would find living without one an unattractive option just for the sake of a room or two.

Domestic floor-plans

An ordinary private house consisted of an undecorated with no openings other than a narrow entrance door opening onto the street. Upon entering the door there was an anteroom, through which one passed to enter an open court which was approximately square and unroofed. The insufferable Mesopotamian heat dictated that the largest living room was south of the open court, thus sheltered as much as possible from irradiation by the sun.

If next is mentioned a bath, a lavatory (bît musâti), a bedroom and a room with a hearth then we have probably the completed the tale of a small private house's rooms.

One-storeyed houses were the general rule, as was the case with palaces. The roof was flat and in the hot summer the family likely gathered there after sunset, with ethnographic evidence from modern Kurdish villages indicating that it was an ideal place to sleep. Herodotus I 180 mentions that Babylon was filled with οἰκιέων τριωρόφων καὶ τετρωρόφων, translated by Google word-for-word as houses three-roofed and four-roofed; while originally interpreted as meaning multistories, this likely referred to houses with, around their central courtyard, various rooms whose individual roofs rose to different heights.

Larger private houses had several courts and more spacious living rooms, in addition to passages, store rooms and rooms for the guard and servants. The Arch House at Tell Asmar typifies such a larger private house, with a living room finished with a fixed clay bench running along the wall. Additionally, Woolley's excavations at Ur unearthed Early Bronze Age middle class homes, consisting of 13-14 rooms surrounding a paved court; the lower part of the walls were of baked brick, with mud brick for the remainder.

The narrow anterooms had drainpipes from sinks, and in the middle court a mud brick staircase led to the roof. There were no windows.

In fact, the only link between the house and the world outside were drains and the doorway, which opened onto the street. The street network was mostly irregular, narrow and unpleasant; doubling as the garbage dump, streets kept rising such that steps were required to reach the floor of the house from the street. Knowing this, it is less surprising that what few windows may have existed do not seem to have been street-facing.

In fact, when I saw a tell of rubbish upon peering out the window of one of my hotel rooms in هه ولير Hawler, I wondered whether a window was necessary at all.

The groundplan of an ordinary private house (from Fara, the ancient Shuruppak) shows us an undecorated front without windows and a narrow entrance door opening onto the street; everything reminds one of the original defensive character of the house in the trouble war times of the past. Through a small ante-room which originally served as a rampart to the house, we pass into an open court which is approximately square and unroofed, the ground being therefore covered with débris or pebbles. For climatic reasons the largest living room is always laid south of the open court; in the hot season this shelters the interior of the room from direct irradiation by the sun. If next we mention a bituminised bath, a lavatory (bît musâti) with a stone floor, a bedroom and a room where the bread was baked we have probably completed the tale of the rooms contained in a small private house. The larger private houses had several courts and more spacious living rooms in addition to a number of passages, rooms for the house watchman, the servants, perhaps for business purposes, or large store rooms for food, private rooms and bedrooms. In Tell Asmar's "Arch House" the large living room is furnished with a fixed clay bench running along the wall, and a fireplace. (Pallis 1956, p 638)

The fundamental plan which endured was to have a courtyard, around which were rooms, as typified by the Arch House at Tell Asmar. However, other floor plans have been discovered that seem to have been used for residences, even if they are not clearly secular or even solely housing at all since they were more monumental and were part of a larger temple complex.

From the Ubaid period is the T-shaped plan for private dwellings. This consisted of a T-shaped rectangular hall, with the "shaft" of the T flanked by rooms with an additional row of rooms against the "head" of the T. This plan would come into use for Uruk temples, reinforcing the Sumerian idea of the temple as the house of the god.

Another floor plan was the round house, likely limited to officials due to its size. Typified at Tepe Gawra XIa, which marks the beginning of the Uruk period, it is the dominant building in the temple complex and was perhaps occupied by a high priest. The walls are thick enough for defense, with buttresses flanking the entrance. The entry is unto a ramp downwards to a series of rooms, one of which certainly stored grain. The ramp then turns upwards, suggesting there was a second floor; the first-floor walls are thick enough to support a second story across the span of the building.

At Tell Gubba is another round house, though much larger and more complex: it has five concentric walls enclosing four centric passages; a core of masonry is in the center; and staircases, presumably to a second floor. Also, two Jemdet Nasr round houses were found at Uch Tepe.

From the citadel in هه ولير Hawler in كوردستان Kurdistan العراق Iraq, the courtyard of a house. Image © L M Clancy, 2010.

As described below, the very private interior courtyard of a modern Iraqi house. From the citadel in هه ولير Hawler in كوردستان Kurdistan العراق Iraq, a wealthy man's home converted to a Kurdish cultural museum. Image © L M Clancy, 2010.

A street in هه ولير Hawler in كوردستان Kurdistan العراق Iraq, with an absence of windows. Image © L M Clancy, 2010.


The doors of this house [the Arch House at Tell Asmar] are arched and lack the support of wooden door frames, they were only about 1.57 m high so that a person entering the house had to stoop as he went in. Pallis 1956, p 638


Sumerians did not have expansive street-facing windows; in fact, other than perhaps a small hole between the wall and roof, their only windows likely faced their interior courtyards.

A window was further found which let air in to a store room. This was the first time during the excavations in Mesopotamia that windows could be fitted into the architectural picture [though later excavations have testified to windows in temples from older periods than the Arch House, such as Eridu I-V and Gawra VIII], and the discovery of terracotta "grilles" in Tell Asmar (Season 1932-33) testifies to the presence of windows in other houses too. On the other hand, I think it is safe to assume that the houses had no windows fronting the street or looking towards the outside, they served other purposes which we cannot always make out; only the above-mentioned narrow entrance and drainpipes opened to the outside.Pallis 1956, p 638


Homes had to protect against heat, with winter disadvantages being secondary. Using the inside or outside.

Water and effluence

Household drains were constructed of terracotta cones set one within the other, with sometimes a cone at the top that came to a narrow hole in the floor, thus limiting the likelihood of falling in or of a miasma rising. The drain averaged just under a meter in diameter, descending some two meters. Surrounding the drain was about thirty centimeters of sherds; this gave the drain wiggle room to prevent cracking, and allowed effluence to seep out the drain so it could be neutralized in the soil (though some drains were proofed with bitumen). Sometimes drains were built with bricks, though the cone technique was most common.

Drains have been found at early sites like Shuruppak (modern Tell Fara) and Adab (modern Bismaya). In addition to these interior drains, exterior methods of whisking away effluence were used. Between animal waste, locals' insouciance and water-intensive industries such as leather tanning (not to mention rainfall), it was necessary for streets to have gutters running along their length to prevent accumulation of fluid.